Originally published on 9 August 2015.
Not long ago, online retailer Myntra released an advertisement featuring two women dating each other. As they make utterly banal conversation, we are drawn into the minutiae of their lives: kajal, clothes, visiting parents. When I first watched it, I yawned. I was like, oh, two manic pixie dream girls doing the dirty. Except, as it turned out, they weren’t nearly manic enough. Or dirty. Unbathed yes, but not dirty. One girl’s haircut was the exact lovechild of a Posh Bob and a Rachel Cut. This hair was mysteriously called ‘short’ by the girlfriend. I say mysteriously because her hair wasn’t dyke-short, it was straight-girl short.
The ad felt menacing in its blahness.
To my horror, the three-minute video was widely shared and received national congratulation, with one writer even complimenting it as the ‘perfect ad’. It also fulfilled the NGO-world and blogosphere’s requirements of ‘positive’ representation. This is unsurprising, given that it showed exactly the loving upper-caste couple at the implied centre of mainstream queer activism’s fight for legal recognition.
LGBT activism in India has been overtaken by one particular legal fight: an as-yet unsuccessful attempt to repeal Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises ‘unnatural’ sexual acts. Just like the heated debate over why gay marriage has come to be the main queer activist issue in the United States, Indian LGBT activists have fought — for two decades now — over whether this should be the activist plea that eclipses all others. It’s not a fight you are likely to hear about, because these dissenting voices haven’t been permitted much airtime. So while some groups and individuals did complain about the Myntra ad, they were outshouted by those with better institutional access.
I’ll just say it: no representation is better than a whitewash. When it comes to ‘good’ intentions, perked-up FabIndia aesthetics and billowy curtains, nothing is better than something. For all the praises of ‘new’ and ‘path breaking’, the Myntra ad could not exorcise the aesthetic ghost of Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire – a movie that sadly figures prominently in the collective unconscious of lesbians in India. Vikram Johri, one of the columnists celebrating the ad (and channelling the ghost of Fire) even called the two unnamed women in the Myntra ad Radha and Sita, Fire’s protagonists.
Most of the woman-on-woman scenes in Fire are infested with similar curtains and soft-focus lighting. Hair keeps being furtively touched, but the contact lacks electricity. Furniture plays a key role. The toxic stench of earnestness is everywhere. According to these ‘alternative’ representations, the Indian lesbian is as tied to — and tied down by — her bourgeois furniture and domestic life as the heterosexual Charulata.
Like many others, this aesthetic problem is acutely political. It doesn’t really surprise me that a booming e-tail market picked the lesbian’s most boring aesthetic lineage. Myntra has given me a cultural entity I simply can’t identify with: the conciliatory lesbian. Echoing the makers of Fire, the folks behind the Myntra ad want to sever the lesbian from her ‘B’ cinema (or porn film) past. In doing so, they defang the lesbian under the pretence of liberating her. The lesbian of the art film or the Myntra ad is not as menacing to patriarchy as the loose-canon, often unhinged lesbian of sleaze or lesploitation cinema.
Take Girlfriend, a film that released eight years after Fire in 2004, starring Isha Koppikar and Amrita Arora. The film followed a classic lesploitation plot, of a girl obsessively in love with her best friend, who can’t cope with her friend leaving her to marry a man. So she turns murderous. Girlfriend gives us a glimpse of the lesbian without domestic cocooning. This was the lesbian sans NGO approval. She dressed sporty-butch. (Kusum’s look in Tanu weds Manu Returns owes her a great debt). She was assertive or perhaps an outright bully. She extinguished the lives of those around her in protest of a hetero-skewed universe. She was the product of the self-injurious male gaze. She was an abject, pathologised figure with only the power to castrate.
Pop culture seems to have set out two existential paths for the Indian lesbian: adjusted and snooze-worthy or maladjusted and murderous. If I’m forced to pick, though, I choose the second kind: the lesbian who cannot adjust and normalise because she has internalised the dis-ease of living in a patriarchal world. She acts out against it, even if it makes her dysfunctional or insane.
Sadly, pop culture rarely shows us a third kind of lesbian outside of these polarities, who isn’t either entirely pathological or fully pliant. But my youthful years were spent hunting for exactly such a figure. It wasn’t an easy or even a fruitful quest.
