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Fire, Dor, and Kari: Who Decides if a Work is Queer?

When people come to know I'm an Indian feminist (from India even! That, somehow, is always an extra bonus), after a quick round of, "What do you think about child marriage/sex-selective abortions/sati," inevitably the question of the film Fire comes up. Hilariously, people are offended that I don't quite have an opinion or any interest in assessing whether Fire is "really" queer or it's simply a story about loneliness (anyone who has ever been a token feminist knows what a blasphemy it is to not have an opinion on the 0.3 topics your opinion is demanded on), and that I'd rather talk about the events the film spurred on.

The poster for Fire. It features the two main women smiling and laughing next to one another.Fire was cleared by the Indian Film Censor Board but was banned by religious right-wing groups because the film had two women having sex with each other. The justification was that "Indian women don't do these types of things," which led many queer (and otherwise) feminists to protest with placards that read "Indian and lesbian"—as if this co-existence had to necessairily be spelled out. This is no small feat, especially not in the late '90s, a full decade before most overt public action taken on the Section 377 debacle, and as someone who has personal stakes in the queer movement brewing in this country, it's infinitely reassuring to see that moment alive in national memory. However, Fire also comes with another memorable event—Bal Thackeray, the leader of the right-wing Shiv Sena party, asked Deepa Mehta to change the names of the two protagonists to Muslim names for the ban to be lifted. Luckily for us, Deepa Mehta stood her ground and the Queer/Feminist/Left movements lauded themselves for being so progressive. A frame was thus born: seeing the feminist queer movement as inherently radical. (A note: The films and text I've chosen are not by any means a representation of the whole movement—for this particular column I haven't looked at any feminist gay films for instance, so do consider these examples as individual texts rather than placemats for a whole population.)

The poster for Dor. It is bright, with the face a smiling woman with a beautiful veil in the center. In the upper left corner is a man's face, looking away from the camera but optimistic. In the bottom right is another woman's face. She is not wearing a veil and has a troubled expression.Moving away from the "revolution" every feminist queer film supposedly brings in its wake, let me talk to you about Dor for a bit. Early in 2006, Dor was critically acclaimed as a masterpiece in storytelling, joining the lives of two women who, save for an accidental death (of one of their husbands), would have never met each other. We meet Meera and Zeenat with their husbands in the opening scenes, where both men are immigrating as (possibly) menial laborers of some sort to a Saudi Arabian company, and for most of the remaining the narrative they slither away into oblivion. Meera is widowed, and her world suddenly shrinks as she is secluded in certain parts of the huge mansion—securely putting to rest the idea that only Muslim people practice seclusion and/or veiling. Here enters Zeenat, she needs Meera to sign papers that will save her husband, who roomed with Meera's husband, and whom the Saudi government have convicted of the murder. Usually confident and outspoken, Zeenat is at a loss. Her confidence crumbles and what ensues is a long, drawn-out conversation between them, and before you know it, they are talking about their lives, loves, hopes and fears; these  conversations that happen on thresholds of temples, in the middle of deserts, hidden behind sweet shops. There is no reiteration of their identities as married women, for in a world where everyone is assumed to be straight till proven guilty, their (distant) marriages make for a strategic kind of essentialism, they question the very structures of marriage, of how their identities as wives define their lives—questions they otherwise wouldn't have been allowed to ask.

Meera eventually runs away from her home, and the two women must learn to be around each other to continue their tenuous relationship. Dor re-writes the classic Bollywood scene of two lovers (usually a heterosexual couple) running away to untold horizons on the ultimate symbol of modernity (a train, of course!); only there is no proclamation of love or passion, they only smile as the train takes off. We don't know what happens to Zeenat's marriage, or how Meera and Zeenat will live together. Most people I've spoken to don't see Dor as a queer film, but simply as a good feminist film that pushes ideas of seclusion, consent, and mobility. It's not a coincidence that Dor isn't legitimized as a queer film, but more on this later.

