Umbartha, directed by Jabbar Patel in 1982, is the first lesbian film of the Marathi industry.
Where depictions of homosexuality are concerned, has Indian cinema come a long way? Personally, I can’t say an assertive yes, but in the last five years, films like ‘Margherita with a Straw’, ‘Aligarh’ and classics like ‘Fire’ have made their mark as reflective films that appeal to viewers with their perspectives and portrayals of the queer community.
Feminists like Wollstonecraft, Dickinson, and Mahashweta Devi often portrayed how patriarchal boundaries hold women back from living simple human experiences. This idea of a boundary is alluded to in the title of the film, which translates to “threshold” or “doorstep” – that here which keeps women from realizing their personhood.
Umbartha is one such classic that follows the journey of a woman, Sulabha Mahajan (played by Smita Patil), who defies her conservative husband and mother-in-law’s wishes and sets out to build her own identity. In the movie, we watch Sulabha Mahajan take on an extremely unconventional job – the superintendent of a women’s reformatory home. Everything is in a deliberately sorry state of affairs; the story unfolds as she learns that the reformatory space is far from what she had imagined.
The film exposes the reformatory home as yet another golden ladder with missing steps that marginalized women are compelled to place their feet on. Upon her arrival at the home, she learns that the former Superintendent prostituted the young girls at the home to the local MLA, and that many of the committee members were more callous than helpful towards the traumatized women. The committee chides women who have been abused and neglects them as outcasts. To them, the very idea of women being “offered” to stay at the home is the biggest help there is. Patil’s character takes on a critical feminist stance against the reign of capitalist and patriarchal culture at the home. She is the only one who believes that marginalized women don’t live in despair; they live despite.
The film includes a story arc that follows a lesbian relationship. It’s still a major question as to how or why the censor board accepted Umbartha’s release in the early 1980s. The dominant audience of Arthouse cinema was the gentry and the learned middle-class. They were perhaps aware of terminology that suggested queerness and of the existence of queer orientations, but it was socially acceptable and proper to be dismissive of overt homosexual depictions. At the end of the film, director Jabbar Patel managed to introduce the word “lesbian” as mentioned by the protagonist Smita Patil. He said in an interview with Reuters that the ‘trick’ may have been to portray the relationship just like any other.
The two women involved in the relationship are introduced as two masked moons singing in the sky and exchanging glances in the film’s popular song ‘Chand Matala’. In the following scene, they are disrupted by inmates who sneakily seek them out on the reformatory’s rooftop, where they are found embracing each other. The women threaten the couple and report them to Sulabha and demand that they be removed from the home.
Sulabha’s immediate response is to deny the request to remove them. However, it is made evident to us that Sulabha does not intend to make them stay either, because while she believes homosexuality is ‘natural’, it is only because they too are humans who are suffering an “illness” much like what is faced by the other women in the reformatory home. Perhaps here is the answer to our earlier question: that the relationship passed the Censor board because the relationship – and resultantly queerness – is pathologized as an “illness” that women suffer. This framing of queerness as distinct from heterosexuality but simultaneously likened to “suffering” experienced by women turns it into a plausible, watchable plot-point for the times.
In the Legislative Assembly, their relationship turns into a controversy lapped up by the newspapers. The chairwoman then suggests that the women must be sent to another reformatory, which Sulabha objects and assures that they could be psychiatrically treated. She suggests conversion therapy for the women’s supposed ‘predicament’. While the film has no issue portraying Sulabha’s efforts to employ herself and her standing up against her husband’s infidelity and to the Managing Committee as feminist, her reaction to the element of queerness in the film falls very short of that. As path-breaking as the inclusion of the element of queerness is in a regional film, it does more harm than good for it to be portrayed as just another phenomenon that “afflicts” destitute women.
Patil’s famous monologue highlights that the reformatory home has threads linked to the outside world that can’t be controlled by her. Even if women are safe from harm inside the doorstep of the reformatory, they cannot always fully gain any real personhood because abuse and ostracization insidiously invade this place of refuge. And that applies to their own biases and misgivings as well. To all the other women, the home is a homosocial environment – presumed to be non-sexual. Within the umbartha of the reformatory home, the women feel momentarily displaced from the heterosexual matrix – as if being excused from participating. That suspension might leave room for the relationship between two women that develops, but unfortunately, it does not.
I do not believe the film meant to steal any hope (at least not for Sulabha), but only mirrored a heteronormative society. We cannot dismiss the trauma and abuse queers have faced; we have to navigate these attempts at trying to tell a different story with criticality, but also with consideration to the appropriate context.
Over time the trajectory of queer cinema likens to a forest path clearing up with films depicting queers, unsilenced and claiming. Now, we hold our Elio and Carol dear since we can identify and are intrigued by their strength, questions, philosophies and unfaltering loves. We have stories of hope, stories not set out to fail and we have stories of our own to make. To get here, we had to start somewhere. Although that place wasn’t the most hopeful of seeds, it birthed, through trial and error, some of the most understanding and sensitive of narratives.