Glitz, Glamour and Homophobia

100 minutes into Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine, Shahana Goswami proclaims with blithe arrogance, “I mean, for god’s sake, I am not a lesbian.” And in the wee hours of dawn, I am thwarted by the force of a realization. The entertainment industry that has encumbered me since my earliest memories of a sun-kissed childhood has been patronizing homophobia for decades, sometimes with casual mockery wrapped in rib-ticklers, and sometimes rather insidiously.

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Bhandarkar’s Heroine, where homosexuality was openly insulted.

Oh Bollywood! So pretty with your sparkling clothes, your larger-than-life stories and those fantastical songs that have led to every other citizen in this country to dream about romancing with their Prince Charming or Dream Girl in the exquisite beaches of Santorini or in the snow-laden mountains of Switzerland. And like every other parched romantic soul, I too have grown around the colors of Bollywood, having spent a childhood merrily dancing to Sri Devi’s “Hawa Hawai” and Karisma Kapoor’s “Le Gayi”. But the minute when all the pretty facades crumble into dust, its flaws are left for all to be seen, or mostly in our case, sadly unseen.

Take for instance the tear-jerking blockbuster that Karan Johar produced in 2003. Kal Ho Naa Ho was heralded as the film of its generation, with its dreamy montages of New York and the Brooklyn Bridge, Preity Zinta in her pretty red dress, and a charismatic Shah Rukh Khan, as always, stealing the thunder from everyone else as he essayed the role of Aman. However, rip all the fanfare, and you remember a forgettable character that went by the name of Kaanta Behen, the maid at Saif Ali Khan’s apartment, who was openly homophobic. Presented as nothing but a comedic subplot, this woman kept misunderstanding the two men as lovers, and when the homosexual DJ came by in the song “Maahi Ve”, I remember quite clearly the horrible shove she gave to the poor fellow when he was merrymaking with the others. And to think that Johar, an openly gay man at present, would endorse such an instance of blatant homophobia in a film he produced. You can always say that times were different in 2003, but when is the right time to endorse homophobia?

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Johar’s Kal Ho Naa Ho, where homophobia was insidiously promoted as a comedic subplot.

Now fast-forward half a decade into 2008, when Johar’s next venture, Dostana, released. Unlike its sentimental predecessor, Dostana was a slice-of-life comedy where two young bachelors (played by Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham) are looking for an apartment to settle into in the thriving city of Miami. In a “hilarious” twist of events, they finally rent an apartment with the film’s oblivious female lead, played by Priyanka Chopra, where they pretend to be homosexual lovers, while incessantly trying to win the affections of Chopra in reality. This, perhaps, seems a normal plot for a romantic comedy, until of course Kirron Kher, who plays the mother of Bachchan, appears on the screen. An openly homophobic character, her caricature is presented with item numbers where she sings of the torment that she is cursed with as her son is supposedly homosexual in “Maa Da Ladla Bigar Gaya” (trans: Mommy’s Boy Got Spoiled). And suddenly, the entire theater joins in to this so-called laugh riot of normalizing homophobia.

Perhaps such examples appear almost minuscule, however, the latent truth underneath is petrifying. Bollywood is one of the most thriving industries in India, and its socio-cultural reach and influence is unrivaled by any other. As a peddler of art, I understand that mainstream cinema is the strongest weapon of expression of thought in contemporary society. From its widespread reach of audience to its presentation, cinema heralds a double-edged sword of influence upon the human mind. Identities are often constructed on the cornerstone of its aesthetics. Generations after generations are thus influenced by mainstream cinema in more ways than one. And desensitizing the mass toward blatant homophobia is nothing short of a harrowing blunder in the part of the entertainment industry. Remember that time when Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai released and suddenly all the barbers where busily snipping away to make sure all the boys looked like Hrithik Roshan? Or the time when Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela hit the theaters one winter morning, and suddenly, all the shops were bustling with the hoards of cacophonous women, young and old, in their bids to buy the “Leela” earrings that Deepika Padukone wore in the film? That’s the extent of influence Bollywood holds in our daily lives. From the bell-bottom pants that can still be found in the concealed corners of almost every middle-aged man’s wardrobe, thanks to Amitabh Bachchan in the 70s, to that hideous turquoise bracelet that adorns the wrist of every other neighborhood bad boy, thanks to Salman Khan, Bollywood stays inoculated in every contour of our daily lives. So when such a colossal industry endorses, and in some cases repeatedly validates, something as toxic as homophobia, the consequences are grievous indeed.

