Review of “Desigirls!”

 
 

Initially, queer New York University grad student Ishita Srivastava set out to complete a
thesis project in her second year of her master’s in cinema studies.
After about three months of planning and five months of shooting,
however, Srivastava produced much more than a thesis project, and
instead what emerged was Desigirls!, a captivating exploration
of queer South Asian women’s identities and struggles.

Queer South
Asian-American women have very different experiences than those of the
archetypal "queer American woman," and Srivastava’s documentary effectively
captures the nuances of identity formation, sexual orientation, and
family situations among queer South Asian women.

The documentary,
which has been screening everywhere from New Delhi, India to NYC,
begins with DJ Ashu, co-founder of Sholay Productions and the
"Desilicious" party, who recognized the need for a regular queer Desi
event in New York six years ago. Along with the help of co-founder DJ
Shafiq
, Ashu successfully created a safe space for queer South Asians to
"congregate, have fun, dance, mingle, cruise" and ultimately express
their sexualities openly. Ashu’s piece sets up the main theme of  Desigirls!: the need for a community and sense of belonging.

Desgirls! primarily follows New Yorkers Priyanka and A, the two main characters
whose lives as immigrants of different generations and family
backgrounds affect their openness with and acceptance of their
sexualities.

Priyanka, a first-generation Indian immigrant, moved to the
US when she was 17, after her parents were divorced, while A was born
and raised in the United States. Priyanka theorizes that part of the reason why
many South Asians remain in the closet is because of the "collectivist
culture," in which being a member of an immigrant community forces
individuals to pool their identities and represent their whole group as
South Asian immigrants. Queer activism, on the other hand, involves a
distinct individualism where the person breaks away from the group
identity in pursuit of his or her own needs.

Priyanka’s parents
were divorced and had already disassociated her from the group
identity-mentality — as she was the only person she knew whose parents
weren’t together — which she feels made it easier for her to be out
and queer-identified independently from the rest of the community.

Priyanka
identifies as pansexual because she doesn’t view gender as a binary
idea, but rather an entire continuum of people that she finds
attractive (except for really masculine men). She’s currently in a
relationship with Lisa, a woman she met through Friendster (she smiled
at her online, Lisa smiled back, they had a few awkward-yet-cute
conversations, and the rest is history). Interestingly, Priyanka has
found that her friends who are actually from India are far more tolerant
of her sexual orientation than those Indians she’s met who grew up in
the States.

 

 

A, on the other hand, has a drastically different
experience from Priyanka, who has been out to her mother since age 18. A
is a 35-year-old second-generation Indian immigrant who keeps her
lesbian identity closeted from her Indian parents and relatives, save
for her older brother. Although born and raised in the U.S. by liberal
parents, her parents constantly nagged her to go to the temple, attend Indian functions,
wear make-up and meet boys.

A must live a double life and conceal an
immensely important part of her identity; she’s even hidden for the
entirety of the documentary. She particularly struggles with her
parents’ notion that being gay is a Western "cultural influence," and
that it’s wrong, a choice, and some kind of "black spirit" or
misalignment of the planets. When A feels depressed, she pulls
out her "gay boxes" full of ticket stubs and photos and reminisces about
any moment in which she has let loose and truly been herself — queer and
blissful.

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