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MTV Decides To Be ‘Progressive’ By Showing A Same-Sex Couple, But What The ‘Big F’!

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By Nishtha Relan:

mtv big f“Desires. Fantasies. Everyone has theirs, but no one talks about it. Par hum toh baat karenge (But we will talk about it).” goes a semi-naked, fresh-out-of-the-pool, wet Gautam Gulati, the host of MTV India’s new telly show ‘Big F’ – with a very corny tagline ‘Forbidden. Firsts. Fantasies’ – as it opens. It’s a show with 10 different episodes on – you guessed it – the forbidden sexual desires of the youth of India, like sex before marriage, sex with an older woman, and, as its 6th episode that aired last Sunday shows, alternate sexuality.

Titled ‘I Kissed a Girl’, this episode has been much lauded for its courageous broadcasting of not just desire, but homosexuality and the issues of acceptance that gays and lesbians face, at a time when any non-mainstream, non-heterosexual or non-sanskari visuals could make one the target of censorship, or even harassment by the puritanical advocates of morality in the country. It’s the story of Sharmishtha, a young woman studying fashion-designing, pestered by endless aunts and classmates for not being into boys, or wanting to marry. Her best friend, Ritesh, saves her from her mother’s queries on her relationship status and is the only one to understand her until she finds love-at-first-sight, and the courage to accept her sexual orientation, when she meets Madhurima, a model for her designs. The story progresses with a love triangle between two women meeting our basic expectations of beauty, and Ritesh, the photographer best-friend, only to end with him sacrificially walking away when Madhurima says to Sharmishtha “I want you.”

The contemporary Hindi telly shows, unlike the old gems ‘Khichdi’, ‘Sarabhai vs Sarabhai’, give us only the regressive saas-bahu feuds in the very heteronormative, patriarchal family set-up, always pegging women against each other. But of course, even the pattern of endless dating shows on MTV and Channel V has also been extremely misogynistic and heteronormative in nature. So to be given the option of watching a bicurious/bisexual woman initiating a romance with a lesbian on Indian television is definitely a positive break from the overly-dramatic, family-romance cry-fests of shows. BUT, after watching the 45-minute long episode, its problematic portrayal of lesbian desire is just an open can of worms, and the worms are wriggling everywhere.

I will not even begin to comment on the sub-standard acting and direction in the episode, where the actors seem to be trying too hard to believe their own portrayal of open-minded, accepting queer individuals. I will also not comment on the half-hearted speeches of acceptance and being oneself that the episode is peppered with. Struggling with accepting one’s sexual or gender identity comes way harder to most people than shown here. No kisses or promises of finding a companion compensate for the personal struggle of accepting oneself, let alone the fear and the often-traumatic consequences of coming out to one’s family, especially in India, which is very conveniently not even mentioned in this show.

mtv big f v2I will, however, expound on the shameless catering to the male-gaze and the male fantasy of seeing ‘pretty’ women being unnecessarily sensual and locking lips pandered to in this show, again and again. MTV and other entertainment houses looking to cash in on this need to check themselves when they include lesbian issues in a series of merely ‘forbidden fantasies’, and to recognise that it is very much a reality. After watching a series like ‘Orange Is The New Black’, which has a huge Indian audience, such superficial and weak representation of lesbian desire is extremely off-putting. And what’s the deal with the terrible representation of bicuriosity/bisexuality here? No, Madhurima is not ‘confused’ – even if she acts like she is, most of the time – when she says she likes both men and women and can’t choose between Sharmishtha and Ritesh. Ritesh admits to being told by Madhurima that she likes, and is interested in, both girls and boys. She is definitely bicurious, if not bisexual, and it is not to be confused with being indecisive or being involved with ‘whoever is available at the moment’. Her bisexuality is also not to be dismissed if she chooses Sharmishtha in the end, and, however problematic these labels are, committing to Sharmishtha would not mean that she’s turned lesbian. The label already stamped, that this episode aims to portray lesbian love, leaves out any scope for a deeper understanding of the complexity of the desire being shown. It is a complex, wide spectrum that this show tries to deal with, and, sadly, fails to even understand the nuances itself, let alone portray it with some dignity. Unfortunately, the question of caste and class privilege isn’t even given any acknowledgement in the contemporary Indian entertainment industry, especially when selling it to the ambitious youth of the country, but it should be. The middle-class mentality of not looking at ‘progress’ as an all-class inclusive phenomenon is extremely problematic, especially when it comes to the LGBT+ issues. For many queer persons, financial instability and/or caste-based repression add many more layers to their struggle against social stigma. No wonder, the characters in the show have no financial problems to deal with.

With all these problems easily picked out, there’s little to celebrate about this show. The episode did have a moment of wisdom in it, with Sharmishtha talking about creating apparel designs that wouldn’t objectify women in a bid to make them ‘look beautiful’. But the simplistic portrayal of this issue looks like just another pretentious, ‘happening’ trope of keeping up the entertainment quotient. I’d give it 4 out of 10. There’s always scope to improve, however. Here’s hoping MTV will look into its attempts at producing youth-oriented, dynamic, conscious telly shows a little deeper the next time, and maybe also include the basic issues of cis and trans gender identities.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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