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Man-hating lesbians and objectification, as promoted by B-grade films like Girlfriend

In 2004, a B-grade film called Girlfriend, starring Isha Koppikar and Amrita Arora, released in India. Perhaps the inconsequential plot was written solely to promote generic hatred for the opposite sex and objectification of a lesbian relationship. The film, although a box-office dud thankfully, has stayed in the minds of the thousands of folks who tune in to channels such as Zee Cinema or Set Max for a lazy afternoon of watching films on television, thanks to its repeated telecasts. In the film, Koppikar’s character is a man-hating possessive homosexual who is hell-bent on destroying her lover’s heterosexual relationship. Hitherto less known about the concepts of homosexuality in mainstream cinema, this film set certain devastating and downright delusional standards about the on-goings of lesbian relationships. Furthermore, the trivialized objectification of women, and thus lesbians, led to a generation of men and women conceptualizing lesbian relationships as nothing but a toxic and lust-driven experimentation between two women. And thanks to its constant telecasts, this insidious delusion still finds its audience in television almost every other week.

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Bhandarkar’s Fashion promoted a delusion that most of all male fashion designers are closeted homosexuals who publicly promote a heterosexual relationship in order to cover up their sexual orientation.

Bhandarkar’s blockbuster venture Fashion (2008) cemented Priyanka Chopra’s position as the most sought-after actress in Bollywood. However, the film also planted the seeds for the pathetically concealed homophobia that Bhandarkar kept promoting in his following directorial ventures. Aside from the fact that the film’s female protagonists instigated their partners to begin homosexual relationships with the designers they wished to work with, the film’s third lead Mugdha Godse had a disastrous plot where she married a fashion designer, who was a closeted homosexual, in order to publicly maintain his appearance as a heterosexual man. In a country like India, with its easily impressionable audience, this acted as the last nail to cement a delusion in the minds of the common man that most of all male designers who worked in the fashion industry were actually homosexuals. This stereotype also led to the shallow portrayals of multiple homosexuals who acted as supporting characters in the film to be presented as effeminate men for the sake of comic relief. In that context, every third Bollywood film in the 90s finds a mention as the go-to comic relief in that era was an effeminate man or a masculine woman (think Raja Hindustani).

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The New-Wave Bollywood Cinema: Aligarh, Margarita With a Straw, Kapoor & Sons

But somewhere, I still believe that all hope is not lost. Our present generation, although influenced by a thousand Bollywood stereotypes, are not as desensitized as their predecessors. Perhaps Dylan was correct, perhaps “The Times They are-a Changin'”, even if the cynical side of my psyche refuses to stake her hopes upon such romanticism. Because for the past half a decade, Bollywood has been flooded by films that speak otherwise. And ever so gradually, they are seeping into the undercurrents of mainstream cinema. Although considered art-house films by word of mouth, these films are finding their youthful audience silently, no longer considered as ostracized celluloid such as Fire (1996). Films such as Margarita With a Straw (2014) or Aligarh (2016) are gradually coming into the limelight, if not immediately, but gradually just the same. There is surprisingly a new-generation audience that is ready to accept films such as these, and they are not shelved into the moth-eaten corners of forgotten films immediately after their screening at some film festival. Even a mainstream jewel such as Kapoor & Sons (2016) starring Alia Bhatt, Fawad Khan and Siddharth Malhotra, where Khan portrayed a homosexual author, received accolades in mainstream award ceremonies such as the 62nd Filmfare Awards.

Of course there is always a backlash, as is always wont to be. Films such as Unfreedom (2014) that was based on Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem “Ye Dagh Dagh Ujala” bit the dust when the Indian Censor Board staunchly refused the release of this film . Similarly, Aligarh, based on true events, faced its fair share of censorship and counterblast because of its content about a closeted homosexual professor (Ramchandra Siras) of Aligarh University whose privacy was compromised when two men forcefully entered his premises to catch him having consensual sex with a man. After all, the journey was never meant to be easy. And change always comes at a price.

