TV + Movies

Deconstructing The Queer Characters In Gulmohar For Their Aesthetics And Activism

Understanding female sexuality in isolation from class, the economy, and society is difficult. Society privileges men and stifles women's desires, through various institutions like marriage (in this case, between Kusum and her husband), romantic relationships (between Ankur and Ambika), and forces women into compulsory heterosexuality.

Kamla Nagar is a commercial place in Delhi, where one can find items of every kind – from international brands to local products. Students of the north campus of Delhi University can be found there roaming around, captivated by the rainbow-colored products, and appreciating the contribution of this market in normalizing and embracing queerness. But when you think about it, you will comprehend that the sellers have no tangible idea about queerness. It is the capitalists who are capitalizing on the struggles of the community. The movie Gulmohar is no different. 

Cinematic visions of queerness are considered to offer a different account of the world, thereby providing alternatives to narratives entrenched in capitalist, nationalist, hetero, and homo-normative imagery which can make the world legible (Schoonover & Galt, 2015). So, the question here is, whether Gulmohar acted upon those intentions and achieve its goal. And if not, then why are the queer characters depicted? What roles do those characters play in the film?

A typical upper-class family drama with a predictable emotional rollercoaster, Gulmohar displays two same-sex relationships without any depth in the characters. It is to follow the trend of depicting queer characters on the screen that is expected to entice a younger audience. The queer representation in the film is mere tokenism, and is used to construct the illusion of diversity. Though the representation of queer characters usually creates a platform for further discussion, such tokenistic characters never offer a viable space to do so because the character itself lacks any substance or depth.

The queer characters, when written or portrayed by queer people, exhibit tenderness, a certain inner depth, and ardent attachment, whether or not they play a significant part in the plot. Aligarh (2015) and Geeli Pucchi (2021) are examples of such projects that show the expression of queerness in such a manner. However, glancing at the characters of Gulmohar, one might wonder whether there was any queer involvement in the film, or if there was, then why we, as an audience, were unable to connect with them. Here the question arises, what makes a queer representation considerable, and what precautions the director can take to not hurt the sentiment of the community? I believe there is no specific answer to this question, but the writer and director’s initial intention is critical in this regard. If they are thinking of putting a queer character in a heteronormative family drama, then they should ask themselves: why is it important for them to put a queer character? Why and how do they wish to represent it? Is it to appeal to a certain set of audiences? If so, capitalism is unquestionably attempting to capitalize on the existence of marginalized communities through the director. If not, the writer and director should exert extra effort to fully comprehend the intricacies of the character, work on their backstory specifically so that the audience feels a certain kind of connection while watching the movie, and appropriately determine the character’s inner conflicts.

The plot’s involvement with the queer characters, or vice versa, is very minimal, which led us to believe that the director did not get a good hold of the characters as he was working with an ensemble, each with a different backstory. However, as one sat with this thought and gave it careful consideration, they will realize how much time and significance the other characters—whether it was Arun (played by Manoj Bajpayee) or Reshma (played by Santhy Balachandran)—had been given to nurture and develop their narratives. On the other hand, Amrita’s (played by Utsavi Jha) story is largely unremarkable; aside from being queer and breaking up with her boyfriend, who believes she is seeing some other man, she played no other significant part in the narrative. I was oblivious to the character as it exhibits some persistent strangeness until the intimate scene between her and Deepika (played by Tanvi Rao) appears which also seemed too sudden and forced.

The basis of Amrita and Deepika’s argument was unclear prior to their meeting at the shelter home. The audience was directed to think that Deepika was attempting to resolve the issue between Amrita and Ankur, until she asks, “How long will you keep avoiding us.” This is gripping because Amrita’s vague reaction, and the word ‘problem’ that she used while addressing their relationship, give the impression that she is unsure of her relationship with Deepika. So, the conflict was evident to the audience until the director had some other confounding plans for us. A moment later, we see Amrita holding Deepika’s hand and gazing at her very intimately. If the director wanted to explicitly locate Amrita’s sexuality, there are other ways to do so. Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996), through various allusions to female intimacy such as oiling each other’s hair, and pressing each other’s feet, which explored lesbian desire and eroticism. So, without forcing the character into an explicit intimate scene, director Chittella could have depicted Amrita’s sexuality. This clearly demonstrates how these characters have been left unexplored and the possibilities of other scenarios have simply been ruled out.

