Film breaks silence of India's lesbians

Peter Popham
Sunday 20 December 1998 00:02 GMT

"I CAN count on the fingers of one hand," a European who has lived in Delhi for more than 15 years said last week, "the times when liberals and intellectuals here have stood up to be counted on an issue of principle."

But Deepa Mehta's film Fire, with its lesbian theme, has been such a time. Demonstrations, debates, editorials: India has been raking over Fire's ashes ever since right-wing thugs in Bombay and Delhi forced the film's cancellation at the beginning of the month. Indignation that a handful of people could force an intelligent film off the screens with such ease has been mounting.

In the process, almost in the background, India's lesbians have been emerging, grasping the opportunity to show India that they exist, that they do not have fangs and talons, that they are Indian, too; and moreover that India has always had homosexuals, and that ancient Indian culture acknowledged and honoured them.

The points are not readily conceded. "India is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of compulsory heterosexuality," says Geeti Thadani, one of the few "out" lesbians here. "The whole social culture is so embedded in getting married - children, the extended family, grandchildren - that if you reject that there is a whole policy of insidious exclusion."

It goes back a very long way. "There is a paucity of cultural representation of lesbianism," adds Ms Thadani. Where such representation existed, Victorian translators cut it out. All translations of the Kama Sutra, for example, omitted the ninth chapter, which deals with sex between women. It was only in 1992 that a French publisher finally brought out an unexpurgated version.

Britain's imperialists cannot escape blame. "The negative attitude to homosexuality definitely came in with the British," said Salim Kidwai, a historian working on an anthology of buried gay Indian literature. "Until the 18th century there is a profusion of material. But in the 19th century this dried up. Indians became very sensitive to Western attitudes."

The Victorian legacy persists. Lesbianism "is plainly not" part of India's heritage, Swapan Dasgupta wrote in the weekly India Today. "Heritage implies a degree of social sanction.... Homosexuality ... was always an alternative to marriage and family, but never a socially acceptable option." The most important attributes of a "civilised, orderly existence", he concludes, are "restraint and inhibition." The words could come from a Victorian tract. But most Indians would probably agree with them; even communists reject gay politics as a decadent Western import.

So for Ms Thadani and her partner, Prabha Khosla, when the big posters for Fire went up showing the two heroines smiling and embracing, it was a big moment. "It's the first women's film in India," says Ms Thadani. "We felt that it speaks to a lot of women. In India, very few women go to see films, because the cinemas are so filthy. But so many women went to see Fire. They went in couples, in groups, and they went to see it over and over again."

The impact was particularly strong, she feels, because the situation the film depicted, where sisters-in-law trapped in empty marriages find love in each other, is true to the Indian lesbian's experience. "A couple of years ago I worked for a lesbian helpline," she said. "Ninety per cent of calls were from women in small towns who had to keep the relationship secret. Very many of them had relationships within extended families, like those in Fire."

Even in the big cities and among the upper middle class, discretion is all-important. Urvashi Butalia, who runs a feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, confirms that same-sex love in India is kept secret by nearly all who practise it: "This society permits same-sex friendships. Very many couples live together, of both sexes." But that very fact makes life hard for lesbians who are impatient with secrecy: to raise the public profile of lesbians is to threaten the comfortable hypocrisy of the great majority who remain in the closet.

"My book - Sakhiyani: Lesbian desire in ancient and modern India [Cassell, 1996] - is not published here," says Ms Thadani. "The feminist publishers here did not want it. I have had so much homophobia from the feminists and the closet lesbians, because they are comfortable in their lives."

Fire has upset that apple-cart; the debate over the film's banning has put India's lesbians in the spotlight. Yet even those most closely involved - the film's director, Deepa Mehta, for example - shy away from the implications. "Even those who were demonstrating were not endorsing the film's message," Ms Thadani says ruefully. "Even the director said the film was about loneliness, not lesbianism.

"But the film, and especially the ending, where the two women leave the family home together rather than bow to custom and make up with their husbands, is radical and subversive. A major silence has been broken. Maybe something will come out of this."

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