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Kolkata Pride Walk 2017, captured by Zoya Khan. Saintbrush

Cinema is the mirror that reflects the lives we lead, the choices we make, the desires we possess. And as we choose to change, perhaps it does too. We have come a long way from apologizing for villains, abusive relationships and stalkers from the 90s (looking at you, Shah Rukh Khan), and yes, the journey keeps getting harder by the day. Women with dusky skin are still considered outcasts in the Indian entertainment industry more often than not (Tannishtha Chatterjee, here’s hoping I see you in another wonderful film after Parched), the search for the fairest and the skinniest heroine still continues, and sexual objectification still churns the easiest money at the box-office (Mastizaade, Jism 2, Hate Story 3, the list goes on). You see, there are a lot of problems, and we are only beginning to think of possibilities of a solution.

But the times perhaps change, the faces change, the cities change, and life goes on. And suddenly, you wake up to a reality where hundreds can march proudly in the city streets, the colors of the rainbow raised high for all to see, unashamed, undaunted, and free. And yes, it is not easy, there are still those eyes that look at you with disdain, but revolutions weren’t won in a day and all you have is your choice to still believe. Perhaps that very faith keeps me going on as well. And so I write a thousand words, hoping to connect to every person who reads them, and give this world whatever little I can.

A Forest of Crimson Gleam

Images and montages,

Somewhere, the ‘I’ is lost in a star that still rages,

Glimmers here,

A touch of crimson there.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

Was there once a a child?

Lost as she was in a forest of dread.

She went in search of adventures,

Blaming it all on her dear grandmother.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

Mama once said,

Or was it just another voice in my head?

It is hard to tell,

The masks I wear always spin a different tale.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

So there I go,

Stifled and sore,

I walk in a forest of crimson gleam,

Burdened with a thousand splendid dreams.

There she is, the blasted red 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

I search for family,

I search for home,

I find a little hut,

And you see, you see, I am stifled and sore.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

And there she is, my sweet grandmother,

The lame old dame,

The one who forever forgets my name,

Oh, what a shame, what a shame!

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

So I walk up to that beloved old hag,

But her teeth are sharp tonight,

And her beady black eyes glow with hunger when she catches my sight.

So I walk up to that beloved old hag,

And her skin is warm and covered in wet fur,

Her familiar frail batty skin now marred with scars.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

And with her gravel voice that rises from her frothing mouth,

She beckons me, the hag with a wolfish snout.

So I sit by her bedside, those frail hands suddenly too big to fit in my palm,

And for a moment, I lose my little voice in alarm.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

There he lingers, with his claws and his misty breath,

As he whispers to me, “Come closer, Little Red.”

And the darkness looms after,

There is pain, a few broken screams and the cackle of vicious laughter.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

And when dawn breaks once again,

In a forest of crimson gleam,

There stands a being,

With blood in its hands,

And the taste of flesh in its mouth,

As it rubs off the last drop of red from its dainty supple skin.

There she is, the blasted red. 

There he is, sitting tall on a wrecked bed. 

And so you believed as Mama always said,

That once there were the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red,

And one night in a forest of crimson gleam,

The Wolf had feasted upon the corpses of her thousand dreams.

But did she ever tell you,

The story that only I knew,

Of an audacious little girl, so very blithe,

Of an audacious little girl, with a monster underneath,

Who feasted on a beloved old hag until she was nothing but blood and bones in a pile of heath?

So sleep now, little one,

Dream of wolves and little girls in coats of bleeding red,

For deep inside a forest of crimson gleam,

There still sits Red on a wrecked bed, still tearing into the sinews of a thousand lost dreams.

Go Make a Home for Yourself Today

A wise woman once said, ‘Even being alone, it’s better than sitting next to a lover and feeling lonely,’ and I wouldn’t have discovered her words later in life, wouldn’t have been none the wiser if I hadn’t walked out of my home that day and watched a movie alone, forever igniting my passion for watching films by my lonesome.

On a drizzling day of February 2012, when the lovers strode past me, huddled in each others’ arms, towards the theaters, I had taken my cynical self for a movie, something that I would laugh about in the coming years, thinking how I had specifically used the term—“Dating Myself”—to describe that incident in future dinner-table conversations.

