Nearly 25 years ago, Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) went ‘viral’. The idea of female lovers, within a middle-class household, exploring their desire and love for each other was a revolutionary thing to see on the big screen at the time. But from having to change one of the protagonists’ name from Sita to Nita to the widespread protests against its ‘attack on Indian culture’, Mehta’s film witnessed a lot of turbulence.
In the 25 years since then, India has seen more such stories about queer relationships, but the list is still painfully short. However, in recent months, there have been at least three such notable endeavours — from ALTBalaji series The Married Women, Neeraj Ghawyan’s Netflix short Geeli Pucchi, to Ekta Kapoor’s upcoming web series His Storyy. And while the threat of censorship looms large over OTT platforms with the Narendra Modi government’s new OTT regulations, these new projects are determined to say what they want to.
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Questioning the norm
Queer relationships in India are still understood to be something only found in bigger cities, metropolitan areas, in a bubble where caste, gender, and society do not intervene. Or if they do, it is inevitably brutal. But stories of everyday queer love and longing in the small nooks and crannies of bigger cities as well as smaller towns are now slowly being picked up. This is evident in the recently released Geeli Pucchi.
The Neeraj Ghaywan film, which is part of the Netflix anthology Ajeeb Daastaans, is a tale set in a north Indian small town. The two protagonists, Bharati Mondal and Priya Sharma, are two women from different sections of society, but with the common thread of being women in a male-dominated factory setting and being women who happen to like women.
What is significant in the depictions of queer relationships in India, especially between two women, is how marriage is an integral part of it. In a country obsessed with asking ‘shaadi kab kar rahe ho?’, women often get married before they even have the time and space to understand themselves. While it may seem like these narratives suggest bad marriages as the sole reason why women choose to be with other women, this is not necessarily true. In the 25 years post-Fire, Indian cinema seems to have finally understood that maybe it’s not about a bad marriage, but about gender and sexual fluidity.
On both big and small screens, working women are the new norm, not home managers trapped in bad marriages as seen in Deepa Mehta’s Fire. The Married Woman’s Astha Kapoor and Geeli Pucchi’s Priya Sharma are both women with careers. In Astha’s case, she has never deviated from the straightforward path set for her, while Priya talks about her experience of being with a woman as something that happened before marriage. She knows it might no longer be possible for her to experience that again. But she remembers it with fondness and in a way that she does not talk about her relationship with her husband. And in both cases, the women are taught that being a mother is how a woman finds her ‘true self’.
Despite our so-called progress in terms of LGBTQ+ issues, heteronormative marriage continues to be our society’s ‘cure-all’, closely followed by motherhood. It is the solution to all instances of deviation from the ‘normal’. Except, in both these shows, the married woman steps out, push boundaries, and even debates never looking back. The triumph, if one is looking for it, is not so much in the ‘happily ever after’ that we are obsessed with, but in the very act of pushing boundaries.
So while in Geeli Pucchi, Bharati feels the ways she does about Priya, it is also she who makes sure Priya is imprisoned? in her heterosexual domestic life, through the birth of her child. But Bharti also knows that in the world they inhabit, being taunted would be their reality, and not a happy ending — even if Priya decides to step out of her domestic space.
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Reframing female relationships
In both The Married Women and Geeli Puchi, if desire is paramount, it is also tenderness of the female bond. The Married Woman’s Peeplika Khan, played by Monica Dogra, seeks comfort in Astha after the death of her husband, Aijaaz. Just before his death, Astha had confessed that she had fallen for him. The stereotypical trope of ‘soutan’, or the other woman, is thankfully absent here. The knowledge of having loved the same man, instead of creating friction, actually initiates the bond that the two women end up sharing with each other.
In Geeli Pucchi, too, Bharati and Priya do not care about the man in Priya’s life. Their bond moves beyond the immediate, the sexual, and transcends to a space that is not defined by the patriarchal understanding of female relationships being a constant competition over a man’s affection.
Peeplika Khan tells her co-star Astha Kapoor not to think of attraction in terms of gender but in terms of persons. These stories capture the journey of how the understanding of the term ‘queer’ has managed to shift beyond people’s gender and biological identities.
Of course, that does not mean that ‘lesbian’ is still not used as a dirty word or term of abuse, seen in how Babbo, Astha’s NRI sister-in-law, disdainfully calls the embrace between Peeplika and Astha a “lesbian kiss” and finds it “disgusting”. It is not so much about the morality of a married woman kissing someone else, but of a woman kissing another woman that is the issue.
The final choices in both Geeli Pucchi and The Married Women may seem conventional, maybe even cowardly to some. The ‘normalcy’ of patriarchal familial structures both suffocate the women and yet they also often choose to stay on, simply because the comfort of the known is easier to slip back into, rather than face the challenges of the unknown. But for queer stories, simply daring to be, even momentarily, is an act of resistance.
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