The cover of Kari. It features a graphic, black and white portrait of a woman with short hair against a red background. She has a sly look in her eyes.Kari by Amruta Patil is a graphic novel set in a nameless, faceless city "smog city" in India (but its structuring seems suspiciously close to Bombay, although the only social hierarchies present are that of gender, sexuality, and class). Kari, an ad copywriter, and her girlfriend Ruth attempt suicide but survive (the art leading to this particular scene is gorgeous). The story that ensues is of Kari grieving and trying to come to terms with the loss of friendship and the void she feels (her queerness doesn't stand out), and yet, just as subtly, we see Kari on long-distance, static-y phone calls with her parents who don't quite know how to deal with their daughter's "differences." In a sumptuous chapter (somehow no other adjective fits) about fruits, Kari muses, "I play with fruit that the girls and I are too broke to buy. Avocado, kiwi, mangosteen. There are some fruits you do not want to venture into alone. A peach, for one, creature of texture and smell, sings like a siren. A fruit that lingers on your fingertips with unfruitlike insistence, fuzzy like the down on a pretty jaw. Figs are dark creatures too, skins purple as loving bruises. A fig is one hundred percent debauched. Lush as a smashed mouth. There, I said it again: Lush." It's probably my favorite part in the whole book (save for the Frida Kahloesque opening image, which is magic of another kind altogether). This is the moment Kari spells out her desires, and hints that there is something about the term "lesbian" that doesn't quite fit. Later in the book, she says how she doesn't use the word because she doesn't see herself as a lesbian—and to Patil's credit, never once are we ever in a position to judge if Kari is queer or not. Sadly, Kari's reception firmly boxes the book as a "lesbian/queer graphic novel," even within progressive feminist circles.

What makes for a "queer feminist" text? Does one have to have intercourse/date/be romantically with other queer people to be "really" queer? (What does that even mean?). While there is much to celebrate, the queer movement comes with its own hierarchies and biases—elitism, casteism, communalism are only the tip of this iceberg—there is definitely a frame here, of a certain kind of queerness that speaks for the "rest", so films and books like Kari and Fire will immediately be legitimized as queer, Dor as a film won't make the mark because it doesn't center the lives of English-speaking, urban city-dwelling people, given a certain lingo employed when one speaks of sexuality (even when this kind of exploration of sexuality is supposed to "push boundaries").  What does that say about a movement whose people, in vast majorities, do not come from cities? If one is talking about an entire restructuring of our communities and society—and as queers, as feminists this is exactly what we work toward—how open are we to look at our own shortcomings? A decade ago, Deepa Mehta took a stand against communal prejudice by refusing to change her Hindu protagonists to Muslims—today many "queer places" in Bombay bar hijra women from entering, this year's Queer Pride Parade saw a debate within its members about "how to be moderately queer" (so as not to warrant too much attention). If we take pride in that moment of radical solidarity, we owe it to ourselves to also look at these slippages, in and out of art. It's not a surprise the performance arts, or a slew of work delineates "standards of queerness" in one way or another, the question is how do we move away from this "revolution" and work toward building one that doesn't guarantee us freedom at the cost of someone else.

Previously: Who Speaks in the Inner Courtyard?, Avenging Women: The Goddess Trope

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Comments

14 comments have been made. Post a comment.

art, language queerness etc

HIIII!! I left a comment on your first post and haven't since but I've been following the series closely and you have yet to disappoint! Thanks for writing this!
This is probably my favorite post so far.
I remember very vaguely the controversies over Fire (I was a kid when it released) so when I saw it a few years back, it left me with mixed feelings. On one hand it's such a watershed moment in Indian queer history and yet I felt that the movie somehow implied that queerness in women results from denied heterosexual union. And yet it seems to me another simplistic reading which presupposes the innateness of queerness....I don't know..I'm confused..

I haven't seen Dor but I have seen the movie, Perumarakaalam, of which Dor was a rough remake. Going by what you have observed here, Dor's open ending seems very different from that of Perumarakaalam in which the conjugal bond of the Razia and her husband is re-affirmed at the end. I did feel that it was a feminist movie (and thankfully does not glorify the Tamil Brahmin orthodoxy which comes across as claustrophobic here) but the film loses out be minimalizing if not erasing the queer context. The exchanges between the two women are not many and it mostly focuses on the struggle of the Razia against the Brahmins (there are not a lot of movies in Malayalam which have Brahmins or the community as villains). I'll be sure to check out Dor. It seems refreshing.

I love Kari. I remember reading some years back and it was the first piece of Indian queer literature I read and it was quite exhilarating to read something which was different from the overwhelmingly heterosexual 'new canon'. I do think Kari is firmly in that canon now, like you said, as the token queer text.....But should identifying oneself/one's text as politically queer need to be a bad thing (I know the language sounds juvenile please forgive; hope I somehow convey what I mean)? That a decidedly queer political stand may even be desirable in some cases? Just wondering out aloud....

