On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a plea to review the contentious Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises non-heterosexual sex. Hearing a plea filed by five persons, the three-judge Bench headed by the Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra said people exercising choice cannot live in fear of the law. The petitioners had specifically claimed that they lived in fear of police harassment because of the law. The court also asked the government to file its response to the writ petition, and said: “natural act” stated in the law, which tries to punish “unnatural sexual acts”, cannot be a constant.
Naturally, there is hope in the LGBTQ community and allies that the draconian, Victorian law will soon be rendered toothless. The changing public opinion against the law was reflected in the August 2017 judgment of the Supreme Court upholding the right to privacy. The nine-judge Bench had said, “The protection of sexual orientation lie at the core of the fundamental rights guaranteed by Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution.” On Monday, the court seemed to echo an US judgment of 2015 when it said, “The determination of the order of nature is not a constant phenomenon. Societal morality changes from age to age.”
While the fight against a law might soon be successful, there is likely to be a long struggle ahead — for widespread social acceptance. Two of the most sensitive Bollywood films to depict same-sex love, Onir’s My Brother... Nikhil (2005) and Rituparno Ghosh’s Chitrangada (2012), focus not only on the larger society but the families of the non-heterosexual characters, and how they negotiate taboos associated with same-sex love. It is no surprise that both the directors open about their own sexuality. Both have explored themes of gender in their other films as well; Ghosh — who died in 2013 — was particularly and self-consciously subversive of Bengali bhadralok norms, happily cross-dressing, and wearing make-up and jewellery.
Journalist and writer Parmesh Shahani has argued in his book, Gay Bombay: Globalisation, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India, that unlike Deepa Mehta’s celebration of lesbian love, Fire (1996), which encountered official censorship and wide protests, My Brother... Nikhil — released merely six years later — “came and went without much of a hullabaloo” as unlike Mehta’s film, it did not threaten the family structure. In Mehta’s film, two bored housewives, played by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, find sexual fulfillment and companionship in each other, and abandon their husbands. Shahani writes, “Like the mainstream blockbuster Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge... My Brother... Nikhil implied that the child’s happiness is not complete unless his or her parents accept him completely.”
Champion swimmer Nikhil, played by Sanjay Suri in a career-defining role, does not dump his boyfriend, Nigel (Purab Kohli), but find parental acceptance. In Chitrangada, dancer and choreographer, Rudra, played sensitively by Ghosh, struggles against his parents’ censure all through the film, finding acceptance towards the end, when he goes under the knife to change his gender. Seeking love and acceptance from the family could be viewed in some cases as a succumbing to heterosexual formula, and in fact, a dilution of individual choice that the LGBTQ movement uphold. Yet, a closer reading of the films would suggest that seeking support from the family does not necessarily become an abdication.
To begin with, both the films grapple with issues other than LGBTQ rights. My Brother... Nikhil, inspired by the life of swimmer Dominic d’Souza, is also an AIDS narrative, and the struggle of an HIV-positive person in India in the Eighties and Nineties. In Chitrangada, inspired by the Mahabharata myth and Tagore’s dance drama, Rudra tells his troupe: “Gender is a choice”, and then goes on to transform theory into practice by undergoing a sex-change procedure. In both cases, the protagonists, abandoned by friend and lovers, finally find support in the family. (Nikhil’s sister Anamika, played by Juhi Chawla, stands by him like a rock.) Of course, the issue here is in no way simplistic, and nor are the experiences of the protagonists here all pervasive. However, acceptance and support are an antidote against loneliness. Like any other movement, strategies change over time and space.