By Nishtha Relan:
“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.
I 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.