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

Other than The Journey and Fire, however, Indian films do not typically portray lesbians in a positive light. For representations of Indian lesbians in a broader and more accepting context, one must turn to films made by and about the Indian diasporic community.

Films such as Touch of Pink and Bend It Like Beckham offer portrayals of gay Indian men, while Chutney Popcorn (1999) and Nina’s Heavenly Delights (2006) offer stories about Indian lesbians in the United States and Britain.

Chutney Popcorn, directed by out lesbian filmmaker Nisha Ganatra, focuses on the issues that arise between Punjabi-American lesbian Reena (played by Ganatra), who is living with her girlfriend, Lisa (Crossing Jordan’s Jill Hennessy), and Reena’s family, who struggles to accept their daughter’s sexual orientation and how it intersects with Indian tradition. Similarly, Nina’s Heavenly Delights, directed by Pratibha Parmar, an out lesbian Indian-British filmmaker who previously chronicled the queer South Asian diasporic experience in the documentary Khush (1991), involves the interplay between Indian tradition and Western, queer identity.

As Pullappally put it: “I find that [in] films in which there is a gay Indian character, the primary issue seems to be that conflict between the parents’ old world ways and the gay offspring’s trying to come to terms with their identity, and at the same time maintain their relationship with their parents.” This dynamic is reflected in nearly all films about immigrants’ coming-out experiences in Western society, including Saving Face (2005) and Red Doors (2006), both films featuring Chinese-American lesbian characters.

The upcoming film When Kiran Met Karen, which is due to begin shooting this spring, incorporates the coming-out theme as well as the conflict between tradition and modernity. The film is about an Indian-American actress, played by Indian-American actress Purva Bedi, who is cast to play a lesbian in a film and discovers that she is falling for her co-star, a Chinese-American lesbian actress.

Last year, the differences between India and the United States in relation to acceptance of lesbianism were thrown into sharp contrast when a Bollywood actress, Perizaad Zorabian, turned down the role of Kiran because of her “own personal inhibitions about playing a lesbian.”

When Purva Bedi accepted the role of Kiran last December, she told that “there is not a single actress … living in India … who cares about her career there who could play this part.” She added, “I want to make this movie so that actresses there can start to play those parts and not be so scared of it.”

Bedi explained that Zorabian’s decision to turn down the role is paralleled in the film’s story itself. “There’s a constant doubling: When I’m talking about real life and when I’m talking about the movie,” Bedi said. “So the joke of the movie is that the director [of the film within the film] casts the Chinese woman as a lesbian and actually is able to find a lesbian actress, but when she’s looking for the … Indian woman, she can’t find anyone who’s a lesbian and an actress that’s right for the part — that will maybe admit to [being a lesbian] — so she casts a straight woman.”

Bedi continued: “Of course in real life, that was exactly what the director [Manan Katohora] went through, in that he was not able to find a suitable actress who’s a lesbian who’s South Asian — or who will be open about it. Which goes back to … how much stigma there is in Indian culture with being a lesbian.”

Despite the continuing stigma within Indian culture, there are signs — such as Zorabian’s open acknowledgement of her own homophobia — that things are changing. Since Fire, Mehta said,“Indian society has become far more liberal and open about homosexual/lesbian relationships. I have personally seen articles in mainstream magazines about young same-sex couples and their lives together.”

Pullappally agrees that India is gradually becoming a society that might welcome a mainstream film depicting a positive relationship between lesbians. “India is working its way toward that point very slowly,” she said. “It’s so entrenched in ancient cultural mandates.” However, the progress that has been made in the 11 years since Fire was released show that acceptance is relative.

Though Girlfriend may have been homophobic, there were also public protests about its homophobia. Though a Bollywood actress refused to play a lesbian role, she acknowledged her own homophobia in that decision.

For diasporic South Asian lesbians, the opportunity to see themselves positively reflected in cinema has increased significantly within the last few years, paralleling developments in films about other minorities that increasingly address issues beyond coming-out.

And the fact that lesbianism can be situated within a world beyond mainstream, white society is a positive development indeed.

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