Unwelcoming “The Welcome”: What’s Problematic With The UN’s Bollywood Style Video

Posted on May 26, 2014 in LGBTQ, Society, Specials, Staff Picks, Taboos

By Rahul Sen:

Ever since the United Nations released its first ever Bollywood music video in support of LGBT rights, featuring Celina Jaitley, it has gone viral on the internet, on the various social networking sites and on YouTube, where a trail of valourizing and celebratory comments follow regarding its greatness, progressiveness and boldness. However, I’m troubled by and will continue to trouble those lauding it by interrogating the kind of politics that is at play here.

Is it meant to be ‘selective’?

At the first view, the video came across as classist, elitist, exclusionary, patronizing and parochial in its reach and appeal. A second view hits home the horror as one realizes its other problems that seek to eliminate the ‘queer’ element from its discourse. It is the United Nation’s ‘Free and Equal’ campaign that champions ‘LGBT Equality’ (no ‘queer’ mind you!), but then, where are the lesbians and transgenders? Do we buy it that a gender based hierarchization has come to dominate the LGBT community? Does the UN discern ‘Free and Equal’ as the sole prerogative of gays? Indeed, when the position of women in the Indian nation-state is torn between the extremes of ‘goddesses’ (good) and ‘sluts’ (bad); conceiving of women as autonomous sexual subjects itself is a transgressive act, could the UN have showed two women instead of two men? What about the other sexual minorities? Clearly, this is exclusionary.

What is most striking is its apparent glitz, glamour, and elitist setting, centering around the Bollywood actress’ plushy swaying and swirling, that has been chosen as the site of a ceremonious ‘coming out’. While coming out itself is a contested space that has been challenged by several queer theorists and activists, the concerned grandiose further problematizes it. How many queer people can afford to ‘come out’ in such a ceremonious fashion? The queer movement has time and again been criticized for being elitist, classist, bourgeoise, and therefore, exclusionary; even the exemplary Delhi High court judgement of 2009 that decriminalized homosexuality at the pedestal of ‘privacy’ could not stand outside its criticism. The video condenses those notions and reifies them instead of attempting to overreach, by being more inclusive.

What is ‘new’ about it?

A thorn pricking moment in the video comes when Celina Jaietley tries to convince the old, stern matriarchal dadi by saying ‘it is a new look. It is a new attitude’. It is shocking to see the ignorance that the UN slaps on the face of the audience. One should take cognizance of the fact that India bears a rich homoerotic cultural past that records gender variance of numerous types, let alone the temple sculptures of Khajuraho, Konark, or the Kamasutra and the Mahabharata.

The insensitivity of the video makers not only erases the rich queer past of the country, but punctures it, marking a moment of the emergence of the ‘Global Gay’ that reeks of a dangerous homo-nationalism; a kind of hegemonic pinkwashing that melts down differences of class, caste and race through a homogenizing and overbearing consumerist culture.

‘Acceptance’ is unwanted

The most important criticism that I wish to level against the video, is the fact that, very conveniently it erases the ‘queer’ element from it. One must realize that ‘queer’ is not only a sexual position that one inhabits, it is a philosophy of life, a politics and a sensibility of desiring outside the normative. It is a queer politics of marginality (whether ‘hetero’ or ‘homo’) where one’s sexual position and desiring is seen as a mode of dissent; a threat to the ‘normal’, normative order of things. Being at the margins, interrogating the centre, rebelling, protesting and yet celebrating the marginality is probably the politics that being ‘queer’ demands. Being accepted by the ‘family’ (which comes across as the crux of the video) is certainly not sought for, the ‘family’ being an incarnation of heteropatriarchy itself. Those of us who identify as ‘queer’ (either ‘hetro’ or ‘homo’) and are committed to radical politics, do not seek to be included within a legitimately granted territory; do not wish to be merged with heteropatriarchal structures of oppression that erases transgressive possibilities rather puncturing the distribution of the sensible through a ‘queer’ mode of dissenting and resistance is what is being pursued. We stand against the institution of ‘marriage’ (one that the video valourizes) and do not care if the family ‘accepts’ us but dismantling the patriarchal foundations of these structures is the goal. This is the fraughtness and paradox within the queer movement and the battle against 377, that it seeks to legitimize a legal space of freedom and rights, and yet, conversely, desiring continuously outside a legally bound space, asserting our queer selves that breaks, beats, tears, cracks, and destabilizes normativity of every sort. The UN video, in this regard, is quite self defeating in its purpose and champions (in)visible patriarchy instead of going against its grain.

An opposing strand

The UNFE video generated mixed response among the queer academic circle. Niladri R. Chatterjee, who teaches at the University of Kalyani, pointed out that “yes, there are problems, but I regard problems as productive. Now let there be videos that counter the homonormativity in this video. It should start a discussion. It can. That’s why it’s good.” However, we are left to conjecture whether this text is aporetic or not! We shall wait to watch other videos that frame two effeminate gay men (unlike the macho gays of this one), videos that take into cognizance the ‘class’ factor and not show only upper class, opulent, white-skin gays; represent sexual minorities of other kinds; where sexual minorities have been given a voice (unlike this one, where the ‘voiceless’ gays are silently ‘accepted’ by heteropatriarchy?). Several related questions are cramming my brain as I meander through the multifariousness of the rainbow and ponder over the far reaching threats that it posits to heteronormativity.