It’s late evening when I catch my mother peering over her spectacles at that new music video featuring Monica Dogra and Anushka Manchanda. You know, the one that GQ India tells us to “watch right now” or that Indian Express says is taking “same-sex love to another level.”
“What are you watching?” I ask.
She pulls her headphones off and squints at me, “Some video that everyone is saying is really hot. I don’t know. I don’t get it.” On the computer screen behind her, Dogra and Manchanda’s highly polished, desaturated limbs are writhing all over each other, in a newly released music video by Mumbai’s DJ Nanok.
But I wonder what actual queer women in India think about it.
“My first impression was surprised,” says Isha, a psychology student from New Delhi, who identifies as bisexual. “It’s not everyday that you see lesbian content, and I thought the intimacy was tastefully presented, without demeaning it to a mere threesome or a one time drunk act.”
Depictions of queer love in India have not been fantastic, so the sheer novelty of “Lay You Down” was certainly compelling for many, including Richa*, a teacher from New Delhi. She said: “We hardly have mainstream representation or mainstream faces doing queer things.”
But several problems immediately stood out for her, such as the fetishizing of the female body, and especially the closing scene of a teary-eyed Monica Dogra. “It’s so 1970s! This whole one tear from the side has been done in so many shitty Bollywood movies. After the wham-bam is over, you tried to jam the social message in, because you realize ‘oh wait, this [relationship] is illegal.’”
But this same closing scene had a very different impact on Saswati, another bisexual woman from Delhi. “As the gravitas grew, I could connect to it on an emotional level, rather than a sexual level,” she says. “It’s talking about a love story, and then you realize it’s not going to happen. It will also break the straight-man’s fantasy for a bit.”
Many have criticised the video for reinforcing the “tragic lesbians” stereotype but Saswati thinks otherwise: “The stereotype is representative of a lot of real life! Not many queer women come from understanding families. Many of their relationships end in heartbreak only because of their circumstances, and not because of any actual problems the couple had.”
Storytelling aside, where representation is concerned, many of the women I spoke to were thrown off. In an interview with GQ, Nanok explained he wanted the video to be about “two people in love.” And he said, “then I thought why can’t it be two girls?”
To Richa, this just doesn’t cut it. “That’s it, that was his ideology? He didn’t give a shit about queer representation! A realistic relationship doesn’t look like that.”
For Harnidh, another queer woman from Mumbai, “Lay You Down” left her feeling uncomfortable. “It always has to be high octane drama, high octane sex! You remember that BuzzFeed video of 20 Things Homosexuals Do Everyday? It’s just people living a normal life. Like that was far more impactful for me.”
And the choice of actors did not escape them either. “They’re the picture-postcard of ‘hot lesbians,’” continues Harnidh. “Like they’re so other-worldly that they’re lesbians, and just unachievable in all ways.”
And there is some danger in depicting lesbian love this way. Richa thinks this could backfire horribly: “If the first impression of two queer women you’re giving to people is a sexualized version, that could really send out the wrong message. The average viewer who has no idea how a lesbian relationship works will think this is all that these women do, because their relationships aren’t as concrete as heterosexual ones.”
But queer feminist Rituparna thinks everyone is taking this video way too seriously. “I found it hot,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Even heterosexual love making scenes aren’t so open. It was very bold for both of them to do these roles, and in this age of censorship!” But that being said, Rituparna added: “I don’t see this video as representative of queer women’s desire, or of lesbian women’s invisibility. Even when Deepika Padukone’s ‘My Choice’ came out, everyone took it too seriously, as if our life is dependent on these videos! Let us not put too much onus on Bollywood, or videos, to change things.”
Alright, so the music video isn’t going to usher in a brand new way of thinking. But my conversations with these women has certainly highlighted several aspects of the video. Indian audiences have had to deal with films like “Girlfriend,” a 2004 flick featuring Isha Koppikar and Amrita Rao, with a lesbian romance that was simply irredeemable. So if “Lay You Down” is sparking more coherent discussions than that, then hey we’ll take it.