I had been bitter, and chewing the corner of lips, as is my habit and that of the characters that I end up writing about. Cursing every last of these oblivious fools, for they were oblivious to life and her many woes, for they were oblivious to the incumbent sadness of never really belonging anywhere.

Because I had never belonged to anyone, especially not to myself.

After all, even my self was just as temperamental as I was. When I tried to woo her, she had made it abundantly clear that she needed to be courted, loved, adored, and given a sense of belonging before she would let her secrets be known.

And so, when all hope was almost lost, I had taken my self to a date.

I had got myself a bucket of the most cheese-infused popcorn, not to mention the overpriced glass of Coca Cola.

Now that I think about it, I don’t remember the name of the movie I had watched that day. I am sure it must been something absolutely horrendous. But I do remember that I had decided to “date” myself on Valentine’s Day ‘12, as is the cliche of every stubborn heart in the world.

The results had been horrible—I had cried buckets over some character dying, I had spilled Coke on my new tee shirt, and I had wasted almost half a bucket of those tasteless abominations when I tried to get up from my seat at the end of the movie.

Soaked and poorer by five hundred bucks, I had returned home from the disaster, promising myself that I shall never let myself be tortured in this way.

Suffice to say, I never really kept my word.

As the years passed by, I befriended myself. And in turn, she showed me my loneliness could be turned into something akin to a pleasant solitude. She gave me words, filled me up with characters from books and movies, and strung up the emptiness of my otherwise silent world with music, even if I was quite disinclined towards the new addition.

Inside us is another person, another self that is waiting for you to only ask, just ask, to show themselves. And believe me, even if you drag them through the worst movie dates, the most tasteless of dinners, and even the worst of heartbreaks of your life, they will never abandon you. They will never say goodbye.

I see myself, I see her and I saw the empty unfurnished room inside my soul that had existed before she welcomed me in. It was a greyscale box of nothingness, with no heart and no memory to treasure in the darkest of times.

And together, we had colored it, painted it with a thousand more colors that the spectrum still hides from our eyes. We had furnished it with love, hope, even our sorrows, and our most secret of memories.

Sure, there were heartbreaks after. My self and I found ourselves decorating our home for guests who wouldn’t stay long enough to call themselves family. That they would sometimes leave with a piece of our furniture, stealing our memories, our hopes, perhaps even our belief that we could love again. And sometimes they would be kind, kind enough to leave a piece of themselves for our safekeeping, a memory, a memento of a scent, a voice, or a phantom touch. And she and I, we would caress it, keep it safe, locked inside the most secure corners of our room until they came to claim it again.

But for you to see all of this, you would have to know yourself first.

Know how beautiful, how wonderfully, heartbreakingly priceless you are.

I found that when I had taken myself to see some film in a lovelorn theater.

Perhaps you would find yourself in the midst of words, or perhaps in the unread corner of a storybook, or even in the melody between choruses of a song.

Who knows?

But that is your story to discover.

So find yourself.

And love yourself.

After all, you are your soulmate.

Hold onto yourself when the storms rage, when the sea seduces you to leave out the rest, when the mountains call you to leap forth, when life whispers your last goodbye.

Hold on, because your strong and fragile heart needs you.

Hold on, because that soul is yours to keep, to protect, and to cherish until it is time to depart, together.

Just hold on.

More Than a Need

When I was seventeen, something cracked inside.

And seven years since, my story holds no context, no gift.

Only a tidal wave that had once wrecked my shores,

Wrecked my shores enough to make you a forbidden shelter.

Because only when I was really broken, did I see what my shattered bits, what I looked like.

I am a concoction, of steel and love and hope and anger.

Of faith and belief, and my edges are sewed tightly by the ribbons of doubt.

I am made of secrets, sometimes they leak through my skin, break free into the air, and recollect into forgotten old pieces, until those remnants spill out through words.

Sometimes, I would make a home for those words on these blank sheets,

And sometimes, they would only persist through a strike through, or a caricature made over them with ink, so as to hide who I really am.

Who am I then?

A woman who hides herself, craving to dissociate herself enough to spill forth out of the pandemonium called my mind?

Maybe, I will never know.

