As we slunk in the front row hiding behind seats in the cinema, I glanced back at the elders and heterosexual couples behind us. I was on edge, as the last people filtered in and past us up to the back, I made a quick prayer to the gods that no one related to me came in.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is the first mainstream Bollywood film of its kind, a love story of two women; a love that we heard in Hindi songs since we were children. Only being shown in Croydon at an off-peak time, I drove all the way from Brighton- frustrated the gay capital of the UK didn’t have one single showing on, despite having an Asian population there.
The gap between the Asians in the back and us hiding in the front, felt vast. The rows and rows of empty seats felt like decades of time and distance from where we think we are, dream to be, watch up at a big screen at… down to us hiding in the front. Where we actually are in the UK; part hiding, part free – looking over our shoulder before we kiss. As I glanced back at the other people in the cinema, a million miles away from us… fear someone would see me cuddling a girl was acute. If the Gujaratis’ who called Mum a problem for marrying an uncultured ‘gora’, see her half-gori child kissing a Pakistani Muslim girl… all assumptions of western diseases having infected me through my dad’s sperm would be proven right. And yet, in a patriarchal white world hostile towards us both – we are able to bring our whole selves to each other. It isn’t easy, with inherited and internalised trauma flaring open through intimacy with one another.
Brighton mainly accommodates for white QLGBT+ people. We know this. But in the depths of Croydon, I wasn’t exactly feeling safe to be openly affectionate either…even watching a mainstream Bollywood film about women like us. The film is an emotional journey of a girl who can’t marry a man because she is in love with a woman. A failing film writer, depleted from the rejection- he decides to help her and turn their love story into a play that brings them into the spotlight. Of course- a family drama ensues. As characters in the film walk out of the play in disgust at two women falling for each other, we flinch at the lines that are all too familiar and squeeze hands tighter. As the father puts his love for his daughter above her sexuality, I hold her crying heart. We tear and hug through a story that plays out our fears, passion, drama and endless, naïve, hope in love. Classic: Bollywood duping us with escapism, with all of its problematic patriarchal narratives we ignore temporarily- just to enjoy the show.
I began to wonder about other Indian/Pakistani Hindu/Muslim women who wanted to see it together? There must be more of us. I thought about my mum, coming to watch Bollywood with her friends here, hiding from her parents when she was meant to be doing extra shifts of aarti and seva at Mandir. Bollywood was blamed for the source of her corruption, her delusion of love- that lead her disgrace of running away from home to marry a white man.
Filled with pride, nostalgia, romance, guilt, pain and endless tears the entire way through, we watched ourselves on a screen in all the music and colours of our desi dreams. Neither of us could believe this film has been made. It brought us closer together, more emotionally intimate and entangled with our shared identity- but as I insisted on looking the other way and hiding as everyone emptied the cinema first, I also felt the lines drawn between us.
In India – we are referred to as the ‘BBC’, the ‘British Born Confused.’ We are brown, ‘South Asian’, Desi – but most definitely not made to feel British for being so. With Islamophobia rife and the government sending people who were invited to be here ‘back to where they come from’- we both have a loneliness and isolation in our identities whether we are together or apart. Longing for a place called ‘home’ that laugh at our ways and how we eat with cutlery. She is Pakistani, I am Indian and English- the British line between us cost 2 million people to die, the biggest refugee crisis in history and 100,000 women raped during Partition…overnight. A history not worthy to be taught in schools in the UK. This is our history and we live on the land that caused it. Our mothers got here similar times, but very different ways via very different places. At one point, we were all were part of one Motherland. She and I find comfort and home in each other on the very land that separated our Mothers in the name of British Empire – stripping us apart on the turf far away, feeling the pain of separation between us here. Our mothers would never accept each other, nor us together. We are a picture of brown love, a bit like the women in the film- reality isn’t as beautiful as the appropriation of us is everywhere.
