Straddling two worlds

May 25, 2011, 08:19 IST | VIikram Phukan

With the Kashish Queer Film Festival beginning today, here's a closer look at gay relationship issues, which are conveniently swept under the carpet

With the Kashish Queer Film Festival beginning today, here's a closer look at gay relationship issues, which are conveniently swept under the carpet

This week, the Kashish film festival opens with the hauntingly beautiful Undertow, from Peruvian filmmaker Javier Fuentes-Le n. At the very heart of this love story is the moral conundrum faced by a young fisherman, Miguel, who must somehow pay obeisance to the memory of his dead lover, Santiago. Miguel is married to a woman and owning up to his clandestine affair with a man could open up a veritable Pandora's box in the small sea-side village he lives in. As with most well-realised melodramas, there is a sweeping feel to the emotions, with the right orchestral motifs informing the passage of time that allow us to experience vicariously the overarching theme of loss that pervades the lives of its lead players. Unfortunately real life isn't similarly rich in timbre, and the squandered lives of the countless men and women in similar situations in India is a dull ache that suggests a more congenital condition that can almost be termed a social evil.

Love story: A still from the movie Undertow

There is a strange dichotomy within the queer community when it comes to appraising gay men who are married to women. Because of the manner in which most gay men in India are so severely closeted, there is sometimes a tacit understanding of the kind of social pressures that may have caused men of their ilk to get hitched and ride the coat-tails of acceptable social behaviour, as it were, to become card-bearing members of the Gentlemen's club that is the Indian patriarchy, while still engaging in secret affairs with a long line of superfluous men. In films like Madhur Bhandarkar's Fashion, a gay fashion designer who enters into a marriage of convenience with a female friend is portrayed as a heroic person, who is at the receiving end of a noble sacrifice made by a caring and sensitive woman. The underlying issues are conveniently swept under the carpet.

Emotional: Poster of the movie Three Veils. Pics Courtesy/Kashish

Of course, there is a growing tribe of gay men, who want visibility and openness; for whom marriages based upon a central deceit are simply not acceptable. They feel that compromises that do not involve both parties being completely in the know cannot be condoned. Then there are those gay men, who willingly enter into trysts with married men, because of the no-strings-attached tag that comes with them. So it's a whole cauldron of conflicts and the small details that make up relationships sometimes get lost as men learn to lie with a straight face, and they learn to be numbed to the consequences of those lies. It's like a dissociative disorder that they don't even notice anymore.

There are notions of patriarchy that are deeply entrenched in our society that somehow sanctions the closet. Men have traditionally been conditioned to believe in the inevitability of marriage. Extending the blood line is an Indian preoccupation, weddings are sacrosanct. Even if it so happens that a man discloses his sexuality to his parents, they are likely to insist on getting him married anyway, to cure him and get him back on track to fulfill his social obligations. Would these same parents have even considered for a minute getting their daughters married to a man if there was even the slightest doubt that he was gay? There are hypocrisies at play here, and the brunt is often borne by the hapless wives. The kind of patriarchy that is prevalent in India is responsible for the cruelty meted out to daughters-in-law who are blamed, without reservation, for marriages gone awry.

There is a reason why not many studies have been conducted to find out exactly what is the proportion of gay men who are married to women. Such studies would wreak havoc upon the social structures that we have got accustomed to. Anecdotally, the figures are startlingly high-in one survey as much as nine in ten gay men who were part of an out-reach program in Mumbai were married to women. In the cities, where the middle classes are supposedly more educated and informed, the issues raised by such data are manifold. Often, the wife and children of a closeted gay man may be denied access to health services, in situations where the man's sexual history may require to be disclosed. This is an impediment to STD and HIV prevention activities that can have dangerous repercussions.

The psychological toll of such marriages is tremendous. The woman is always the last to know. Of course she may have spent years sensing that something was wrong, setting aside the little clues because people do have a remarkable capacity to delude themselves. When the wife finally discovers (or is told) that her husband's gay, she may find it difficult to break away from a marriage, which has in effect institutionalised her. Even when she has discovered that her marriage is a sham, she may still feel betrothed to the man she has taken her vows with. For many women in India, educated or otherwise, divorce is not an easy option. It's very difficult for a woman to pick up the pieces and start afresh without fingers being pointed at her at every step of the way. Continuing in the marriage may very well be the lesser evil, if the husband is an otherwise benign presence. After all, women enter their arranged matches with rather low expectations already and having a  gay husband is yet another compromise to be made along the way.

Award-winning: From the movie Brokeback Mountain

This is an outcome that may absolve the married man of a certain measure of guilt, because ostensibly he has attempted to set the record straight. Such women have been depicted as spineless and self-delusional in award-winning films such as Brokeback Mountain. In India, it is more difficult to judge them as harshly. Indeed, there should be no constraints that would make it so difficult for women to rehabilitate themselves. These days, a lot of women avoid this fate by having detectives ferret out details about prospective grooms.

Gay men are more easily found out because of the poor general understanding that people have of how social networks work and the internet footprints that anyone can leave behind for posterity. This doesn't mean that the gay men 'found out' in this manner cannot find other less sophisticated women to marry. There is a veritable conveyor belt that constantly chugs along, and there is always a right fit for everyone in the marriage market. The cycle continues.