Perhaps these scribbles mean nothing.

Maybe I am searching solutions of a puzzle that will forever be unsolvable.

But then again, even then, the hope sewn inside craves to find one, to find an answer.

I love madly, dearly, passionately, nonchalantly and impersonally.

I love with my skin and bones.

I love through my sinews and blood, until I am a frothing mess of words and fear.

I love, just the same.

Memories lament inside,

In search of the next person they would reveal themselves to.

I fight them once a while, hoping to feel something more than an ordinary human.

Hoping if I kept them caged long enough, they would see me as a mystique, a woman of secrets and longing.

And sometimes, I let the spillage only make me something close to ordinary.

And close to ordinary I shall always be.

I am chaos, after all.

Unchained in your symmetry, roving between the spaces of your mind and soul, sometimes intruding in your dreamlands, begging for home.

I would come as a destitute at times,

Wishing you would give me shelter from the storms.

And in some nights, I become the storm instead.

Perhaps tonight is such a story,

Or perhaps the next night.

But the truth is, I shall be there, waiting, biding my time,

Until you collide into me, memory, dream and reality a clusterfuck of longing,

And beg me to light up your world with my darkness.

And only then, and only then,

Shall I find you, kiss your flaws, and free you of your lonesomeness.

So wait for me until then,

Draw me in your mind,

Color me with your soul,

Dabble the corner of my lips that still bleeds,

And wait, oh wait,

Until I am something more than you just need.

 

Please, Not Seventeen Anymore

I knew I was old when Daddy didn’t come to braid my hair and tell me stories anymore.

Sometimes I want to be twelve again.

I don’t want my chest to feel heavy, my spine to ache with the weight of my bosom.

I don’t want to feel dirty when a man brushes across me in the busy streets of my city, his elbow touching the edge of my breasts.

I don’t want to keep scrubbing my nipples underneath the shower, my tears blinding me, hoping this water would brush away that touch, that filth of unwanted warmth off my skin.

I wish, oh I fucking wish.

I don’t want to be seventeen anymore.

I want to wake up, still praying to be seventeen on my twelfth birthday, my father braiding my hair.

I don’t want to feel like his mouth still persists on me after he has kissed my cheek.

I don’t want to flinch when someone wishes to hold my hand, to touch me.

I want to wake up, and forget my dreams.

I want to wake up, stop dreaming anymore.

My Daddy stopped braiding my hair when I was seventeen and I shivered when he touched my curls.

He told me I was a woman grown, and now I needed only to touch myself, and no one else.

I was a woman grown, a dirty thing, a filthy thing, a glorious thing?

I am seventeen and I am nothing more than a rant, a word, a hope, a joke.

I am my hair, my skin, my breasts, my cunt, myself and still not me.

I am my heart, my lungs, my dreams, my soul and never again anything that used to be me.

I am a woman, I am a female, I am a goddess, I am a whore, I am a mother, but then again, could I be so much more?

I am the universe,

And I am just an atom.

I am starlight,

And I am also the street light whose shadow you find to take a piss.

I am me,

And I am nothing, everything, something, anything.

I am me, you, but not that seventeen-year-old.

I am fallen leaves, rotting flowers strewn upon puddles, and the cracked barks of trees.

I am the last colors of a forgotten rainbow, the scent of jasmine, and the taste of the first plum you bite into.

I am the first steaming sip of hot chocolate, and the last kiss goodnight on a wintry evening.

I am the rain, hail, sleet and snow, I am soggy letters, and smudged secrets.

I am everything, but not that seventeen-year-old.

I am a child, I am a woman, but I promise, oh I fucking promise you, I am still so much more.

Her Red Lips

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Lust or Love?

Let Me Tell You a Story

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We are all made of stories.

A Demon’s Promise

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Let me tell you a story of darkness and tragedy. Where bright lights are nightmares and happiness is your enemy.

Storms and Scars

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And in this moment, I become the storm.

Sing a Little Song for Me

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We found our song in the colours.

Fire

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I am no longer the moth in a daze. I am the fire that shall set all ablaze.

A Merry Little Christmas

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Because Christmas is all about romancing melancholy, touching love and finding hope. And so you see, I hope we find a merry little Christmas, for you and for me.