In a way, the characters in the film had it easier. They were both Indian and everyone around them had the same colour skin. No one brought up colonisation, being a ‘person of colour’ or had to justify or explain their mental health as a result of constant discrimination for that. They didn’t have to fight to be seen on equal terms with a white man to enter public spaces, get jobs or be heard. Racism wasn’t really a problem for them. They didn’t have to think carefully before choosing to disclose their religion- even before their sexuality. They may have been confused what to do or how to navigate their secret love, but there was no confusion of their racial identity or place in a white world- on top of the expectations of marriage and religion as well. There was no confusion about what would and wouldn’t be accepted by whom. There was no confusion when they were asked where they ‘come from’.
We have all, at some point, been referenced the film “East is East”. Our hearts wrenched at the scene of a mother cramming all of her Pakistani children into a phone box in the rain, to call the eldest son who was pronounced dead by the Father. The son is gay and had left home. This scene is my earliest reference to homosexuality in a British Asian family on the screen, also having one white parent.
In 2016 the Human Rights Watch festival showed a film called “Angry Indian Goddesses”. It caught the attention of international stage. Whilst it tackles multiple challenges of being a woman in India, with a very salient point about the violence against women through a group of friends from a range of backgrounds, the storyline is centred around two women attempting to marry. It was filmed and set at the time that Section 377 is still in place, and it was illegal. Excited to share it and use it as a tool to open a conversation about my own sexuality and internal identity conflicts – as far as I could tell, more white people had seen the film than brown. Working in international Human Rights, the only people who were interested in talking about it with me- were coming from a place of sympathy.
Last year, Section 377 was partially removed. Although the activist movement moved through different arguments to push for this change (reducing rates of martial rape, spreading of HIV, improving conditions to decrease violence against women, decolonisation of British law) the narrative of ‘love’ and what it means trumped them all. The clever part about it was, they actually legalised “consensual sexual relations between adults in private” which opens the gates even further. It opens the type of sex that people can have with consent, as well as reinforce consent itself, it includes but isn’t exclusive to gay men- it includes women as well. This was at time with other movements supported India across the world, to encourage love over hate. If there is one thing that Bollywood can do like nowhere else can, is make maximum profit from a story of forbidden love.
In the UK, our desi ‘BBC’ stories are of other things, right now. We are campaigning against the Prevent Scheme that is an intensely Islamophobic regime, penalising Muslims suspected of ‘terrorism’ as young as 5 in school. We are explaining endlessly that the Gujarati’s who came here from east Africa were indentured labourers and were invited and have lived here all their lives and have contributed to the tax paying system for decades. We are crying for the Windrush elders, who are presently being sent back to the Caribbean for absolutely no other reason than racism. We are fighting for our rights to stay in housing, that we are being priced out and displaced from to make room for gentrifiers. We are explaining over and over that dual heritage is not white, and it is not ok for our Asian community to be anti-black to survive Brexit Britain. We are trying to survive Brexit Britain.
We are trying to ignore the statue of Winston Churchill outside Parliament celebrated in history, in place of teaching about Partition knowing that he said “I hate Indians. They’re a beastly people with a beastly religion” before only responding “why hasn’t Ghandi died yet?” when told the death toll went up to 4 million. We are watching token Asians in every Tory corner sell their own communities to prosper themselves and keep the caste system alive. We are begging our government to let child refugees they made through war now at our borders, in. We are looking at our passport about to have less human rights than our Mothers’ did when they arrived in this country for a ‘better life’. We are navigating our cultures frozen in time, so far behind the movement of section 377 we can barely feel the impact so disconnected from ‘home’.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is showing in Croydon, though.
I look back at the rows and rows of empty seats behind, to the rest of the people who look like us. I think of my Mum, her younger days coming here. I can picture her eating homemade popcorn out an empty yoghurt carton with her friend in the same cinema. I think of the films of love she watched that fuelled her courage, to leave her family and entire community that gave me a white father, born in Britain.
I wonder if she knew then; I would come to the same place and watch two women profess love for each other on screen. As my beautifully brown girlfriend leant in to kiss me – I wondered if she knew I would have dreams for a better life, of my own.