Not having the wife walk out on him allows the married gay man to continue keeping up the appearances of respectability but there will always be trouble afoot in the second life he may create for himself outside his marital home. Sometimes the fleeting dalliances with men morph into an emotional situation that is hard to let go of.  Love knows no pragmatism. The gay man in love with a married man, despite having clearly read the writing on the wall, suddenly finds himself in rather regressive trappings. It's never a position of power to be merely a 'concubine' however much you call it a situation that you can deal with.

The philandering man thinks he can wrestle with both his lives with a degree of equanimity. For the woman there is this closet to which she will be never given the key. For the other man, he can never set foot inside the home. Strangely, the other man is part of the same misogynistic mindset in which the plight of the woman who may be somehow affected by decisions that you make is casually disregarded. They don't really care about the wives of the married men in their lives. It is a myth that gay men are somehow more sensitive to the issues of women. In reality, they are very much a part of the oppressive patriarchy. Sometimes the alternate morality that is so much a part of the modern gay ethos with its open relationships and promiscuity, make men believe that their's is simply another way of doing things. But the fact is, not all the players have been brought into this situation with the rules of engagement clearly spelled out and that is the damning factor.

These situations are more in their control than most gay men would like to think. It is important to take the bull by its horns and embrace your own personal reality. Information is not thin on the ground anymore, support groups are everywhere. The so-called 'social pressure' is sometimes more imagined than real. After all the middles classes have been repositories of all kinds of hypocrisies for decades, and these petty notions have been thwarted enough times to merit a few more blows to the social fabric, to the facile institutions that people hold so dear so irrationally. Self-deception is never an answer.

The hurt you can bring to others, and the pain that you will yourself feel, can never be a desirable way to live. Fittingly, the closing film at Kashish is Three Veils, a tale of three Middle-Eastern women who must, for their emotional sanity, take a detour from their predictable lives of husbands, children and duty. This may prove to be inspirational for many women in India.

(The writer runs the theatre appreciation web-site Stage Impressions and has formerly edited Bombay Dost)

Real World
In 2008, Rohit Bal confessed his love for Lalit Tehlan, a model. The designer, who was always open about his sexual preferences, spoke about a boyfriend for the first time then. In April 2011, however, reports surfaced that Lalit Tehlan had married fellow model of Iranian descent, Manizhe Karimi. The girl claimed they were just friends, but later a marriage certificate became public that established that they are married.

Amen (2011) English, dir. by Judhajit Bagchi and Ranadeep Bhattacharyya  with Jitin Gulati and Karan Mehra. A man on the eve of his wedding has a cathartic encounter with another man. Also showcased in Kashish 2011.

Encounter: A scene from the movie Amen

Chicken Tikka Masala (2005) English, dir. by Harmage Singh Kalirai with Chris Bisson. Jimi tries to wriggle out of an arranged marriage by conjuring up a love child, which leads his family to believe he's in love with the mother of his best friend Jack. Jack is actually his boyfriend and must effectively switch places with his own mum before the wedding nuptials are completed.

East is East (1999) English, dir. by Damien O'Connor with Om Puri, Linda Bassett. Arranged marriages loom large over this bitter-sweet comedy featuring Om Puri as George Khan, whose eldest son Nazir beats a retreat from the wedding altar, only to resurface with a French boyfriend later.

Fashion (2008) Hindi, dir. by Madhur Bhandarkar with Kangana Ranaut, Priyanka Chopra, Kitu Gidwani.
Self-styled auteur Bhandarkar paints a dismal picture of the homosexual mafia in fashion, from depraved designers to dour junkies to the embittered marrying kind.

Fire (1996) English, dir. by Deepa Mehta with Nandita Das, Shabana Azmi. A layered treatment of two women trapped in loveless marriages who 'discover' one another. These are women conditioned to traditional notions of home and hearth, who can now feel the shackles of repression slip away through the forbidden pleasure of their love for each other.

Honeymoon Travels Private Limited (2007)  Hindi, dir. by Reema Kagti with Abhay Deol, Raima Sen.
Madhu happily embarks on a marriage of convenience with a gay man Bunty, easily digesting the big revelation as her own reasons for getting hitched were far from honest (she just wanted to marry an NRI richie).

Stag (2001) English, dir. by Ian Iqbal Rashid with Stuart Laing and Nitin Ganatra.
Luke  is best man at his closest friend Sammi's wedding. They end up making love the night before the big day after getting totally sloshed at a stag do. Luke now wants to salvage what he believes their friendship was, a full-blown relationship.

Thang (2006) Marathi, dir. by Amol Palekar with Mrinal Kulkarni, Rishi Deshpande.
A didactic and choppy telling of the story of an educated woman Sai who discovers her husband is having an affair with another man. Also in English as The Quest

Touch of Pink, A (2004) English, dir. by Ian Iqbal Rashid with Jimi Mistry, Kyle MacLachlan, Suleka Mathew.
The tender and amusing story of Ali who stands his ground as an openly gay man, even as his one-time male lover prepares for an elaborate if farcical Indian wedding.

Manvendra Singh Gohil belongs to the royal family of Rajpipla in Gujarat and is the only known person of royal lineage to have revealed that he is gay. Married to Chandrika Kumari in 1991, Singh's marriage ended in a divorce in 1992 after he told his wife about his sexual orientation. Later, Singh got involved in helping gays in Gujarat and in 2000 also started the Lakshya Trust of which he is the chairman.

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