Fire and family

Published: 14 December, 2012 09:32 IST | A Correspondent |

Nandita Das and Chitra Palekar have been working to spread awareness about Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) issues for almost two decades now. In an interview in the book 'Out! Stories from the New Queer India', they talk about how they became aware of issues and overcoming their own conflicted feelings. Excerpts:

Q. How and when did you first become aware of LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) issues?
Nandita: For me, the film Fire was really the turning point. When I read the script, I thought, “Wow, I come from a fairly liberal family, yet we don’t talk about [LGBT issues], so it’s definitely something that I want to be a part of.” But at that time, it was just a story, a powerful story. The real journey of understanding and sensitivity was after Fire, when it became a controversy. There was a whole range of opinions, from the people who hated the film because “this is not part of Indian culture,” to the people who were more involved with these issues saying,“Why did these two women have to be in bad marriages to fall in love?” I saw the best people, very educated, so-called progressive urban people, who were very judgemental. I started taking up the cause almost by default, because if somebody says something that’s really scandalous and very inhuman around you, then you feel like you have to defend it.

Nandita Das

Chitra: A few years before Fire came out, my daughter came out to me. She said she was a lesbian, and I accepted it immediately, but I didn’t know a thing. I knew about LGBTs, but only through some festival films or when I went abroad and saw openly gay people. When my daughter came out to me – that was also the moment when I realised how ignorant I was. I told her that I did not want to remain ignorant. So, for me, it was a very conscious attempt to know this world. Basically, I did through reading fiction as well as non-fiction, and also through meeting my daughter’s friends, talking to them, and checking out whether I had any deep, unknown prejudices. Nandita just said, “We were from a progressive family and yet we never talked about it.” It was the same thing with us, I felt very upset that we talked about everything in the world and —

Chitra Palekar
Vision: Nandita Das says she would accept it if her son tells her he is gay when he grows up.  Chitra Palekar, whose daughter is an out lesbian, says she had to do some introspection 

Nandita: And somehow this was just sidelined.

Chitra: Yes, you know we talked about political and social issues, censorship, everything under the sun. We were taking part in protests, fighting against the government, and this was one issue which we had never talked about, our friends had never talked about – and that’s what my daughter pointed out when she came out to me.

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Q. [Fire] was the first time that we ever saw two women being intimate in India on a big screen.
Chitra: It made a big difference visually.

Nandita: In the beginning, people were not even uttering the word lesbian. They would say, “Oh, so, have you known people with that kind of a relationship?” I had English-speaking journalists from major dailies talking to me like that: “So, how did you do that kind of a scene?” They would not utter the word “homosexuality”! It was taboo.

Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das
How it all began: Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in the movie, Fire

Chitra: That makes me remember the time when my daughter came out. Only close family and friends knew. I really was keen to know what happens outside that circle. So I used to generally bring up the subject and then see what happened. Once, when I opened the topic, some people started talking about another girl they knew. They said, “You know, she became a lesbian because she used to sleep in the same bed as her grandmother.”

Nandita: What?!

Chitra: It showed me the amount of ignorance. And this was from a very educated person. I didn’t know whether to feel happy that I was slightly less ill-informed than them, or to get shocked that even the younger generation had such misconceptions.

Q. What advice would you give to other people who want to become allies to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people? What have you learned along the way?
Nandita: Fire was the beginning of a journey as an actor, as a person for me. I started combining my human rights work with my film work. I didn’t see them as two different streams. Fire was so closely linked to my growth as a human being and my own prejudices as well.

Chitra: Initially, I was not really telling anybody else, except my close family and friends. I told my daughter, “Well, I am giving you this space because this is basically your world, so we’ll go according to your wishes,” and I thought I was giving her a huge space. But whenever I say something, I have the habit of thinking it over at night, and so I started questioning my own words: What do I mean by “your world”? Am I really giving her space or am I giving that as an excuse? Am I not talking to people because I am really slightly nervous? I had to go really deep into myself to find out what it was, because I started wondering, would I be as nervous if it was a friend’s child? No! Then I would have been the first one to fight for the child. All these things were a huge emotional turmoil for me as a parent, and also a growth.

