The “Many” Lesbian On The Big Screen

Earlier this year, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) refused to certify Alankrita Shrivastava’s movie Lipstick Under My Burkha stating, “The story is lady oriented, their fantasy above life. There are continuous sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society.” This statement single-handedly explains what is wrong with our society. While movies like Masti, Grand Masti, Great Grand Masti (yes, three movies that follow the same path of men leching over bikini-clad girls who show their bodies off to the satisfaction of the male audience) and Mastizaade make it to the screens with absolutely no hitch, a movie that revolves around a set of women with sexual as well as sartorial, professional, and spousal desires in small-town Bhopal does not make the cut. Why? The answer is simple— women with sexual, or for that matter any sort of desire, is a mere fantasy according to a huge chunk of our society.

Across the world, lesbians continue to be one of the underrepresented section of the LGBTQ community. A quick look through television history tells us the same. Even today, Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out on her sitcom announcing “I’m gay” remains to be one of the most iconic moments for LGBTQ community. Of course, soon after that, she had to fight to hold her place on television. Shows like Fosters, and Will & Grace has central homosexual characters, however, we still have a long way to go.

According to a 2014 report by GLADD, gay men make up 46% of the LGBT representation in the media, while the percentage of lesbian characters sits at 30%. Those few characters that do make it to the big screen are heavily defined by stereotypes—they fit right into the lipstick lesbian trope; they’re femme, traditionally attractive and hypersexualized; sometimes they even give the heterosexual relationship a try (never mind the fact that they could be bisexual). Most lesbians simply exist on-screen to play into the men’s girl-on-girl fantasy, thereby undermining lesbians and their experiences.

Let’s turn our attention to India. The fact that we become an extremely regressive country when it comes to matters of personal choice despite being a country that is progressive on so many other fronts is no secret. Even today, both young and old, are told how to live and whom to love. The recent anti-romeo squads are telling people where to love (the answer is ‘nowhere’ because Sanskaari people don’t engage in things like romance). While we are still struggling to gain equal rights for those who belong to the LGBTQ community, the idea of Lesbian Visibility Day may seem less important but on the contrary becomes far more important.

Therefore, on this Lesbian Visibility Day, we decided to look at the various movies, TV-shows and web series that have done their part in representing lesbian characters. We believe that it is important for such portrayals to be realistic. When there are more accurate examples on-screen, people should have no reason to stick to stereotypes and should become more inclusive. Seeing proper portrayals helps humanize LGBTQ folks.

Dedh Ishqiya, one of the few mainstream films in Hindi that have focused on homosexuality, was well received and labelled as a ‘bold’ movie. The Abhishek Chaubey film shows us the built-up of a beautiful relationship between two women—Begum Para, a woman who got no love from her husband for his sole preoccupation involved gambling and drinking, and Muniya, her maid who was there for her as a friend. Eventually, Begum Para decides to live with Muniya for the rest of her life. The choice, however, was not made so as to substitute her husband, but so that she would enjoy life with a soulmate and partner. The movie, in many ways, seems to be a tribute to Ismat Chugtai’s acclaimed work, Lihaf, which followed the life of a young girl who is sent to her aunt, Begum Jan, to spend the holidays and that is where she starts telling the story of Begum Jan and her maid, Raboo.

What makes this a great movie is that it did not sell itself on the fact that it has an LGBTQ plot. In fact, this forms part of the suspense in the movie, which meant unless you have watched the movie or read a review with spoilers (much like this), you wouldn’t have known. There are no flamboyant gay characters or crass jokes (as is the case in Dostana). The desire between the two is subtle but palpable whether it’s in Muniya’s intense gaze directed towards the Begum or her massaging the Begum’s arms. However, this subtlety is where the beauty of their relationship lies. It is one of the few mainstream movies that have made it a point to not oversexualise the characters to play into the male gaze.

One of the challenges that members of the LGBTQ community have commonly spoken about is having to come out to their families. With homophobia runs deep, and there’s lack of adequate information, many queer folks have had to deal with isolation and ostracization from their families and society. This in turns results in a trauma and struggle to accept oneself. This is something that is addressed in Shonali Boses’s Margarita with a Straw. The movie shows a girl with cerebral palsy finding herself in a world where she is always dependent on another. She finds her support in a fellow student who guides and shows her how to love deeply and unapologetically. However, she finds it difficult to convince her mother about her love for a woman. Ultimately, the mother learns to understand the ways of her daughter, and we hope this happens to many in real lives.

