As a middle-class Indian kid growing up on a diet of masaledaar Bollywood movies – I soon became accustomed to savouring the pungent flavour of item songs, toxic heterosexual relationships, misogyny and blatant homophobia that garnished mainstream cinema.
By the time I was 9 years old, I had decided that Nikhil from Daddy would break my heart at the tender age of 18 – leaving me floundering in a state of melodramatic, bangle-breaking depression – until I was ready to be rescued from Heartbreak™ and my own female fragility, by my superhero: Raj from DDLJ. But alas, my childhood fantasy remained unfulfilled.
As I grew older, I became conscious of the fact that the heterosexual relationships portrayed in Bollywood movies were toxic, unhealthy and unrealistic. I began to discern the adverse repercussions of the male gaze, which lay embedded in every camera lens that focused on a swinging navel or bare cleavage, or sex scenes that portrayed females as pleasure-granting machines. I realized that Bollywood was a male-dominated industry that existed for the pleasure of males, at the expense of generation after oppressed generation of down-trodden women. And soon enough, I lost all interest in mainstream cinema.
But despite my recognition of the erroneous nature of on-screen relationships – I spent not a single moment ruminating over the possibility that my body could be entangled with one of my own; that someday, I’d dream of painting an ocean of kisses all over the canvas of a body that was softer, fuller, more nimble than I’d always imagined.
It took 14 years; a well-hidden playlist of lesbians kissing videos; Hayley Kiyoko’s Girls like Girls on repeat, and a certain blue-haired girl, for the epiphany to strike.
I often wonder why it took all those years for the words to string themselves into thoughts.
For them to drip out of my mouth like raw honey.
Perhaps, it was because I never calculated the possibility
of an ordinary, inconspicuous Desi girl turning out to be bisexual. Or maybe, I
merely lacked the vocabulary to describe the acid that charred my oesophagus
when my pretty best friend traced hearts onto my skin.
And so my lips – chapped with all the sinful secrets they held – remained sealed.
I’ll never know why it took me 14 years to understand my sexuality. But what I do know, is that 12 year old Asfiyah wanted someone to hold her, to whisper reassurances into her ear: It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. Women are meant to be loved by women. You’re not a freak. Not a freak. Not a freak.
It’s no secret that queer artists are grievously under-represented in popular media. And in the rare occurrence that they receive exposure, chances are – they’ve been hyper-sexualised, fetishized, or reduced to an etiolated sliver of their self: their gender identity or sexuality.
All through my queer journey, I’ve depended heavily on art. For comfort. For reassurance. For the feeling of not being alone, in a world that seemed only too eager to shove me away and pin me down.
Upon introspection, I’ve curated a list of queer artists that have influenced me, moved me, held my hand, and offered me solace on days when my sexuality weighed down on my shoulders – crippling my movement and leaving me with aching bones that rattled for days on end.
“I remember being at a yum cha restaurant with my dad and the owner coming up and saying, ‘Excuse me, we’re trying to work out if you’re a handsome boy or a beautiful girl.’ It was a compliment and I was shocked, and when I thought about it I actually wanted to be a handsome boy.“
Ruby Rose, a model, actress, and television presenter, identifies as a genderfluid lesbian. She’s known for her role in the TV series, ‘Orange is the New Black’, as well as her character in The Veronicas’s music video, ‘On Your Side’, amongst others.
All through 2016, I had a gargantuan crush on Ruby Rose, which led me to fanatically devour every movie, every TV series, every interview of hers. It was during one of my Consuming-All-Ruby-Rose-Related-Content sprees, that I discovered ‘Break Free,‘ a short film written and produced by her. The film, starring Rose as the protagonist, is a heart-wrenching commentary on gender roles, being transgender and diverging from the traditional gender spectrum. The first time I watched it, my heart clenched with a billion shades of melancholic blue, seething crimson, solicitous ochre, and the undeniable hues of sugary coral, which painted letters all over the inner surface of my left atrium.
Letters, which formed a word. H O P E.
The film gave me hope. So much hope – it infiltrated my cells and lit them up with a raging fire that never seemed to cease.
“Kolkata can’t ignore me. Nor can it accept me completely.“
I watched ‘Memories in March‘ on a humid, summer afternoon in 2016. It left me with an aching heart, and a wave of unbearable sadness that crashes against my insides, shattering my ribs, and leaving me in excruciating pain.
The movie follows Arati Mishra, who – upon receiving news of her Kolkata-based son’s fatal accident – decides to visit the city he resided in for the final years of his life. However, she soon finds out about her son’s secret life, particularly his infatuation, and undisclosed relationship with his boss, Ornub Mitra.
The movie connected with something deep, raw and real inside of me. The mother’s anguish, heart-breaking and palpable, made my heart clench. I knew the expression of horror – disbelief, even – etched into the garish lines on her face, all too well.
The “How dare you accuse me of being melodramatic, when you’re the abnormal one?”- reminiscent of an uncle who visited often, but not frequently enough, for me to remember the mole on his neck or the slant of his shoulders.
I caught glimpses of my own mother in Arati, almost as if she were a symbolic foreshadowing of the bitter tears and emptiness that I would experience a year later, when I would come out as bisexual. Ghosh made me feel a plethora of emotions that assaulted my lungs, making it difficult to breathe, making it difficult to squeeze the letters out of my honey-stained lips – B… I… S… E.
Difficult – because the movie reminded me that in the real world, queer people aren’t caricatures as they so often are in Bollywood movies. In the real world, we’re skeletons. We’re well-concealed secrets, we’re embarrassing disorders, we’re our parents’ shame and society’s examples of how not to be, how not to live. Freaks, all of us. Every single one of us.
“Saw your face, heard your name. Gotta get with you.
Girls like girls like boys do, nothing new“
I first listened to Girls Like Girls when I had only just embarked on my queer journey.
2016. My eyes were narrower and more melancholic than I remembered- and my tongue, raw and burnt, because of all the new words I’d spat out that year: “bisexual”, “queer”, “butch”, “femme”. They tasted good when I first rolled them around my mouth, savouring their edges, until they disappeared down my throat, leaving a bitter aftertaste.
Like when you accidently bite down on a chilli, and the heat doesn’t hit you immediately. And for a few seconds, you’re fine, you’re brave, you can handle it. Until you can’t. And the godforsaken pungency rips your gums apart and seeps into your roots. And you’re left gasping for air, wondering how something that felt so good, could leave you choking on a mouthful of blood. That’s what being queer felt like.
“We will be everything that we’d ever need. Don’t tell me, tell me what I feel. I’m real and I don’t feel like boys.“
But somehow, this lyric made everything seem alright. It was a mutiny, against everything that I’d been taught since I was old enough to understand. Old enough to know that men occupied more space than women, that women were just sex toys that breathed in oxygen, and that two soft bodies could never, ever mould into one.
Hayley Kiyoko gave me the strength to dig my heels into the soil, stand up straight, and shout out to anyone who was listening: Women are meant to be touched, to be kissed, to be loved by women. Girls like girls like boys do. Nothing new.
Dear queer artist,
I will fight alongside you. I will hold your heart the way you held mine. I will kiss your wounds when they bleed, and you’ll kiss mine too. And when we fall, we’ll start our battle again like we always do.