Lesbian film stirs debate in India
A bold film depicting scenes of lesbianism that has drawn the ire of rightwing groups has been defended by liberals who say "moral policing" takes away from the gay rights debate and media freedom in India.
By Hindol Sengupta, IANS
"It's the problem of irreversible middle-class morality deeply entrenched in insecurity," said puppeteer and gay rights activist Varun Narain, talking of protests by the Shiv Sena against the recently released film "Girlfriend".
Police guarded cinema theatres in Mumbai, Varanasi, Lucknow and Bhopal after Hindu rightwing activists smashed windowpanes, burnt effigies and tore posters at the halls, calling the lesbian lovemaking scenes "against Indian culture".
"The people who are protesting are living in a vacuum," said Narain.
"We have homosexual depiction in the famous Khajuraho temples 20,000 years ago. It's a redundant argument. Anyway, this moral and immoral point is irrelevant," he said.
In 1998, director Deepa Mehta's "Fire" which also portrayed a lesbian relationship also bore the brunt of rightwing attacks.
According to a colonial era law enacted in 1860, the India Penal Code criminalizes "sexual offences against the order of nature". Though "order of nature" is not explained, it has been largely interpreted to mean homosexual behaviour.
Most activists denounce this, with some even supporting the film for bringing images of alternate sexuality in the heterosexual candyfloss swathe of Indian cinema.
"It ('Girlfriend') is a B-grade film and should be seen as such," said Shuddhubrata Sengupta of the media research institute Sarai.
"It is no better or worse than any Hindi commercial film expect that it happens to have a lesbian character. In fact, it is much better than a lot of pathetic heterosexual characters and relationships that are depicted."
Sengupta also cut through some of the criticism from gay rights activists about the flawed nature of the lesbian character in the film Tanya played by Isha Koppikar, who is shown almost as a psychopath.
"Since Hindi cinema is known to show warped characters, why should we expect that a lesbian character should be a paragon of virtue?"
The actress is also untroubled by criticism.
"What are people protesting about? 'Girlfriend' is a very real film, based on real situations," Koppikar told IANS in Mumbai.
"For me, Tanya was just another character. That she happened to be a lesbian made it a fascinating challenge to play the role."
Sengupta especially decried violent attacks on the film preventing its screening saying: "People who take upon themselves to determine what other see are deeply injurious to democratic culture.
"These sort of mindless protests prevent intelligent debate on homosexuality and its representation in the media."
The chief of the country's censor board Anupam Kher has said though he hasn't sent the film, it had been fittingly edited before release.
"I do know that what was submitted for censoring was far more strong in content. Now that the film has been properly graded and censored, there's nothing more to be said on the matter," said Kher.