The main problems of the Queer people around the world and in India are discrimination, prejudice and ignorance. It is not as simple as Hindi mainstream cinema has been treating this subject for a long time. Queer people’s issues are much deeper, wider and quite painfully complicated to be expressed and portrayed with commercially motivated content on silver screen. After watching the latest movie ‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan’, several questions emerged in my mind. I would try to understand the movie through in-depth interviews which I were conducted during my MPhil data collections in August 2018 with Queer people from rural area in western UP one of the northern states of the country. Names of the participants have been changed for their anonymity and confidentiality.
A Brief History of Homosexuality in Mainstream Cinema
There are only a few movies which have touched the subject of homosexuality in Indian cinema. For instance, Kapoor & Sons, Fashion, Margarita with a Straw, Bombay Talkies, Fire, Honeymoon Travels, Students of The Year and Dostana. These movies have acknowledged and shown the existence of Queer people in the Indian society but, failed to touch the real and pressing issues in depth. But the recently released ‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (SMJS)’ dealt with ‘homosexuality and homophobia’ as a core idea and presented it in a waggish style.
About the Movie
The movie is a sequel to the 2017 movie, titled ‘Shubh Mangal Savdhan’ which talked about a taboo sex subject and tried to normalize discussions about similar uncomfortable topics around sex and sexuality.
The more recent Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan start with the two characters, Kartik (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Aman (Jitender Kumar), who works as a salesman in Delhi and is in live-in relationship. They decide to go to Allahabad to attend Aman’s cousin’s wedding. Both of them board the train together with family members, relatives and the to be married couple. In the train, Aman’s father Shankar Tripathi (Gajraj Rao) catches them kissing each other and the situation gets extremely uncomfortable for all.
The movie not just talks about homosexuality and homophobia, it shortly touches upon other issues as well. Especially the loveless marriage of the Pankaj and his wife, as both confess about living in ‘parts’. Both of them explore their lives and meet their lovers as and when their marriage was solemnised under family pressure. Dialogues of the movie are witty, cleverly written and full of comical twists.
Critical Question on the Subject of the Movie
Sex between people of the same gender was considered criminal and illegal activity or “against the order of nature” in Section 377 of the Indian Panel Code. After the long fight by several Queer activists on 6th September 2018, the Supreme Court of India decriminalized to consensual adultery homosexual sex. The Court also called for equality, and condemned discrimination against the Queer community. It stated that the protection of sexual orientation and Right to Privacy lies at the core of the fundamental rights under constitution of India.
I saw a huge relief and celebrations among people from the Queer community everywhere especially in metropolitan cities across the country, after the court’s verdict. This movie also showcases the message of decriminalization of the homosexuality at the end of movie. But there are several questions which should have been raised like,
Is Indian society ready to accept the change? Does the fight by the Queer groups for equality and rights finally end here? Is the rural community also familiar about the new changes and is aware about its freedoms?
Background of the Participants
One day I was sitting at a salon in a small town and saw few men whose voice and body language were ‘feminine’. People who were sitting there, were teasing and taunting them in an abusive manner. These effeminate men were retaliating and responding to the taunts with few abuses and they instantly left the salon feeling humiliated. It shocked me because, on one side, in a city like Mumbai where I come from, people were celebrating the decriminalization of homosexuality and on the other side, in more non-urban parts of our country, these men were living in hell where they even could not react on the abuse being hurled upon them.
It was public spectacle of humiliation. I asked to salon owner if he could connect me with them so that I could know more about their daily struggles. After several meetings which were aimed at rapport building, I was able conduct interview with five of those men after two months. Sahil, Aman, Faim, Ravi and Sonu are dancer, daily wage worker, barber, factory worker and sex worker respectively. All were aged between 20 to 30 years old.
Decriminalization of Homosexuality and Rural LGBTQ
‘Humhe to nahi pata ye 377 kya hai aur iske hone na hone se humhe kya fark padta hai. Kya ye koi surakhsha or kaam bhi deta hai?’ (We don’t know what 377 is and what difference would that make it to our lives? Does it offer security to us or some form of employment?)
This was one of the statements from one of those men. Although on one side the Apex Court’s verdict has been celebrated as an occasion in the metropolitan cities while on the other side there are communities who even do not know about such verdict exists which is supposed to guarantee them equality and dignity in life. The Queer people who are living in rural areas, small town or small cities are completely unaware of the changes and the rights that the verdict offers.
