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What Are The Stories Of Queer Love In Heterosexual India? This Insightful Film Tells Some

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By Shambhavi Saxena for Youth Ki Awaaz:

In the third century A.D., under the rule of the cruel Roman emperor Claudius II, a priest named Valentinus risked his life to marry Christian couples. On a 14th of February, he was found out and executed. Even though the history of this legend is a bit sketchy, and it isn’t all happy endings, St. Valentine’s story is still a firm reminder that love conquers all.

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A still from ‘In The Mood For Love’.

In our own popular imagination, Valentine’s Day has often meant contending with oppressive forces, whether it’s a gross misuse of public services for moral policing, or desperate reminders of ‘Matri Pitri Pujan Diwas‘ on city transport. We’ve all become acutely aware of attacks on heterosexual couples in the recent past, but what about people who don’t fit that description?

It’s been three disappointing years since the highest court in the country wrote homophobia into the lawbooks, but that couldn’t stop India’s “minuscule minority” from loving. In the Mood for Love, produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, is a film that takes an intimate glimpse into a world too few of us acknowledge. The filmmakers, Aakriti Kohli and Sandeep Singh, have done a swell job capturing these stories. Bringing to Indian audiences those expressions of love that don’t get talked about is no easy feat, so we got chatting with both of them over email about how and why they did it.

Were there any personal experiences or incidents that led both of you to select queer love as the focus of your film?

As filmmakers we were driven by the need to use ‘love’ as a productive category of analysis. As an emotion, we wanted to appropriate it, lay it out in the open, interrogate it, and look at how our subjects looked at it from their perspective. Personally, both of us acknowledge and understand how non-normative identities face multiple marginalisations, and felt driven to explore these stories of love.

In an interview with Pandolin, you mentioned that one of the reasons for making ‘In The Mood For Love’ was to have “as many alternative voices as possible” in the film. Do you think we’re heading towards a point where queer love is not ‘alternative’, but is accepted as normal for its “extraordinary ordinariness”?

By alternative voices, we meant that the dominant discourse continues to undermine, ridicule and even term gender and identity rights as unimportant. Secondly, the idea of love is more or less trapped in the heterosexual imaginary. The film, through Rishi, makes the argument that queer love is at once ordinary, and extraordinary in the same breath.

But ‘alternative’ in itself is a term of resistance. There are multiple discourses within the movement. For instance, some would suggest that historically the term ‘queer’ had a negative connotation, suggesting an element of being ‘weird’, however this term has been re-appropriated and reclaimed by the community to include multiple meanings. Rather than going for ‘normal’, the idea then is to destabilise normality. To be queer then also means rejecting norms of caste, class, gender and identity hierarchies. As Nivedita Menon has very famously said, all of us have the potential to be queer. So the idea is to be more queer(er) than normal.

You’ve talked about representation as a construction before. Can you tell us what it means to construct a representation of same-sex relationships for Indian audiences, when the majority of Indian visual culture (including religious iconography) is about the love between men and women?

Visually, we were looking at representing the everydayness of their lives, the ordinariness of their being. The film in fact is our attempt to add to the ever-growing body of Indian visual culture. It also involves re-appropriating the existing modes of representation. By the way we framed couples, we were subverting those modes through visual cues, actions, and practices which people have come to associate with heterosexual love and relationships – the everydayness of living together, working together and accessing and occupying public spaces. To make the unfamiliar, familiar, if you like.

How difficult, or easy, was it to find queer couples willing to open up about their relationships? Did you get the sense that their love had to be hidden?

The exercise of representation is always difficult. To make someone open up to you, to have them narrate their lives to you is always a challenge. It took us a while to find couples willing to speak to us, to build that trust, to get comfortable with them, to have them candidly reflect on life, love, relationships, struggles.

We met a lot of couples, wherein one of the partners was comfortable being a part of the film, while the other was not. A lot of people had various reasons to not be a part of the film, a lot of personal decisions and negotiations were involved. For a couple from Meerut, who travelled all the way to Delhi every weekend in order to be together, coming out in the open was just not an option. Familial pressures and expectations operate on levels we cannot completely comprehend.

More than hiding love, I think some couples may have not been ‘out’ to their parents, or were not comfortable laying out their lives on camera because personally they prefer to be discreet. Many others don’t see themselves as activists/spokespersons and would rather go on with their lives.

Now that the film has been screened at so many venues, how have audiences responded to it?

