By Suryatapa Mukherjee Sep. 26, 2020
Watching queer characters on screen helped me alleviate some of my queer anxiety. Radha and Sita from Fire, are not the only bisexual characters portrayed on Indian screens. There’s the almost-marriage in Four More Shots Please! and Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety is as queer as they come.
The year 2020 is nowhere near the worst year of my life. That title goes to 2018. I was engaged to my UK college BFF, with my whole future life planned out. I had fabulous Pinterest boards of what our wedding was going to look like; our vibrant cultures would be reflected in our mixed outfits. Yet, 2018 is the year I razed that life to the ground after realising how codependent I was, how the relationship was consumed by my saviour complex, and how I had always let my then-fiancé dictate the terms.
When I started watching Four More Shots Please! – a show that all queer kids who grew up with Bani J on TV manifested with the power of wishful thinking – it was purely meant to be timepass. When Umang (Bani J) got into a relationship with Samara (Lisa Ray), I thought the writers would congratulate themselves for filling the diversity quota and leave the table.
But guess what happens? Umang dives headfirst into “saving” Samara, giving up her own life and her own voice in the process. During their wedding she realises that things will always go Samara’s way. She had made herself an extra in the background of her own relationship, because apna time kabhi nahi aayega. Needless to add, Umang makes a very dramatic exit from the mandap. Still, thank god we are in that part of modernity where bisexual+ characters like Umang tell you that they are bisexual+ (an umbrella term inclusive of all non-monosexualities).
Umang is several queer people I know. Her young, tragic, village love reminds me of girls I grew up with in my hometown on the edge of Kolkata. Girls who grew up and flew abroad to “be themselves” like Umang went away to Mumbai. I have dated Umangs who make out with men who are the ones up against the wall. The queer people who know what they want and go for it. Who have a surprisingly soft centre underneath the tattoos and the leather.
Are there bisexual characters on Indian TV & films?
The more you look for bisexual+ representation on Indian screens, the more you find. In Deepa Mehta’s Fire, Radha wants to come out to her husband. Sita asks her, “How? We don’t even have a word in our language for what we are.” Even in 1996, that really hit home.
Growing up, I had major queer anxiety. Not having the vocabulary to express my sexuality, I’d tell myself, “I can’t be gay because I’m straight.” It’s hilarious now, but it wasn’t so funny back then. Sita has no such anxiety though. She is that girl in my girls’ school who despite multiple warnings from teachers, would go off with girls to the washroom, to the stairwell, to the dormitory when it’s empty. She is not afraid of her pain, but more importantly, she is never afraid of her joy.
Not having the vocabulary to express my sexuality, I’d tell myself, “I can’t be gay because I’m straight.”
Sita had high hopes of romance from her husband after their wedding, but soon realised that his heart is set elsewhere. Instead of accepting her misfortune, Sita’s flitting eyes settle on Radha, who is being punished by her husband for her childlessness with celibacy. He basically says that sex is for procreation and as she has “no eggs,” she deserves no sex. For this woman who didn’t get any action in over a decade, the “jism ki bhookh” is too damn real. The amazing thing about Fire is that you go in expecting a tragedy – I mean it’s an indie queer film set in the ’90s – but it is made of pure joy.
It is similarly joyful when bisexuality+ is incidental and greets you when you least expect it. It has been easier to deal with the lockdown watching the soft dad bods of Pankaj Tripathi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui come together in delicate embraces in Netflix’s Sacred Games 2. Gaitonde sits on Guruji’s – umm, well – lap, like he is sitting on a throne. With the blissful smile of a man high as a kite but also high on love.
This “love story” does not have a happy ending but that’s not because it’s queer – that’s just because this is Sacred Games. However, it is jarring to see “g****” constantly translated as the derogatory term for gay men in the subtitles when that’s not even its meaning. Maybe it is a subtle comment on the internalised queerphobia of masculine men. Yes, in my search for silver linings in our current political and media landscape, I have crossed over from hope to utter delusion. Don’t wake me up.
Discovering my bisexuality through the screen
I have always accepted scraps of myself on screen. Pieces of my story in gay romances and straight ones. There is this common misconception that bisexuality+ is half-straight and half-gay. But I’m queer 24/7. It is such a joy to be seen when I find my full pansexual self looking back at me through the screen. It feels like glitter exploding when I see Parveen Babi’s Khakun seemingly kiss Hema Malini’s Razia Sultana under a plume of feather while caressing her and singing her a lullaby about Dharmendra’s Jamaluddin. If you have a hard time believing your eyes here, the reaction of the girls rowing their boat is a confirmation. One of them absent-mindedly lets go of her oar. Same, girl, same.
I have always accepted scraps of myself on screen. Pieces of my story in gay romances and straight ones.
So Close is probably the first queer film I had ever seen. It was just one of those films that would be played in my boarding school’s hall on Sunday evenings, brought from a CD shop in town. It is the most badass queer feminist revenge drama a child can see. It had straight, bisexual+ and gay women. One of them is a police officer and another an assassin. The climax features a kiss between the two.
In the ensuing commotion, a girl sitting with me stated that they were just very good friends. This is exactly the kind of audience who doesn’t see that Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety is bisexual+ from its very title. This film and especially its song “Tera Yaar Hoon Main” makes that amply clear. In fact, my theory is that Luv Ranjan is probably just a queer guy scared that his bisexual+ lover will leave him to graze on heteronormative pastures, and so he has to make these misogynistic films to warn him against it. You can disagree all you want, I don’t care.
I am on a long, long break from relationships. Like in the cliched ending to Margarita With a Straw, I have decided to focus on myself. Honestly? It has been more of a fun adventure than any relationship I have been in. I’m more of a challenge to figure out than anyone I have chased. You can thank me for the improved dinner table conversations after.
Suryatapa Mukherjee is a news reporter with too many hobbies. You can find her poetry published in 'Hiraeth Erzolirzoli: A Wales - Cameroon Anthology'. She chaired the Media Representation panel on Bi Pride UK 2020.