Commentary, Aug '17
In Kolkata’s Queer Movement: A Recollection of Media Outings – Mid-1984 to Mid-2013 Pawan Dhall remembers his personal queer-story over the years (concluding part)
This four-part series of extracts is being published to mark the fourth birthday of Varta webzine on August 1, 2017. This is the fourth and concluding part (read the first three parts in the May, June and July issues of Varta). The full article will be published this year in an e-book form by Queer Ink, Mumbai, and the extracts are published here with their permission.
Twist in the Adventure
No intertwining comes without its frictions and unmet expectations. Over the years, the volume of news on queer issues in different media formats, multi-edition newspapers, diverse languages, and well beyond the large urban centres has increased. But the reader and media’s rush to consume and report, respectively, has come at the cost of journalistic homework, accuracy and analysis. As a queer activist frequently interviewed by the media, it was after years that I sat down for an old-fashioned face-to-face interview with Sthira Bhattacharya, an intern with Kolkata-based Kindle Magazine, for a story on ‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’ – Who Said it Was Simple, July 2013. Otherwise it has become a case of quick (mis)quotes dime a dozen over the telephone.
Television talk shows sure are ‘talk’ and ‘show’, but the jury is out on how illuminating they are. The depth and quiet inspiration in Owais Khan’s interviews in Ghoomta Aaina, a weekly television programme telecast by Zee TV in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is missing in the best of talk shows that must accommodate a multitude of constituencies in a limited time frame. Participating in one such talk show on February 17, 2012 for NewsX television channel show long distance (peering into a camera . . . without being able to see others present in the studio miles away, straining to hear them and the talk show host) proved to be a rather bruising experience.
I shocked the wits out of my colleagues as I got into a shouting match with political and religious figures on why the Supreme Court should uphold the Delhi High Court reading down of Section 377, Indian Penal Code, and why the queer movement should not stop at just decriminalization but go the whole hog in realizing their human rights in totality. Argumentative as we are as Indians, I wish all parties could have made their points in saner fashion instead of creating a halla (noisy fight) in a nukkad (neighbourhood socializing point). The lesson drawn from this experience is that complexities no longer sit well with television as a medium – you pick up a point or two and bulldoze your way through with these – as in picking up the ball in a rugby match and muscling anyhow your way to the goal.
Creative illustrations – sketches in particular – have disappeared from feature articles in newspapers and magazines. Some of the earliest print media stories mentioned in this article were elevated artistically and imaginatively, compared to the stock photographs deployed in more recent times of two men or women in a semi-nude embrace or peering at each other, usually in a silhouette. If visuals can convey a positive message, then such photographs do not quite serve the purpose.
Of late, though, with more and more queer individuals willing to be visible in the media, illustrating media stories has become easier and it has also done the queer movement a world of good. For, as a leading journalist from Ananda Bazar Patrika remarked in a media advocacy workshop organized by SAATHII in 2007, acquiring informed consent and maintaining confidentiality of socially marginalized people in media stories must be practiced. But camouflaging faces and other photographic gimmickry as substitutes for real people, in the long run, conveys a subliminal message that “queer people must have something bad to hide”. Thus NGOs and support groups must also plan and facilitate media visibility of more and more queer individuals.
What Lies Ahead?
Indian and Kolkata media, in diverse forms, have played a very important role in bringing isolated queer people together and facilitated their mobilization for self-help and a political movement. But what lies ahead? First, there is no substitute for well-planned and sustained media advocacy. And this has to be done in more than the good old fashioned way of cultivating individual media contacts, media releases, conferences and briefs. Rather successfully implemented by SAATHII and several partner agencies in West Bengal and Odisha has been the ‘two-way media advocacy approach’. If a media advocacy meeting is organized, it is not enough to sensitize journalists to queer issues and our expectations of accuracy and empathy from them. It is also important to understand what they need in terms of facts, figures and human interest stories, and the limitations within which they function, to be able to present good stories.