They do not know what Section 377 is and that homosexuality was decriminalized between consenting adults. Sonu expressed, ‘Humhe kya fark padta hain, mujhe to phle bhi pet bharne ke liye sex work karna padta tha, aur abhi bhi. Log phle bhi waise hi the or abhi bhi.’ (How does it affect us? I used to have sex work for livelihood and will continue doing it. People and their views towards are same as before. Nothing will change).
These people are struggling for dignity, equality and livelihood. They had to leave their education and employment not only due to poverty but also because of their sexual orientation. Sonu and Aman told me earlier that when they started working as carpenters for private homes and also as helpers at various shops at several places, there were multiple instances that their employers did not pay salary which was agreed upon. There were certain instances when the employers even asked for sexual favours. They mentioned that they were constantly harassed, mentally tortured and even physically assaulted by their family and neighbours for being effeminate. They have no option to leave home and venture out in absence of support and affection.
Sonu said, “ (Translated) I tried to behave like straight man but I couldn’t. I do not like this sex work but what should I do for living? I am always at risk. I stand on highway and wait for clients”. He shivered when he mentioned an incident when he was raped by multiple men. “Once, a man approached me and lured me away from the highway where his friends were waiting. They gang raped and left me unconscious”. He said that people’s face do not explain about their nature and started sobbing. He stated further, “I am helpless. Whom should I complain? Police? How? Police does not allow us to stand on highway. Even they try to take advantage of our situation. Many a times, even they forced us to provide sexual favours when they saw us with someone”.
These people have been struggling and fighting every day for their security and livelihood. The verdict on Article 377 does not affect their life at all. Police doesn’t send them to jail but does not allow them free life either. They even have restrictions on their mobility. Society does not allow them to breathe freely or provide them a safe space to live with respect. Sonu said, “I have changed my home 12 times in last two year. After much struggle, now the ten of us have rented a house outside of the town so that we can have a peaceful and safer place at night after we return from work”.
Also read: Being A Queer Dalit And The Assertion Of Dalit Identities In Pride Marches
Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and other such movies try to normalize homosexuality. And it delivers the message that love is love irrespective of gender but, it does not show the pain of the Queer people in such spaces. The director has tried to touch emotion of the Queer people in few scenes but failed to reach the depth of the subject. These movies are far from touching on the topic or representing the lives of these rural Queer people who face everyday socio-economic problems due to their sexual identity.
Homosexuality and Taboo
The social acceptance of homosexuality remains a taboo in Indian society not only in the rural, but even in urban setups too. There are several cases which have been registered in Delhi NCR where gay men were raped and tortured, while according to YouGov-Mint Millennial Survey conducted on January 2019 in 180 cities across the country, social acceptance of homosexuality is high in Delhi NCR closely followed by the Mumbai. The ground reality remains different than such data.
Queer people, who live in urban spaces, are coming out and expressing their sexuality, slowly and gradually. But through narratives of such people, who live in rural settings, we can imagine the conditions under which these rural sexual minorities live, who are even not familiar about their constitutional rights and, where society is not only insensitive and deeply patriarchal, but also hell bent to oppress them in multiple ways.
Another participant Faim, 22, expressed, “We do not have any emotional support being an effeminate and when we find someone who give respect, we invest lots of emotion in it. But most of the people use us as sex objects. I also have spent too much of my hard-earned money on my boyfriend. I thought he was as committed as I was but he left me as soon as he got marriage proposal. While leaving he threatened to inform my family about my sexual orientation if I ever tried to contact him again. Now I am living in depression. If someone informs my family about my sexual orientation, they will kill me”.
Also read: Queer Marriage: Should We Call It Subversion Or Submission?
At last, and not least, movies like Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan however, still act as generous beginnings which will be not only be helpful for the our or the next generation to be more sensitive but it also helps to sensitize the older generations. Although the movie has a strong concept, the story and dealing with the issue could have better rather than comical. It does make audience laugh their heart out while highlighting sensitive issue but lacks the intensity and a deeper engagement that was needed at certain moments.
Mohd Usman Mehandi is a PhD Student School of Social Work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. You can find him on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Featured Image Source: BBC