From “Fire” to “Journey” to “Kiran”: Cinematic Indian Lesbians Evolve

Unlike Fire, which was directed by an Indian Canadian and was made for a global audience, Girlfriend was a Bollywood film made for distribution in India. In Girlfriend, Tanya (Isha Koppikar) and Sapna (Amrita Arora) are housemates who have been friends since college. Tanya is a hard-working jeweler who moonlights as a street fighter to make ends meet; when she returns from a business trip to discover that Sapna has fallen for a man, Rahul (Ashish Choudhary), she becomes enraged with jealousy and battles Rahul for Sapna’s love.

Tanya essentially becomes the stereotypical, man-hating yet unnaturally mannish lesbian (who becomes increasingly masculine in her dress and appearance throughout the film, even cutting her hair shorter), while Sapna is a femme in distress who must be saved from her slide into homosexuality by the male hero.

These stereotypical elements have been employed in Bollywood films before, albeit in less explicitly lesbian ways. Scholar Gayatri Gopinath wrote in her 2000 Journal of Homosexuality article, “Queering Bollywood: Alternative Sexualities in Popular Indian Cinema”: “Women with short hair, trousers, and a tough demeanor, have figured quite prominently on the Bollywood screen.

In particular, cross-dressing of both men and women has been a standard comedic and plot device in popular Indian film for decades.”

However, these transgressors of gender and sexuality are quickly silenced. “Masculine women in film are not allowed to exist more than momentarily, and are inevitably feminized in order to be drawn back into heterosexuality,” wrote Gopinath. “Strong women are acceptable only as long as they can still be contained with heterosexuality and properly feminine behavior.”

Like Fire, Girlfriend was protested by conservative groups in India upon its release, but this time, it was also protested by lesbian groups, who objected to its homophobic and stereotypical depiction of lesbianism. Girlfriend’s negative portrait of lesbianism does reflect, however, the widespread homophobia in India.

Indian-American director Ligy Pullappally was inspired to make The Journey by the tragic story of two South Indian girls who committed suicide after being outed as lesbians in the town where Pullappally was born.

Pullappally recently acknowledged to that her film had a definite “activist purpose,” and she recalled that after receiving news of the girls’ deaths, she thought to herself, “there but for the grace of God go I.”

The Journey tells the story of two girls, Kiran (Suhasini V. Nair) and Delilah (Shrruiti Menon), whose friendship develops into romance. Their story is very much a coming-out tale; Kiran discovers her love for her friend while helping a neighbor boy woo Delilah by ghostwriting his letters for her. When Delilah finds out that Kiran is behind the letters, she quickly returns Kiran’s affections. Their families, who eventually realize that their daughters are in love with each other, have mixed reactions, but ultimately the girls do not suffer too many consequences, and the film ends on a positive note.

Pullappally told us that she wanted to avoid the stereotypes about lesbians in films such as Fire and Girlfriend, and instead wanted The Journey to depict a rural experience and a local story, as opposed to an urban one.

“If I had to make some well-founded generalizations,” Pullappally said, “I would say that homosexuality generally [is] frowned upon everywhere, and I would say that there are more opportunities to connect with other members of the gay community in urban areas.” The Journey provided a much-needed positive point of reference for lesbians in rural India.

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