An example of an outcome of such advocacy was the story HIV/AIDS Bill Ko Samsad Mein Pesh Karne Ke Samarthan Mein Dharna (Protest to Demand Presentation of HIV Bill in Parliament) in Jansatta, July 7, 2011, a rare instance of positive coverage by a Hindi publication, which is far behind in awareness about and sensitivity towards queer and related issues compared to English and Bengali media.
Additionally, media advocacy involves providing interesting leads and ideas. While the Delhi High Court ruling of July 2, 2009 reading down Section 377 provided an obvious peg for media coverage and by the end of the day led to most queer activists nursing sore throats from giving endless quotes and sound bites, the filing of a petition in the Supreme Court by 19 parents of queer people across India (four sets of them from Kolkata) in support of the Delhi High Court ruling was a development that had to be carefully conveyed to the media. It resulted in touching and compelling stories like My Son Is Gay, and I’m Proud of Him, Indian Express, February 20, 2011.
In terms of futuristic media formats, social media can be the pat answer, for indeed it can be a great social leveler. From facilitating social and sexual networking even for those not well versed in English to spreading information about human rights violations and mobilizing mass support or a diverse audience and opinions for events, campaigns and writings, social media is quite unparalleled in its speed and attractiveness. Onir’s film I Am (2011), focused on several socially relevant issues but with few takers for production, was a good example of what social media can enable. A large part of the film’s finances were raised through Facebook-based crowd funding (in which I was a small but happy contributor). But the Indian Internet-based media story that began in the late 1990s with e-mails, queer e-forums like Gay Bombay, Gay Calcutta and LGBT-India, queer networking websites like Planet Romeo, blogs, and then on to Facebook and Twitter has its own overkill factor. ‘Education’ and ‘communication’ here, too, can get overwhelmed by instantaneous and inane ‘information’, ‘likes’ and ‘smiley icons’.
Making a mark in the Bollywood or Tollywood film industries, which shape and reflect larger social opinions, would also be important for the Kolkata and Indian queer movements. Unfortunately the commercial diktats would be such that for every burning Fire there would be a derogatory Girl Friend, for every loving My Brother Nikhil and the late Rituparno Ghosh’s Arekti Premer Galpo (Just Another Love Story) there would be an insipid Student of the Year. The answer perhaps lies in picking up the camera and making more and better films of the Piku Bhalo Aachhey kind.
A happy development in this regard has been the growth of queer themed or inclusive film festivals – ‘Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival’, ‘Dialogues’ in Kolkata, ‘Reel Desires’ in Chennai and ‘Siddhartha Gautam Film Festival’, which started off in Kolkata but since 2005 till 2012 was organized in several venues across West Bengal and Odisha. These film festivals have sparked off many queer themed film making initiatives, in different genres and languages . . .
The do-it-yourself mantra should also extend to queer individuals writing in mainstream publications. Kahani Queer India Ki (on the aspirations of small town queer folks) in the July 2011 issue of webzine Infochange India and LGBT Andolan Je Bhabe Mool Strotay (Growth of LGBT Movement) in Ei Samay, December 9, 2012 (on the occasion of Kolkata’s first rainbow carnival organized by Sappho for Equality) were two opportunities to put things in my own words and perspectives as a queer activist. But this is not where my wish list or desire for adventure ends.
For carefully validated, well-rounded, tugging-at-the-heart, and imaginatively illustrated representation of queer issues, my heart still calls out for a revival of publications like Bombay Dost and Pravartak. I also wish a long life to similar publications that still exist – for example, Swakanthe (In Her Own Voice) [now translated as In Our Own Voice to account for trans men’s voices along with those of lesbians and bisexual women] by Sappho for Equality and Swikriti Patrika by Swikriti, both in Kolkata.
The hard work and industry that these initiatives require and the challenges they pose are invaluable in helping us grow as human beings. Whatever be the format of such publications, my bet is that it is these publications that can uniquely articulate so many more queer aspirations that remain to be fulfilled. The cycle of adventure needs to go on. Hope for yesterday once more dies hard.
Main photo credit: Pawan Dhall (photograph is not part of the original article and is courtesy Counsel Club Archives maintained by Varta Trust)