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The Supremely Messed Up Way Bollywood Represents Lesbian Women

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Cinema has the potential to help the cause of the LGBTQ community, as it reaches out to a large and mixed audience and brings them face to face with the trials faced by the community.

However, Bollywood has long chosen to follow the trope of gay/transgender villains in movies like “Mast Kalander” (1981) and “Sangharsh” (1999) which have further perpetuated the ‘abnormal’ label imposed on LGBTQ people.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of lesbian characters in Bollywood, and the disastrous consequences when it tried to include them.

Bollywood’s Early Attempts To Bring Lesbian Love On Screen:

Although lesbian love had been hinted at in movies like “Mandi” and “Razia Sultana” (both in 1983), their representation had been subtle and almost platonic, with the protagonists depicted as close and affectionate towards each other, but not dealing directly with the theme of lesbian love. This was in stark comparison to heterosexual love, which was made abundantly clear through the story arcs and dialogues.

“Razia Sultan” (1983). Image Source: YouTube.

The first openly lesbian couple in Bollywood is considered by many to be Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das’ characters in “Fire” (1996). It portrayed a homosexual relationship between two women, who seek solace in each other, after being shunned and ignored by their husbands. Upon its release, however, “Fire” faced criticism from the LGBTQ community as it gave audiences the impression that homosexuality was a passing phase, and not someone’s inherent sexual orientation. It also sparked a controversy among religious groups since the protagonists had names of Hindu deities (Sita and Radha), and in many cities its screenings were cancelled after violent protests.

Lesbian Love In Contemporary Cinema:

“Men Not Allowed” (2006).

Since then, however, Bollywood has remained uncharacteristically silent on the topic of lesbian love – except a few movies which included lesbian women as a way to sensationalise and cater to the male gaze. Movies like the critically and commercially failing “Girlfriend” (2004) are a huge step back in the discourse of lesbian women. Made purely for viewing pleasure and with sufficient raunchiness, this movie does nothing more than project female homosexuality as a fantasy which is dictated by the dominant male figure instead of his exclusion from it. All of this is to avoid alienating and even angering the male audience by making them feel irrelevant to the movie’s narrative.

Another example is “Men Not Allowed” (2006) which further imprinted on homosexuality being the result of childhood trauma or abuse, and its hyper-sexuality was purely for the sake of pleasing men. It didn’t attract much attention either, and was soon forgotten.

A few more mentions of lesbian love are found in indie movies like “Shaitan” and “Monica” (both 2011), although these only contain subtle hints (like two women sharing a kiss in “Shaitan”, or the homosexuality implied, but not directly portrayed on screen between the two protagonists in “Monica”), and don’t explore the supposed homosexuality of their characters in details.

Commercial Versus Regional Cinema:

In fact, the only authentic representation of lesbian love has been in regional cinemas and productions on a much smaller base, like Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi play “Mitrachi Gostha”, which explores the relationship between two women in a college campus in Pune.

“Randu Penkuttikal” (1978, Malayalam) is often credited as one of the earliest attempts to depict the homosexual relationship between two women; Subrata Sen’s “Nil Nirjane” (2003, Bengali) which besides dealing with themes of premarital sex and single motherhood, also shows a lesbian relationship blossoming during a vacation; and “Sancharram” (2004, Malayalam) portrays two women from different religions in a homosexual relationship.

We Need To Mainstream Lesbian Love

Homosexuality is already seen as an abomination in society. Add to it the threat of a woman making her own choices and not caring for a man’s permission or presence, and lesbian love becomes a nightmare for them.

Another major problem is that most movies on homosexuality are usually made by conventionally cisgender heterosexual directors and actors who are divorced from the reality of exactly how a person from the LGBTQ community feels. The product is thus just as divorced from reality, serving only as a raunchy, mindless piece of work for the straight male to enjoy and consider themselves as saviours with the responsibility of ‘converting’ lesbian women into being straight again.

“Unfreedom” (2015).

To counter these problems, we need to be sensitive and sensible towards the misrepresentation of lesbian women in cinema. Criticism and boycotting of movies which trivialise homosexuality and reduce them to the soft-core porn tropes might discourage this problematic, age-old mentality. Demanding a change in the mentality of the ‘censor’ board which mostly bans or administers ridiculous amounts of cuts to movies depicting homosexuality, for example Raj Amit Kumar’s “Unfreedom” (2015), as well as an increasing presence of queer filmmakers and actors in mainstream cinema, might work towards making acceptance in subsequent pop-culture, easier.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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