YOU COULD BE on Oxford Street, or anywhere else in the world’s large cities where young gay men congregate. But the four immaculately styled men, clearly gay, are sitting in an old Irani café in Mumbai, perched on creaking mahogany chairs atop a linoleum floor, under ceiling fans and old posters from Indian Railways on the walls. Too hot even for mosquitoes, as the street outside slowly curves and shimmers under the weight of sun and car fumes.
We eat toasted chicken sandwiches and custard, odd leftovers from the Raj, in the oppressive heat, and I watch the four men, their gestures immediately familiar. Like us, they have crossed the road, past the auto rickshaws (“tuk-tuks”), the sleeping dogs, the many small pharmacies, the never-ending stream of cars and taxis, to come to the Sassanian Boulangerie.
Like us, they’re in this corner of the city, near the Churchgate Railway Station, to attend the sixth Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. The festival is centered around the Liberty Cinema, a well-preserved dowager from 1947, whose owner had helped welcome us on the opening night. The Liberty has remained a cinema ever since Indian independence; this week it is flying a rainbow flag just down the road from Mumbai’s main hospital.
I had come to Mumbai to speak at Kashish—the Festival takes its name from an Urdu term meaning attraction or allurement—one of a number of film festivals in Asia. Such festivals are important in the development of queer communities, offering as they do both community and privacy. Unlike at a demonstration one can retreat into the darkness of a cinema knowing one is there with others who share an aspect of one’s life that one might not want to reveal in broad daylight. Nor was the audience exclusively GLBT: a number of attendees, particularly middle-aged women, were there to expand their understanding of the various communities depicted.
While homosexuality remains illegal in India, there is a large and visible group who are openly gay or transgender, and many more who may not have adopted a Western-style identity but live out various forms of departure from society’s sexual and gender orthodoxy. Best known outside India are hijra, a term that describes a range of male-to-female transgenders and transvestites, often identified as a “third gender,” a term used by the Supreme Court when it ruled last year for legal recognition of gender
Kashish sees itself as part of a global queer world, showing 180 films from forty countries over four days, fewer than twenty percent of them Indian. This year the emphasis was on Australia, and Saturday night’s major screening was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the first screening of that film in India.
Ironically, the three drag queens on stage at the opening ceremony could have walked straight off the set of Priscilla; watching them was like going back thirty years to the drag bars of Oxford Street. But, of course, social change is never linear. While there are echoes of the past, the opening of Kashish was taking place in a very different time and place. The references might seem familiar, even hackneyed, but their meaning for this audience was specific to their cultural experience.
The queer world I saw in Mumbai was both familiar and alien, but because the language of the festival was predominantly English, and the various formal discussions were led by cosmopolitan Indians at home in several languages, there was a strange disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality. Several locals complained to me that Westerners come to Mumbai looking for a queer world, complete with bars, saunas, and gay businesses, and complain when they don’t find them. But these same locals use a global language to describe themselves, and were very aware of the latest developments in GLBT rights, often referring to the Irish vote for same-sex marriage. The impact of the Net means that men seeking sex with other men now use their smartphones in Mumbai as their counterparts would in Sydney or San Francisco.
The varieties of sexuality and gender in India complicate the work of the Humsafar Trust, the major HIV outreach organization in Maharashtra State, but also the largest organization working for sexual and gender diversity. Touching all bases, the Trust website identifies itself as a community organization of “self-identified Gay men, MSM, Transgenders, Hijras and LBT persons.” The Trust has become a major service delivery organization, reaching out to thousands of people across greater Mumbai, and receiving considerable international funding.
There’s a wide range of community organizations in India and a flourishing publishing world, as is clear from a recent anthology titled Out!, published by the energetic Shobhna Kumar, who runs Queer Ink, a publishing and bookstore enterprise. Shobhna was one of the few lesbians visible at Kashish. Despite careful programming, very few women were present; the speakers at the festival were almost entirely male and reflected the persistent realities of India more than the rhetoric of LGBT inclusiveness.
Five years ago, the Delhi High Court seemed to mark a new step in Indian acceptance of homosexuality when it repealed the colonial era’s Section 377, which outlawed sexual acts “against the order of nature,” generally understood to refer to male homosexuality. But in 2013 this ruling was overturned by India’s Supreme Court, and the current government seems unwilling to make legislative changes. The Court decision was a short-term blow; in the longer run it has opened up discussion around sexuality that promises to bring about change.
As in other former British colonies, there is a reluctance to blame imperialism for the law and all that it symbolizes. I find this stance increasingly unconvincing: after sixty years of independence, why is the Indian government unwilling to take responsibility for retaining this legacy of colonialism? The former colonial powers of Europe have all accepted GLBT equality even as many African, Asian, and Caribbean countries with a colonial legacy stubbornly preserve some of the worst aspects of colonial rule.
The Western concept of gay liberation, now morphed into the far more respectable call for “LGBTI rights,” is based upon a strong assumption of individualism, of the right of an individual to assert whatever sexual or gender identity he or she wishes. This assertion is possible in societies where family ties are declining and the state is expected to provide some guarantee of care as we become sick, feeble, and isolated.
India, however, remains a society in which the extended family is central, and negotiating one’s sexuality with one’s biological family is the central preoccupation for most people. As Parmesh Shahani wrote in his book Gay Bombay (2008): “Insofar as one’s primary community is concerned, the blood family still rules the roost.” One of the organizers of the festival told me that whenever his parents came to visit, his partner left to stay with his biological family.
Queer India exemplifies all the contradictions and delights of hybridity and pastiche common to contemporary cultural theory. (It’s no accident that postcolonial theory is largely the product of expatriate Indian intellectuals.) Thus a cartoon in the gay publication Bombay Dost can simultaneously reflect family pressures and invoke Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Oscar Wilde as gay heroes.
Arranged marriages are the norm for most Indians, even if there is more ability for progeny to have a say. Arranged marriages, moreover, reinforce class and caste lines: in the Sunday Times of India the two pages of ads for “matrimonials” begin with “caste,” though other sections do refer to language and religion. Could an Indian way for gay liberation lie in arranged same-sex marriages? The idea might seem playful, but one such advertisement was posted in May, seeking a “well-placed, animal-loving, vegetarian groom for my son.” The woman who placed this post is the mother of a gay rights activist, and the ad caused some consternation among readers.
Of course, the people behind Kashish are very aware of the gaps between the cool, middle-class, predominantly English-speaking audiences at the festival and the majority of Indians. But on the closing night, with its transgender dance troupe and the Rainbow Choir (largely male) singing a mixture of Indian and civil rights songs, it was clear that they were reaching out beyond the cosmopolitan educated elite who are known internationally.
On the planes back from Mumbai, I watched four hours of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and, as is my wont at 30,000 feet in the air, sniffled through most of it. Clichéd as these films are, they sum up the reality that what is happening in India today is a glorious entanglement of the local and the global. As the mythologist and author Devdutt Pattanaik remarked at Kashish: “There are events in life that we qualify as climax or start, end or beginning, tragedy or comedy. But life just keeps moving ahead. We are just one act in a never ending play on an eternal stage giving moments meaning.”
Dennis Altman’s most recent book is The End of the Homosexual? (2013).