At the same time, we also need to acknowledge that the director’s decision to illustrate the intimate homosexual scene in a public space questions the liberal claim for queer human rights as being dependent on privacy. However, the stance of the director in this scene and his coyness in representing gay desire makes it difficult to determine whether it was a conscious attempt or a result of how the story was written.

As the scene continued, Kusum (played by Sharmila Tagore) caught a glimpse of them together. Immediately, the scene changes and we see Indu (played by Simran) saying, “I do not understand our kids,” to Arun on the phone. It felt like the earlier scene had been created just to justify this statement of Indu. As Aditya’s (played by Suraj Sharma) character is already established as a son who is estranged from his birth-father, the writers only needed to give Amrita’s character a conflict in this scene to support Indu’s claim. And what conflict could be more compelling than queerness itself?

Let us now look at the coming out sequence. Most of the directors handle coming-out scenes very delicately, whether they are on not-so-good shows like The Fame Game (2022) and Class (2023) or decent projects like Made in Heaven (2019) and Evening Shadows (2018). But, in Gulmohar, the director used this opportunity to tell us an altogether different same-sex relationship that Kusum had with her friend Supriya. It is like someone is telling you about their depression and you are forcing them to hear your stories of sadness; here the intention is not to compare depression with homosexuality, rather the attempt has been made to draw parallel to the insensitive outlook of the director.

Kusum: It was a very special time, but short-lived.

(Supriya kisses Kusum, and Kusum leaves the library)

Kusum: I reasoned with myself; it was not meant to be

Here, neither the writers nor the director explored why this was not meant to be; was it the physical touch that made the character feel uncomfortable or something else? They leave the audience with a wide range of interpretations and do not even bother to direct them to something and for an audience when the range of the possibilities increases the depth of the story and the character is lost.

The story of Supriya and Kusum is left the same as that of Deepika and Amrita’s, incomplete. However, the story of the former is brought up again at the end of the movie through the last set of dialogues when it is established that Supriya had retired and moved to Pondicherry and that Kusum had previously announced her intention to do the same. And the movie ends with Kusum giving Amrita a wink as she turns to look at her. So, the director was craving to connect the dots for the audience and it felt that the narrative of homosexuality is simply introduced to elicit awe from the audience. To do so, the director forfeits the complexity of queer relations. The story of Kusum and Supriya came to an end in a cycle that embodies the last resort. As the reason for Kusum’s separation from Supriya is not clear, it appears that she is tired after all the struggles of a heterosexual marriage and wants to return to her lover to resume living her identity at the age of 70. This embrace of sexuality in exhaustion could never be emboldening for queer people, rather it creates a sense of hopelessness.

Understanding female sexuality in isolation from class, the economy, and society is difficult. Society privileges men and stifles women’s desires, through various institutions like marriage (in this case, between Kusum and her husband), romantic relationships (between Ankur and Ambika), and forces women into compulsory heterosexuality. Director Rahul V. Chittella, who touches upon these subtleties, could have explored more by emphasizing the narratives of desire and longing while connecting critiques of heteronormativity to understandings of other social norms.

Work Cited

Schoonover, Karl & Rosalind Galt, The Worlds of Queer Cinema: from Aesthetics to Activism, ArtCultura, 2015

This story was about: Gender Identities Opinion Parenting Sexuality

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Film and theatre enthusiast Sanjib Kalita is currently pursuing Post-graduation in History from Hindu College, University of Delhi. His interest lies in the intersection of film and gender, examining them through the lens of history while taking society and the economy into account.
Sanjib Kalita

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