This piece is a patchwork of memories about hunting for lesbians on film, and a response to Myntra’s anaemic ad. It’s a quick tour of what-was-not, a polite reminder to the ad’s makers that there are worlds (internal and external) they haven’t dreamed of. It is a refresher course for those who think we’ve been invisible in pop culture until our recent appearance as product placements. It also begins a decade ago, at a time when only remote pockets of the Internet were buzzing with or feeding off lesbians.
* * *
Freud persuasively tells us that a lack drives our internal lives. More, perhaps, than what is present and what we can posses. Today, I still feel the lack of a lush lesbian habitus that is not market-driven and dyadic. Ten years ago, it was a lack of a full offline lesbian world that drove me online. For years my dial-up connection wasn’t fast enough for video porn, but in any case, written porn was a safer bet because it left just enough to the imagination.
So I read. Erotica could be found in unexpected places. The first ever LBT support group I drifted into was in Bangalore. The group used to circulate pdf lesbian novels on an e-list. The rest of the world was reading the Victorian novels of Sarah Waters as ‘literary texts’. This group of dykes was not. Nobody tried to form a reading group – it was understood that the novels were a take-it-home and read-while-fingering-yourself kind of thing. Definitely not for ‘self-betterment’. In fact, nobody even tried to discuss the novels at all.
Even my teenage self knew that lesbian porn was a tainted category cursed so primally with the straight male gaze. By the time I managed to access video porn, I did indeed discover that it was made largely for straight white men. Many lesbians over the years have pointed out that the overwhelming number of straight actresses and male directors make lesbian porn ‘unrealistic’. But my problem with most lesbian porn was almost the exact opposite – it was not unrealistic enough. It couldn’t imagine a different way of doing things.
Truthfully, I never looked for Indian lesbian porn; I didn’t know if it even existed. But by going online, I imagined I could run away from being bound to a specific time and place. Participating in such an online world involved being (thankfully!) cast adrift from the nation. Internet porn felt borderless, but also odourless and colourless in equal measure. I spent a lot of time on nifty.org. I knew what I didn’t like but only had a faint idea of what I liked. Online was a good place to go if you wanted to take and not give. (Aside: I wrote this piece about a month ago and since then, the nation has unexpectedly erupted into a debate about online pornography).
Porn was also where one could impishly ignore the prescriptions of identity. I spent a year watching only bland white gay porn (it was the heydey of Brent Corrigan and dimples were back in). Unlike written erotica, porn was a vast land in which consumption did not constitute approval. In fact, most of the time it meant disapproval or not being turned on. A satisfactory aesthetics of lesbian sex felt terminally evasive.
* * *
In 2008 I started making friends with people who knew a lot more about this stuff than me. A girl I fell in love with had a weakness for a 1991 dyke film calledFried Green Tomatoesstarring Mary Louise Parker. Or she violently hated it. I’ve forgotten which. But I remember discussing it with her. Of course I hadn’t watched it (and still haven’t) but I participated energetically in conversation after reading the Wikipedia page. Such is courtship, a flittery attention span and horniness.
I met a gang of dykes who had just started a rag-tag entity called Pirat Dykes. In an age of NGOs with reports, grants and goals, Pirat Dykes had loose self-definition (pirated lesbian films FTW?). These dykes and I were soon lured into working on a film festival. For seven years and counting, we helped organise the Bangalore Queer Film Festival (BQFF).
We did it because it was electrifying to put together three days of films and watch a lot of the city (well, a sliver of it really) descend upon us. Films were only part of the deal – the rest was sitting around looking at what people were wearing and meeting the city’s other queers. We watched people hate, ignore, fall in love with and sleep through our films. These were the three days a year that the city’s queer life didn’t seem like its usual void.
Putting on the festival meant corresponding with people in far off countries. Through this process I discovered that the most spoken-about lesbian films tended to be the worst ones (most often Fire or the American film Gia). I also discovered films from the global south. Oh, and that this afterellen.com list of the top 50 lesbian films was a conservative sham. I learned that China and Taiwan made the best lesbian films on the planet. Sample this and this, for instance.
