Reviews TV + Movies

Rainbow Rishta: An Imperfect Look Into Queer Lives In India

One aspect the show excels is at showcasing that it's the small everyday things that matters and make a difference. The opening episode goes into the search for a shop that will treat a queer couple as their cishet customer and make wedding cards for them.

Rainbow Rishta is Amazon Prime’s new docuseries that puts the stories of queer people from different walks of life in India at the center stage. Screened at Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2023 and produced by Vice Studies, it stars Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, Aishwarya Ayushmaan, Daniella Mendonca, Aneez Saikia, Sanam Choudhary, Soham Sengupta, Suresh Ramdas and Sadam Hanjabam in the lead; all of whom share their own stories across six episodes aptly titled – Virodh (Revolt),  Badlaav (Change), Umeed (Hope), Faasle (Distances), Hausla (Courage), Mohabbat Zindabad (Love is the Revolution). Although by no means it is perfect, it does stand as one of the most intricate looks into queer lives in India. It stars queer people with most of the behind the scenes teams also being queer, already avoiding a lot of problems in the beginning itself  that the media focussed on queer people faces.

What Rainbow Rishta does differently is place queer lives at the center stage and not the issues they face or the traumas they have battled, the former are there but they don’t form the essence of the story which also haunts the series as there is a visible lack of depth. It is established from the very first episodes that all queer people have some similar, shared experiences and also some unique hurdles that they need to tackle in their everyday life. Be it a rainbow wedding, or a drag queen going on her first date, a lesbian couple struggling to find a house being their true self, a gay couple’s trip with their nephew and niece, or a doctor’s stumbling blocks in the world of dating as a trans person.

Little Things That Matter

One aspect the show excels is at showcasing that it’s the small everyday things that matters and make a difference. The opening episode goes into the search for a shop that will treat a queer couple as their cishet customer and make wedding cards for them. This also reminded me of Deblina Majumder’s Gay India Matrimony, a documentary which largely focuses on the idea of marriage. While Debalina deftly captures the uncertainties and more specifically the question of Why Marriage?, ‘Rainbow Ristha’ is more grounded in exploring how and why queer relationships work at present, without daring to go into the questioning frame even for a bit. It is also useful to see the time whe this docu series has premiered, after a pretty disappointing verdict on the marriage equality case, which also didn’t provide adoption flights to same-sex couples.

The show is at its most successful when it delves into housing, a theme which is a part of everyday conversations among queer people but only few movies like Ek Jagah Apni (by Ektara Collective)explore it. There is a sense of fear of coming back to an empty home and the question comes up, what makes a house a home? We see this most prominently through Aneez and Sanam’s struggle to find a house as a queer couple, while also surviving in other ways. The assertion of them to find a house with their own identity is commendable, but it takes over other concerns that queer people have to deal with in terms of housing.

What It Offers

A part of the show also entails the discussion around loneliness and the issues that plague the community, similar to what has been discussed in the epidemic of gay loneliness essay. That is also where the show digs deeper into the anxieties associated with dating. Even here, the idea of in a way explaining why the dates of the characters make a certain choice seemed to push it into the territory of reality TV for a while. And while a reality TV show based on queers dating is more than welcomed, the docuseries seems like a rough place to even hint at that. We see the characters in the story mostly interacting within their family, friends and chosen family, which also sheds light on what it takes to make a community of support for ourselves.

I must say that every character’s story has something unique to offer and some unique takeaways as well. But when you cast a net as wide as this, there is a deeper understanding of queer joy that comes into play. While the introduction is arguably the best part of the docu series; from there, it only gets fragmented as we go into everyday lives of people which are vastly different. What definitely struck out more was the struggle to find a house as one’s true self and knowing that it’s a never ending process, and the lead up to the wedding of Daniella and Joel is absolutely heart-warming, giving us a peek into the important decisions that goes into celebrating, delving into how the optics have a cost. At the same time, there is a better sense of participation from parents, and how they place their queer child into a world which might not accept them. These are also the scenes that are the most heartwarming as they take away the biggest fear that queer people face while growing up, of abandonment.

Imperfect Beginnings

What it lacks is something which has been inconsistent in portrayal of queer lives in the media. Queer lives in India are diverse and there are some who get represented as the norm more often than not. The issue persists here as well. We do see a lot of ways in which queer people find their own homes and make space for themselves, yet it is not as strongly pronounced as it could have been. Even on marriage, the contention still exists within the community. While carefully not doing away with the crucial rights that marriage provides, the structural questions around it do hold importance which don’t find themselves in the movie. They are rather reduced to specific contexts within the life of the characters, which again, is at times relatable and at times, feels out of place.

The inconsistency persists as the episodes are not dedicated to one story each, instead, they overlap, at times, without making any sense. On one hand, Rainbow Rishta is full of queer joy, sparkled with moments of celebration in everyday realities as well the grandeur celebration of love. On the other hand, there’s a sense of hollowness with respect to the way intimacy, desire, belonging and loneliness are explored, leaving us wanting for more depth. Even though I felt joyous at its most heartwarming moments, something about the storytelling is a bit off but that doesn’t warrant away the reasons for celebrating what it does improve upon.

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Rajeev completed their under graduation in Political Science Hons. from Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi in 2020. They graduated with Masters in Women’s Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai in 2022 and were a participant at the International Writing Program’s Summer Institute, University of Iowa for the 2021-22 session. They have been the recipient of Mavelinadu Collective’s grant for non-fiction for the first issue of Debrahminising Gender. Their work can be found in EPW, Women’s Link Journal, Shuddhashar, Gaysi Family, Feminism in India and Hindu College Gazette among others. Their research interests include queer experiences, feminist ethics of care, and masculinities.

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