We’ve screened in many undergraduate colleges, and the response has been heart-warming. Young students find the film engaging, probing, and picking on multiple issues. Screening and discussions with some advanced students, such as those in research, opened up questions of politics, identity rights, nature of representation, exclusions in the movement, the way ahead etc. Every screening is followed by a very spirited discussion, and mostly the idea of love seems to resonate with the audience well.

Have there been any negative reactions from within the filmmaking community about films that explore non-normative relationships?

Not that we are aware of. The Indian documentary space is very liberal, driven by a sense of deep empathy towards the marginalised, and suspicious towards the state apparatus that marginalises communities, identities and people.

As filmmakers, how did you both react to the debates around Hansal Mehta’s film ‘Aligarh’ being given an ‘A’ rating? Do you think there were double standards operating there?

The issue of the state as the purveyor of ‘morality’ is a long-standing one. The assumptions operating here are that films ‘influence’ people in a way other forms of socialisation don’t, that individuals are not free-thinking agents, that anything to do with sex is in the domain of the adult, that homosexuality as an idea and practice will corrupt young people.

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A still from ‘In The Mood For Love’.

Mainstream Indian cinema has some rather objectionable depictions of women and other minorities (the trope of gay/trans characters as comic elements) and neither the censor board nor the audiences find problems with that. So why pick on homosexuality for ‘corrupting’ people?

Because objectionable representation of women does not destabilise patriarchy, homosexuality does. It shakes the very foundation of a hetero-patriarchal family, of property transfer, of the idea of ‘lineage’. It shakes the very ways in which we have come to understand our world. It is seen as dangerous. Another peculiar point is that our film received a ‘U’ certificate whereas ‘Aligarh’ was given an ‘A’. This perhaps also has to do with how documentary films and their audiences are viewed and assumed to be ‘different’ from audiences of feature films. The censor board works by the assumption that they need to review and rate films keeping the everyday person in mind (again assuming that a) people get incensed and influenced by everything they watch, and b) our earlier point on homosexuality destabilising patriarchy).

Trans/gay characters as objects of ridicule and humour continue to be widely accepted because they are relegated to the margins and are not seen as challenging patriarchal authority or notions of established masculinity and femininity.

With the Supreme Court deciding to hear the curative petition on Section 377, do you feel Indian society is finally ready to discuss, understand and even accept queer love?

The first step here is to do away with the illegality involved with consensual acts of sex between anyone. The next would be to provide a safe and empathetic environment for parents and children to be able to speak to each other and seek support. It has been referred to another bench, and we do hope that it goes for arguments. Definitely it is about time that we lay this out in the open and confront our prejudices, and archaic notions of morality and sex.

You’ve said that discussions around Section 377, which focus so much on legislation, lack a certain human element. The focus of your film is love. Do you feel it’s a power strong enough to counter homophobic hate?

Through the film we wanted to add to the conversation on Section 377, and humanise the movement. Homophobia is driven and fuelled by patriarchal notions of acceptable and nonacceptable. To suggest that one film can counter or convert homophobic hate is too big a responsibility and far too simplistic an assumption. It is but one conversation, but we do feel that we must re-appropriate hitherto heterosexual forms of expression.

When we talk about love, it conjures up some stock images – dates, bouquets, heart-shaped cards, marriages, buying a flat together, etc. Did ‘In The Mood For Love’ intend to see where these practices overlapped for queer couples, or where new practices were created by queer couples?

Trying to map overlapping of practices would have suggested that we are trying to posit that queer love is much the ‘same’. It could be the same and different at the same time. Many subjects in the film articulate their shared meanings of love, their expectations from it, their issues with it, and the use of love as a force which binds the community together. We were looking at deeper engagements with the idea of love and not just materialistic manifestations of it.

Valentine’s Day is coming up. Seems like a good day to be in the mood for love! But it’s often criticised for being a capitalist scam. Do you feel it is also a heterosexist scam?

Scam or no scam, what we think makes no difference to how partners see this day. If this day celebrates subversion, then we are all for it. But yes, the commodification of it all does make us uneasy.

All too often, a person’s lack of knowledge or exposure holds them back from accepting LGBT+ couples for who they are. And in a time when queer characters on screen are one-dimensional gags, films like In the Mood for Love are essential to changing the way people perceive the LGBT+ community. How encouraging to know that they’re being viewed widely! It’s not for nothing that we say representation matters.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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