Nandita: After Fire, sometimes people would say, “Oh, your acting was very convincing, so are you lesbian?” And the first thing I would say was, “No! Do I have to be a lesbian to do a role of a lesbian?” I was believing I had no issues, but the fact is that I had to prove, “No, no! I am straight.” It was like saying, “Oh, I am not prejudiced, I have many lesbian friends.” When we say others are prejudiced, it’s not like we are without prejudice. We have contradictions in us as well. Later that feeling changed, and I would say, “It doesn’t really matter, if I am a lesbian or not, that’s not the point.” But initially that fear was there, that “I hope they won’t think that I am one of them,” because there was a subtle “them” and “us”.

Chitra: That was always haunting me. People always ask — as they must have asked your mother, Nandita — “Oh, so Shalmalee is not yet married?” First question. I would say no. “Oh, so she is not going to get married?” Second question. Then I would say, “No, no, she doesn’t want to get married.” Then I added, “Nowadays, you know how this generation is, they don’t want to get married.” Sometimes I became bolder and then I would say, because I am divorced, “You saw what happened to my marriage. Why would she want to get married?” Again, cracking a joke!

It was only after doing for quite a few times that I started realising that all these are poses, and I am still hiding behind all these answers. I am not saying what I should: “No, she is not getting married because she is not allowed to get married legally.” Then they’ll say, “Why?” And I’ll say, “Because she is a lesbian.” Or the opposite, “Because she is a lesbian, she is not allowed to get married. But she has had a partner for many, many years.”

Nandita: Yes, and it’s a better relationship than most marriages.

Chitra: See how we have to keep coming out?

Nandita: It is not about blaming ourselves or others. We are all conditioned in that same atmosphere. I remember after Fire, people would say, “But all these women and young girls are going to become lesbians!” I was like, “Wow, we are going to change sexual orientation through our film?” Then I said, “Then there shouldn’t have been any lesbians in the world because all of us grow up with raja-rani stories.” You know, all our stories are very hetero. I remember one day we were talking about this with another friend. My husband was there, and later he said: “Tell me honestly. If our son Vihaan one day grows up and he tells you, ‘Mama, I am gay,’ would you accept it? Tell me honestly.” And I could look straight at his face and say, “Of course I would.”

Chitra: Beautiful!

Nandita: And I asked myself, did I really just say it to win an argument or to sound progressive, or do I really mean it? And I felt that, actually, I totally meant it. You are really only challenged when it’s up close, because till then you can be politically correct and you can say the right things.

Chitra: I am so happy that you said that. Another friend of mine, she said to me, “I saw you on the television program [talking about Shalmalee] and I think it was very courageous.” I asked why she thought it was courageous. I mean, where’s the courage? There is no laathi charge or something. She says, “I don’t know if I had children how I would have felt.”

Q. Could you talk about the importance of sharing these stories? Sometimes, as LGBT people, we are told, “OK, that’s how you are, but why do you have to talk about it?”
Nandita: In the ideal world, I don’t think all of us need to scream out loud and say those things… But when the world is judgemental, when there are these double standards, when there isn’t that much sensitivity because there is lack of awareness, when people fear the unknown and the atmosphere, then we do need to scream out loud. And some of us who have the opportunity, or the platform, or the privilege of speaking out must speak… If I don’t speak out, I wouldn’t know that you think the same way. Even if you can somewhere touch one person’s life and make that one person feel more confident, it’s good.

Chitra: Though we all agree that sexuality is only one aspect of the personality and identity, it is an important aspect. Because it is an important aspect and because our system is basically patriarchal, it expects men to marry women, women to reproduce, men to earn, etc., no matter how progressive we are – this is still going on. Of course we need to tell alternative stories.

Q. Do you have any advice for the LGBT community itself? Sometimes it may feel like we are begging the straight world to accept us. What do you want from us? What would help you to be better allies?
Nandita: What I really want from the community is to also be less prejudiced. One has to understand that it’s not that people out there are bad people. It’s just that there isn’t that awareness, there isn’t that sensitivity. I think the more open we are, the more embracing we are, the less inhibited people will also feel.

Chitra: The LGBT community is generous, I know that. They should extend that generosity, and when the others see that love and compassion, they will start transforming. I am not saying everybody, but at least the family, friends, parents – they will start transforming, and they will be the captains for the entire community.

Published courtesy: QueerInk. Nandita and Chitra were in conversation with editor Minal Hajratwala and publisher Shobhna S Kumar

About Out!
Out! – Stories from the New Queer India is a collection of stories revolving around characters belonging to the LGBT community. Edited by Minal Hajratwala, the stories range from being partly autobiographical to totally fictional but all deal with the challenges the community faces as it tries to find acceptance. Priced at Rs 350, Out! Is available on 

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