And I completely agree with you regarding the queer movement privileging certain people and bodies over others just as the unspoken hierarchy within queer art. Books like Kari will have a ready audience within selected circles and is easier to publicize or maybe even accept. I had read your piece on queerness and language earlier and it made me think a lot within contexts of my own language (Malayalam) and how queerness figures/does not figure within it. Of course, we have Kamala Surraiya :) but I cannot think of anyone else (probably my own limited knowledge) in literature. Coming back to what I was saying, Kari and its reception seems increasingly probable but how often do we hear of a book of 'queer' stories from a regional writer (especially a non-Hindi writer) writing from an economically or socially disadvantaged position receive that kind of acclaim and popularity??? Equally frightening seems to be the erasure of "undesired" people from queer visibility (as perceived by the mainstream media).....I haven't participated in queer movements or spaces directly yet but there seems to be many accounts (like this one) which talk about how the larger queer movement wants a "respectable" face to project to the public.....I know I'm drawing binaries (mainstream, public etc) but I cannot think of other words....

<<<<<<<<Does one have to have intercourse/date/be romantically with other queer people to be “really” queer? (What does that even mean?>>>>>>>>>>>I love this line. Another thing I've been thinking about a lot lately...A test of queerness to separate us all haha.

Also have you read Abha Dawesar's 'Babyji' and Parvati Sharma's 'The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love'? Both are on my queue but haven't got around to reading them yet. I'm sorry if I sound too pesky. Just curious to know your thoughts!

Sorry for this long ramble of a post! Lots of love and wishes from Delhi!

Queerness involving Hot Women is Hot!!!!!!

No one should be able to decide if a work is queer or not. The real low down is that if two women are hot or lipstick Lesbians, to true guy who still have their nuts, that's hot. You should be able to love who or what you want even it's a Teddy Bear who silently screams and no one hears them.

Clarify please

CriticXtreme, 

Your comment is a wee insensitive and also not related to what we're speaking about here. This post was about legitimised and accepted norms of queer representation, not the judgements people makes about others. So please clarify before I get further creeped out by your comment.  

Perumarakaalam and Dor

It would be interesting to compare Perumarakaalam with Dor wherein the former is set in the background of Tamil Brahmin orthodoxy (so southern India) and the latter set in Himachal (if I remember correctly Gul Panag's character is from there) and Rajasthan. Caste, religion and the status of women differ so differently in all three geographical regions because of historical, economic and other reasons. In Tamil Nadu because of the anti-caste struggle before and after Independence, Brahmin dominance is frequently challenged. In Kerala, upper castes have been less able to assert open dominance due to the spread of communism in the state and this is perhaps reflected in art forms, including film. Himachal Pradesh, in contradiction with other northern states is prone to lower incidences of overt or covert caste violence whereas this is not true in Rajasthan. Similarly the status of women (I'm not claiming anything about feminist movement here) in Tamil Nadu, Himachal and Kerala has been much better for various reasons until more recently. The recent Census shows not a worsening average sex ratio in the country but also in states like Himachal and Tamil Nadu which were much higher than the national average. These geographical differences however cannot be attributed to geographical determinism but point to the diverse political, economic and social histories of these regions.

With respect to queer literature in India, I'd be interested in recommendations as well. I recently read Our Lives, Our Words: Telling Aravani Stories (about hijras or aravanis, as they are called in Tamil Nadu)

kerala and cinema

In Kerala, upper castes have been less able to assert open dominance due to the spread of communism in the state and this is perhaps reflected in art forms, including film.

I have to disagree here. From my lived experience and other accounts I think it's safe to say that while the government-initiated programs for women and Dalits did go a long way in bringing about some kind of progress, after a certain point "progressiveness" underwent institutionalization especially under government schemes, almost like a kind of tokenization. Kerala society was incredibly hierarchical in pre-communist times (I do not intend to draw strict divisions) even as it was called matriarchal, the caste and gender hierarchies were deeply ingrained. And the larger progressive movement (part of 'official' communism and outside) did help in trying to bring about many changes. There were several movements for transformative change which I believe was responsible for the better conditions.

That said, while literacy, sex-ratio etc, are high in Kerala when compared to other states, there is a patriarchal and feudal morality that it has never been able to shake off. While left and progressive movements did influence a lot of writers and artists, Malayalam cinema (since we are talking about that in particular) has always been entrenched in a middle class morality and dominated by savarna heterosexual men (progressive or not). Female representation in these movies have always been negotiated through the male creators and since the 'new wave' receded feudal misogyny abounded in movies right from the late eighties. Perumarakaalam (which came out in 2004 right in the middle of chauvinist savarna super-hero domination) is a lot better than many of the movies released in Kerala when it comes to female representation and even that negotiates its politics in a problematic manner. There are these so-called new wave "feminist" movies like "22 F Kottayam", but like Batameez pointed out in her previous post it's about women's anger against injustice only if trigerred by something extremely heinous (in this case, rape).

