In our society, marriage is an integral part of the script provided to us – a definite life goal. It’s different and sometimes similar for queer people. People questioned me when I said I don’t want to marry throughout this marriage season. But, no one questions marriage itself. What is it about marriage that is so pertinent to our lives? Debalina Majumder’s documentary Gay India Matrimony similarly asks, “Why marriage?” in a fun, entertaining, and delightful manner. Not many people or organisations make queer, political movies, and that’s also why it received an ‘A’ certificate. As per the filmmaker Debalina, the reason must be sexuality or homosexuality, as the movie discusses social recognition of homosexuality.
I first saw Gay India Matrimony as a part of my Women’s Studies course. I saw it again at a film festival almost a year later. All this time, the judgement regarding same-sex marriage rights in India was still pending (the date being moved repeatedly), and the debate regarding same-sex marriage was gaining traction. Debalina started making the film in 2013. By that time, almost 200 sovereign nations had declared same-sex marriage legal. And the visibility of queer people was also increasing in the urban area within India. The film has academics and queer rights activists as the central subjects of the movie who are placed within a different setting like placing an advertisement of marriage, making a profile on a matrimonial site for same-sex marriage, spaces where queer people are marrying or within cis-het marriages.
The film is also peculiar through its very upbeat music. There is an environment of acceptance with some hesitations, fun and fear within the movie. Usually, documentaries do not have music, and people see them are boring – being made on something knowledgeable. Debalina themself says, “that is how I wanted to incorporate music in my movie…music has been an interior part of my work.” Debalina’s film also features a discussion on marriage amongst the members of Sappho for Equality. Looking at marriage also illustrates, by extension, queer desires. The movie has been instrumental in changing my opinions on marriage, especially as a gender studies student and my identity as a Bahujan queer person. I do not want to be a part of an institution that preserves property and perpetuates caste.
A Sound Critique of Marriage
The documentary also provides a good critique of marriage, discussing the preservation of private property, monogamy, the exclusivity of marriage while also emphasising possible alternatives like Civil Partnership, Coupledom etc. It is an emotional and delightful journey as well, tracing the discourse around Section 377 and the ‘Kiss of Love’ protest as times change. The film is fantastic because we see the filmmaker engaging with different characters, i.e. both in front of the camera and behind it, and as the film’s subject.
There are no clear answers for so many crucial questions around marriage, which we don’t ask when discussing same-sex marriage rights. Another funny instance is varied reactions from different people answering questions directed towards other characters, making us reflect if we are asking the right question and why we aren’t questioning marriage itself. The film balances our understanding of the concept of marriage as an institution that is rarely explored in any marriage depicted in mainstream media, especially when Bollywood and even comparatively more progressive shows like Made in Heaven has glorified weddings. They would all rather focus on the optics of weddings where capitalism acts as an oppressing, profiting agent.
It also brings up the notion of why we need the state or the law to interfere with our rights within a private realm. The documentary doesn’t follow a ‘victimisation’ of not having an equal rights narrative. Instead, it emphasizes the complexity of the argument. In fact, it points out how the victim narrative, whether reinforced by ourselves or through family or society, is not good at all at different levels, especially at an individual level.
Two critical aspects came up during our class discussion on the film, questioning the need for marriage. The first one was regarding the condition for rights through marriage between two individuals and its exclusivity to the heterosexual couple, which the state has also maintained. The second one was the movie’s emphasis on how a family cannot always be a ‘happy Indian family’ as it can be the site of violence, isolation, and oppression. The characters’ interactions with different people and institutions also point towards the conventional views regarding non-normative desire, sexualities and identities, especially when the traditional institution of marriage comes in between.
The Markers of Oppression
When the characters talked to academicians, the response was different as they critiqued marriage and questioned even the need for it while looking at alternatives. In an amusing and thought-provoking scene, Paromita Chakravarti, professor at Jadavpur University, says, “No rational human being should be ever a part of this; institution whose only basis is to preserve property; exclusivity and monogamy a problem.” The film also points out how the marriage question excludes single people, to the point of ostracising them. There was a different response placing same-sex marriage within the broader queer rights movement. Similarly, when they talked to their family members and friends, the response differed, heavily leaning towards contention with society and survival in their immediate contexts.
Within the family domain, there is also the notion of who faces the music when the personal is political. As queer people, being open regarding one’s desire and sexuality in public, has implications for those associated with them. The most exciting response was perhaps from the person advertising matrimonials in the movie. Firstly, all the posters for marriage had cis-het couples on matrimonial sites, and other advertisements had similar representation. Secondly, he was not concerned about ‘same-sex marriage’ but only for profit. He also used the word ‘abnormal,’ which is insensitive and points towards a lack of different understanding beyond the binary.
Our society, family, state, and law – these institutions preserve traditional marriage as a social institution. In the possibility of any transgression, all these institutions respond in hostile ways. Then there are the marriage rituals, too, which are regressive. Within our classroom discussion, our professor also discussed the contention that everything could not come within the remit of the law, even if laws are defined progressively. They further said that “rules should encourage commons or rather not have regulations as they usually privilege the rights of capitalist society.”
Disassociating Privilege from Marriage
Marriage should not act as a tool for asking for rights through its appropriation. There is also the theme of politics of reclamation where the privilege around marriage is discussed as denial of marriage rights is indeed a denial of privilege. It also expands upon the feminist movement’s failure to criticise marriage. Dowry and domestic violence have been deemed illegal as violent, but there has been no questioning of marriage as a structure. We have to dissociate marriage and privilege is also one of the movie’s focus points. We need to remove privilege, patrilineality, patriarchy, exclusive access to another person’s body and life from it.
The movie also focuses on a lesbian couple settled abroad bringing up the question of privilege. At the same time, these marriages are done away from family as queer people are often an outcast within normative family spaces. Perhaps, the best feature of the documentary is that marriage is not the only central stage within this documentary. It’s the queer people, academics, and activists of the LGBTQIA+ community and their aspirations and views on marriage and where they locate marriage in their lives. One of the characters of the movie says, “People ask, “Why Marriage?” – I ask, “Why not Marriage?” “Why not live-in?”.
Marriage has been a very enduring structure due to its patriarchal, casteist, capitalist nature. One cannot have simple support and not support arguments about it. There are desires which are expressed within the domain of marriage as well. There are alternative ways to form families – with friends or maybe a cast as a baby. It points towards defining new notions of family, friendship and love, which coincides with the idea of ‘chosen family. Ultimately, Deabalina’s film looks at the lived experiences of queer people who wish to get married and go through family, society, state and different institutions. It makes for, at times, funny incidents, and at other times, some serious considerations about the world we inhabit and its politics vis-a-vis equal rights.
Find a discussion with Filmmaker, Debalina and queer rights activists Gourab Ghosh & Sayan Bhattacharya in conversation with Sandhya Kumar organised by Bangalore International Centre and Vikalp Bengaluru here.