Now that we have the Section 377 judgement from the Supreme Court, the queer communities in India are looking for a roadmap to move ahead. But we’re now clearly divided into two camps – one that was invested in activism and clearly wanted to decriminalize the very act of simply existing, and another that’s fully lost in parties, dating apps, hook-ups and has nothing to do with activism.
There are queer people who may not even know where to find another queer person, and there’s another that can swipe right or left and go about with its life casually. How then, do we move ahead?
While these larger questions loom upon us, we can’t ignore the work to be done within the queer communities in bridging all the gaps and divides. There’s the personal-political conflict; the right versus left battle; there, of course, is a class divide and a caste divide; mental health differences and so much more. These issues are vital, but will take a lot of dialogue, engagement and investment from all the parties involved to bring about any change or improvement at all.
Perhaps the quickest and easiest option is to choose the security or certainty offered by symbolism. The right to marry the person one loves somehow seems like the embodiment of social acceptance and equal existence. Marriage seems like victory, a fairytale ending that we were looking for. But how far is this from the truth?
The documentary film Gay India Matrimony directed by well-known Kolkata-based queer filmmaker Debalina and produced by Films Division in 2019 offers some answers and throws up many more questions.
The film was shot over five years from the time the Supreme Court of India re-criminalized the queer communities in 2013 till the time that decision was reversed in 2018 and the court apologized for having treated a section of society as second-class citizens. The film discusses pertinent and serious questions with humour and light heartedness. Three queer individuals set out on a journey to find a possible partner to be wedded to legally, and through this quest unveil the realities of the queer communities and society at large.
For once I was relieved and happy to see real queer people being represented in cinema. Apart for appropriation / misappropriation and all the junk that comes out in the name of queer representation in cinema today, I’m literally tired of watching a singular, toxic masculine representation of gay men. The washboard abs, muscular, jugular, gym built, upper class men are the only men who make love and find space on the cinema scene. The blatant erasure of effeminate, gender fluid men from these stories is appalling.
How many gay men become alienated in this process? How many gay men are fed with body dysmorphia because of this? It’s upsetting sometimes to just watch this unfold before one’s eyes. While watching Debalina’s work, this was the first thing that came to my mind. I felt at home, it felt like my story was being told and I was being represented!
With simple handheld cameras, often jerky frames, the film technically brings the reality, the instability and complexity in the lives of the seemingly simplistic queer communities. The close-ups, and conversations often make the discussions very intimate. Interspersed with images from the wedding business, the capitalistic, patriarchal aesthetic of the wedding scenes in India, visually, the film holds a mirror to the audience at large. I’d confidently say that this film’s a befitting reply to the cringy Netflix series Indian Matchmaking released in 2020.
Though told from queer perspectives, the film makes one look at the structure of the institution of marriage itself with a critical eye. The camera watches the society, the camera watches the storyteller too, and the camera looks away, bringing about a harmonious balance in the narrative.
While one’s deeply engaged with the views expressed by professors who question the oppressive, patriarchal structure of marriage itself, one also engages with queer couples who celebrate marriage and its oppressive symbols by negotiating new meanings for them. There are couples who vehemently oppose the idea of marriage but still need the symbolic rings to cherish their love for one another. There are many who have no opinion about marriage. There are also a few who strongly want the symbolic victory that marriage seems to be.
Without taking any sides the film opens up all the windows and allows the viewer to look at the idea of marriage from various vantage points and gain a holistic understanding of the issue. It was a treat to watch the lively people sitting in a circle in what seemed like a drop-in centre bringing in so many points of view to the discussion, each with their own insight and lived experience.
For me, however, the most interesting aspect was the perspective of the other stakeholders – the mothers, family members, friends, and also the marriage registration agents who have no personal stake in the matter but would hover around to try and play an important role if there ever was a queer marriage on cards. Even as I watched their individual bytes, I was left wondering how would they have reacted to the same questions sans the movie cameras. Would they have shown the same amount of maturity, dignity and sensitivity towards queer people?
To be honest, everyone knows that the upper class and privileged members of the queer communities are the most eager to bring marriage into the equation. For the lesser privileged, existential questions still loom at large, survival continues to be a daily struggle, self-acceptance seems impossible, and finding even dignity and love seems impossible. Marriage to them would be quite a utopian concept.
When the wedding agents in the film club together gay, trans and people living with HIV in a new column of ‘abnormal’ clients, they bring to light the attitude of the society that we live in. When the agents claim that they have nothing against queer people, they also can be seen struggling with the questions of physical attraction and sexual preferences. Even with their ignorant and dismissive attitudes, these key players of the wedding economy tread on careful waters because they know that if queer marriages were to be legalized in India, they’d surely want a cut from the weddings. One of the mothers in the film can also be seen struggling between acceptance and shame if her child were to have a queer wedding in their own home and locality.
Even while one clearly understands how the notion of marriage itself is oppressive and one’s still struggling with the vocabulary and semiotic connotations that words carry, when one listens to the arguments made by the sister and brother-in-law of one of the three central queer characters of the film, one can’t help but cringe at their regressive views and attitudes. It’s obvious how one would feel the need to rebel against these gatekeepers of society with a splash of gay weddings and celebrations. But as Prof. Paromita Chakraborty from Jadavpur University asks, would that be the only way? Is there no other way to claim the spaces and narratives? This film leaves one with a lot to ponder on.
When I finished watching the film, I was left with a lot of questions. I just had to make peace with the reality that these complex questions that fall at the intersection of cultural upbringing, conditioning and economy can’t have answers in black and white. The greys matter! There can be no singular answer or escape to these questions, just like the complex mix of textures and realities that the queer communities are comprised of.
While the road ahead for the queer movements will organically unfold, as I write this, my state Karnataka is witness to unprecedented incidents of Islamophobia and religious hate. I’m trying to make sense of it all and trying to find ways of coping with what the future might bring. Marriage rights seem more like a mirage right now, and even if they’re brought to the table, there are so many questions that’ll linger.
Why do we as queer communities need space in the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955? Won’t a civil union or an amended Special Marriage Act, 1954 not suffice? With all the alienation and exclusions that we face, do we still identify as Hindu and by doing so enable the Varna system that divides us on the lines of caste? Will a Brahmin priest perform a wedding ceremony for a queer couple? How will the majoritarian society and polity react to queer marriage? There’s a whirlpool of such questions that’ll keep spiraling in my conscience.
The most important thing though, is to respect every opinion from within the queer communities. We must work with empathy and not impose our ideas or patronize others with our belief systems. If fellow members from the community want to marry, we must fight for their right to do so. We need the right to legally have access to marriage so that we can make an informed choice of perhaps rejecting it eventually. We can only dismantle a structure after gaining access to it.
I’m grateful to Debalina and her team for making such an insightful film. I hope people watch this film and take the dialogue further and that it leads to a lot of churning. I also hope more such films are made.
Gay India Matrimony was first screened at the ‘13th Dialogues: Calcutta International LGBTQIA+ Film & Video Festival’ in November 2019. After a few more shows in 2019 and 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to the screenings. The film started receiving much deserved exposure from the later part of 2021. The most recent screenings have been at ‘Beyond Borders: A Feminist Film Festival’ organized by Jagori and Kriti Film Club in Delhi on November 30, 2021; ‘Queer Political Assemblages 2.0 – Queer Homing Desire’ conference organized by the Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata on March 7-8, 2022; and ‘Stories from India (Long Documentary) Section’ of the ‘8th Kolkata People’s Film Festival’, March 2022 – Editor.
About the main illustration: Poster of the film Gay India Matrimony. Artwork credit: Abhro Banerjee