But despite all this, mainstream lesbian films were never very satisfying. Our festival simply didn’t get enough feature length films and the ones we got didn’t have enough internal variety.
In the second year of BQFF, we were previewing movies for selection. Everyone else was busy at the time, so I took on this task alone. Sifting through DVD boxes, I glanced at one that I figured was a joke. It was a film set in a German castle, featuring a creepy father who conducts plastic surgery on his angsty daughter’s face to make her resemble his dead wife. Then, the father enlists a hot new nurse to help with these surgeries. And the nurse eases her pain.
The film was called Bandaged. The characters have bizarre accents and the protagonist’s mummified face is always falling off. She literally loses face during sex. There’s no point explaining via the written word what exactly worked about the sex in that film – why it is to this day the best lesbian sex I’ve seen and the best lesbian film I’ve seen. All I can say is that these radical aesthetics of sex were housed in the difference between the term ‘touchy-feely’ and actual touching and feeling. The difference between adjectives and verbs.
I wondered who the genius behind this film could be. And sure enough, I discovered Maria Beatty, a visionary S/M porn director making her feature film debut. Shooting good sex, like everything else, is alchemy and practice. I then watched whichever films of hers I could get my hands on. I realised lesbian porn as a genre wasn’t a complete washout. Beatty’s vision for feminist pornography wasn’t a politically correct depiction of a happy, consent-driven, desiring woman, but an exploration of the psyche’s darkness – of all our need to subjugate other women. Her sharply sexual world led me to something I had never seen before: porn thick with interiority.
* * *
In the last five years, I’ve started looking more carefully at what falls outside the ambit of a queer film festival. One day during on my regular trawls across YouTube, I came across an astounding playlist, then-titled ‘hot lesbo’. It felt like the painstaking work of a straight man (though I have no concrete reason for thinking this) and comprised of videos spread across about five decades in languages spanning Bhojpuri, Urdu, Punjabi, Kannada, Telegu, Tamil, and Hindi. The videos depicted woman-on-woman scenes from a huge variety of films. These women were not the English-medium crowd of Fire or Myntra. They weren’t ‘lesbians’, but the videos spoke in a double-tongue: these women were clearly playacting the role of both a man and a woman. At another level, they were also women romancing each other.
I was beyond excited by my find. I immediately declared to my roommate, without adequate self-consciousness or reverence, that this was my “Watermelon Woman moment.” Lesbian director Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film was about a woman obsessively in search of any archival traces of an obscure black actress merely credited as the Watermelon Woman in 1930s Hollywood movies. Much to her delight Cheryl, the protagonist, discovers that this actress was “in the family”. We are led to this tantalising titbit of lesbian history – no less than an undiscovered black dyke actress. But, fact and fiction aren’t split apart so easily. The film ends with this bittersweet line: “Sometimes you have to create your own history.” Did the Watermelon Woman exist? When most of the world would rather heap invisibility or compliance on you, you write your own history with extra purpose. And you don’t give a shit if it seems improbably stitched together. Or if you have to use YouTube to do it.
The videos featured in this careful collection I found on YouTube were almost more satisfying than self-confessedly ‘lesbian’ films. Women danced with each other just before being let back into the more firmly heterosexual world. These few moments of suspended time and space were a hazy window into another way of being. Mainstream cinema is so often responsible for its own undoing and here was proof.
In Maria Beatty’s sex scenes, these YouTube videos, and life, in general, the lesbian isn’t separable from a broader homosocial or homoerotic world in which the heterosexual woman participates. Neither can she be spliced out of the world of masculinity and placed in a purer refuge. I perhaps once naively used the term ‘lesbian’ defensively as some sort of conceptual stand-in for ‘no men allowed’. Now I know that the word doesn’t airdrop me onto moral high ground. And I am glad for this.
There are, however, still places in the world that screech to a fearful micro standstill when the word lesbian is uttered. The history department I study in is one such place – the term is like an ahistorical kick in the pants; it has a pre-internet zing. So sometimes I still use it knowing full well that it refers not to me, but to stray shards inside me. I can only hope these shards are sharp enough to cut with.