Another lesser-known movie that portrays lesbian relationships in all its honesty is the 2008 movie I Can’t Think Straight created by writer/director Shamim Sarif and producer Hanan Kattan, based on their own love story. The plot revolves around Tala, a London-based Jordanian of Palestinian descent, who falls in love with Leyla, a British Indian. The movie shows the two coming to terms with their sexuality and love for each other, all the while being surrounded by their extended family.  The movie was well received and even gathered numerous awards for its honest and raw portrayal of same-sex relationships. In 2011, Sarif and Kattan decided to revive the movie for a television show but received dismal responses. “We were told that the content had to change. Some wanted damaged lesbian characters that are abusive to each other emotionally and abuse drugs, and alcohol. This is not the image we wanted to explore for gay women. Some felt the Palestinian and Indian angles were too ethnic and others wanted us to change our leads and so on. We passed on each one of those suggestions, as this was not the kind of show we wanted to create or produce,” Hanan said. This ordeal set into motion an attempt to create a web series based on the original film.

Another web series that managed to capture the attention of the country was The Other Love Story, written by Roopa Rao. It shows a slow and tender blossoming love between two college students in the 90’s in Bangalore. The story shows the disapproval they receive from the families and their attempt to break it off. With all attempts made and failed, they ride off into the sunset together, giving us our happy ending. In many ways, the show was a breath of fresh air. In the first episode, we are given a view into the alienation that Aadya feels, something that is relatable to almost every member of the community. Aachal meets Aadya by chance in a gully while waiting with her unwell brother at a clinic. Thus marking the beginning of their relationship. The fact that their story is set in the 90’s only adds to the plot, because back then, same-sex love was not even spoken about. While the story does talk about issues such as acceptance from the families, in many ways, it is just another love story. Unfortunately, the actors themselves couldn’t find the support needed to continue the show. The actors had to drop out because of pressure from families who disapproved them doing “porn”. However, the series continue live on in the hearts of those who watched it, for its simplicity.

The Big F focuses on “forbidden fantasies” in its sixth episode titled I Kissed A Girl featured a lesbian kiss, making it the first show to feature a lesbian kiss on national television. The story revolves around Sharmistha, a fashion-designing student, who is confused about her sexuality and tries her best to fit into the mould of normal. However, when she meets Madhurima, she decides to stop hiding and comes out. Of course, the fact that something that should effectively be thought of as normal is being showcased under the banner of “forbidden fantasy” is questionable. However, it is a great step forward for our Indian television.

With more people consuming content online, and the growing popularity of streaming websites such as Netflix and Hotstar, the world of web series have gained popularity. And why not? From Y-Film’s Man’s World to Pechkas Pictures and ScoopWhoop Talkies’ Baked, the ideas and plotlines are completely diverse.

While gay stories have slowly become a part of every other show in the western world, we are still reeling over the fact that there are a handful of movies/shows that portray lesbian relationships accurately. It was in 2004 that the TV series ‘The L Word’ first aired. The story revolves around six lesbian and bisexual women in Los Angeles who are shown dating, having serious relationships, sometimes just hook up, and even have serious moments about their sexuality. However, here in India, with CBFC finding it impossible to certify a movie that shows women embracing their sexuality it might be a while before we see some serious change.

In 2015, a movie called Unforbidden, a thriller that talks about a lesbian love story entangled within an Islamic terrorism-related angle was banned in India. Of course, the movie revolves around two taboos, but what pushed the Censor Board were the nudity, and the lovemaking scenes between the two protagonists. Reports also suggest that the movie was accused of “igniting unnatural passions” and hence was denied release in India, except for a few states.

We pray that filmmakers and actors don’t give up on the fight and continue their fight for the queer women identity. To mark this day, what movie or TV show are you picking up my dear reader?

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Armed with a B.A in English Literature from St. Xavier's college, Mumbai she set out to become a writer about a year ago. When not binge eating and watching reruns of any show she can get her hands on you will find her talking animatedly/ day dreaming/ glued to a book.
Krupa Joseph

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