I do not claim deep knowledge of the socio-political history of Kerala so I'd love it if someone corrected me if I'm wrong. Kerala is a deeply misogynist and casteist society which often proclaims high rates of progressiveness but is actually a violent society which punishes transgressions severely. I do however know that we've always had a strong history of resistance as well, be it in the case of gender, class or caste, which have often been co-opted by larger political parties which may have blunted their radical power.

Maybe Battameez knows more...but there should be plenty of research available including those on Malayalam cinema. I'd suggest the works of J.Devika ('Kulastreeyum Chandapennum.....' would be a good start) and Praveena Kodoth but there are many more. I'm not exactly well-versed in their works (since I don't really have access to them outside the internet) but they have been path-breaking in analysing and busting the vaunted 'Kerala Model of Development' myth.

If I had a small quibble with this excellent series it would be the Hindi/Bollywood centric analysis (I know Battameez covered Gulabi Talkies but I'm talking about the popular culture fixtures like Kahaani etc). But that is understandable given our regional limitations and since this series would be centered towards the Diaspora as well, most of them in any case would connect more with Bollywood. But I really hope we'd get some focus on women in Kashmir and the North-East especially. I feel that they are the most ignored when it comes to conversations about "Indian feminism".

http://www.cds.edu/download_f

http://www.cds.edu/download_files/Book.pdf
This is a link to J Devika's "Kulastreeyum Chanthapennum Undayathenginey" but it is in Malayalam. It's a great introduction into 'women's history' in Kerala. I tried to find a translation to post here but failed. :(

I don't see the disagreement...

Hello AnjuInDelhi, you'll notice that I qualified my statement by saying that the upper castes are less dominant than they are in other cities/towns/villages, Bihar being one instance. So I don't think we actually disagree. The mainstream communist parties had a positive role to play but also a negative one especially post-liberalization.

I also agree with you about what constitutes "Indian feminisms". That's why it would be interesting if Battameez or someone else would undertake some kind of comparative work of work in different parts of the country.

Sending much feminist and

Sending much feminist and queer love your way for this post,
Battameez. I wish more people would respond to the posts even if with
questions about the context etc. These movements are both local and
transnational and I would love for cross-fertilization occur through
conversation. This post continues in the vein of representation and
identity running through all your posts thus far. Hijras or aravanis,
after all are typically hail from the lower rungs of the class/caste
hierarchy. So it's not surprising that at a time when the middle-class
gay/lesbian community is gaining some acceptance through the assertion
of their purchasing power in urbane locales, hijras have been
sidelined in the visible movement. Also, I'm curious if there are any
data with respect to violence against queers in India and what is the
social and physical geography of this violence.

With respect to Dor, I actually found it to be less heteronormative
than Fire because it doesn't necessarily equate family with romantic
love nor does it preclude it. My quibble with Dor is that it avoids
the pitfall of depicting a secluded Muslim female stereotype to
utilize the trope of the secluded Rajasthani woman (seclusion is quite
routinely practiced in the state of Rajasthan). While this allows for
beautiful vistas, it also lends an exotic and distant quality to that
seclusion. How much justice can an urban, US-return director do to the
complexities of rural India? How much of the message contained in the
film resonates with the urban audience? And how much of that message
speaks to a rural audience? But I'm still glad Kukunoor made the film.

some other films to consider...

There are many more recent films where queerness is explored within Indian cinema in both more explicit and complex fashions -- like in Bishh, I Can't Think Straight, Desigirls, Dunno Y...Na Jaane Kyun -- and I think these newer films speak to the various ways queerness is becoming more visible in India and the ways Indian queers are advocating for themselves in a (pop) cultural context. (Advocacy and pop culture both being the realms of the privileged -- particularly the class privileged.) Yes, in many ways 377 was a debacle -- but the path to freedom is slowly tread, no matter which marginalized group is making the journey.

The marginalized can also marginalize

" Yes, in many ways 377 was a debacle -- but the path to freedom is slowly tread, no matter which marginalized group is making the journey."

Those who are being marginalized (and their allies) within the queer community (not that it is a coherent community given the tremendous class chasm) would disagree with this view.

Let's not homogenize.

As a queer who is marginalized within the queer community, I'm not sure what your statement is supposed to demonstrate. Are there particular points that you would like to make regarding your views on this statement or is it simply invalid because you disagree with it?

Heylo at all of you

I promise I had a long (epicly long) joint reply to all three of you (AnjuInDelhi, 3rdWorldFem and Mandy) and the cat sat on the keyboard and now I'm going to wait for a day or two to collect my thoughts -- keep far, far away from the cat -- and start over. Not ignoring you, just blame the ridiculously adorable cat for the delays please.  

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