“She scissored the curls away but I remember this sensation very vividly – it was not like she was cutting hair, it was as if I had a pair of wings beneath my shoulder-blades, that the flesh had all grown over, and she was slicing free.” – Sarah Waters
The Supreme Court of India in its pioneering judgment in 2014 recognized the third gender along with the male and female. Technically this prevents individuals and organisations from discriminating against transgender people. But the reality is different. A judicial ruling is of little help if people do not change their thinking and their attitude towards these people.
The status of the LGBTQ community in India is still ambiguous; their identity muddled. Heteronormative society tries to avoid them as much as possible and basically, intentionally or unintentionally, ignores their very existence by pushing them to the background. Our conditioning is such that the only ways in which we are used to seeing or thinking about transgender people is of them begging at a traffic signal or being made fun of.
The Indian entertainment industry has been no different. Barring a few films and plays, the majority has represented the community as an aberration, not fit to be understood and hence not deserving of an equal standing with the rest of society; and this has done more damage than good to the image of an already marginalised and silenced community, by simply making queer characters a subject of ridicule.
In very few stories in films and on stage, do we see an attempt to go beyond stereotypes and understand the world of the third gender. One such example is the play, “Seven Steps Around The Fire”, by Mahesh Dattani. In this play he weaves the story of the murder of Kamala, a beautiful eunuch who dares to marry the son of a politician. The play highlights the deplorable conditions of transgender people in India and the fate that awaits them if they aspire to step out of the filthy margins their life is relegated to. In “Dreams of Taleem”, Sunil Shanbag sensitively portrays the isolation felt by its gay protagonists. Some of the other directors and playwrights who have successfully potrayed the LGBTQ issues on stage have been Mahesh Elkunchwar, Tripurari Sharma, Lilitte Dubey (again in a Mahesh Dattani play “On A Muggy Night In Mumbai”), Happy Ranajit (“A Straight Proposal”) and some others.
A recent film in which the protagonist meets an ignominious end is Hansal Mehta’s “Aligarh”. Based on the life of Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras who taught Marathi at Aligarh Muslim University, and was persecuted and victimized for his sexual orientation, the film is a nuanced exploration of what it means to be homosexual in a largely homophobic country. Kalpana Lajmi’s “Darmiyaan”, also narrates a heart breaking story of an aging film actress, who hides the true identity of her son when she realises that her son is an ‘eunuch’. There are couple of other films like Amol Palekar’s Daayra or Pooja Bhatt’s “Tamanna” which portrayed the community sensitively addressing the gender stereotypes. On the contrary, regional films in India have been quite progressive in dealing with the issues. Films like Rituparno Ghosh’s “Chitrangada”, “Memories in March” and “Arekti Premer Golpo” (just another love story) can be hailed for highlighting various aspects of gender and sexual identity. B S Lingadevaru’s “Naanu Avanalla”, Ligy J. Pullappally’s “Sanchharam”, Ravi Jadhav’s “Natrang” are some of the notable films in this direction.
However, not only are plays and films that deal with the issue of LGBTQ rights few and far between, the reception of such movies mostly always court controversy. “Aligarh” was given an adult certification by the censor board citing the reason that it was not appropriate for all kinds of audiences. Who can forget the rampage by Shiv Sena after the movie “Fire” was released, even though the censor board had let it pass without any cuts? And many other movies such as “My Brother Nikhil”, “Bombay Talkies”, “Shabnam Mausi”, or “Tamanna” that deal with sexuality and its expressions, have hardly got enough attention for them to spread much awareness about the issue. These are a beginning though.
The play highlights homosexuality and transgender issues in the time of Mahabharata with a story which can be related to even in today’s modern times. But above all, it tells a human story of Yuvanashva, a childless king, who accidentally drinks a magic potion meant to make his queens pregnant and gives birth to a son. Much like the issues of LGBTQ community faces today, Yuvanashva struggle to understand his own gender role, with his desire to be accepted for what he is, and his efforts to break free of the shackles of his identity.
Any play, film or art form has the potential to become an agent of social change. They bring forward the issue and open minds while entertaining. And if the voices in those creative expressions belong to the very people who it is basically meant for, then those expressions truly come alive in a performance. “Flesh” has those voices. You will hear them – the dreams, the aspirations, the desire to be mainstreamed – loud and clear. And we hope that it will open your mind to the ‘unknown’ and help you make room for all – man, woman and everything in between.
“Flesh” will be staged on January 14, 2017, 7PM at LTG Auditorium, Copernicus Marg, New Delhi.
Featured Image courtesy of Kaushik Bose.