Lez-ploitation in Bollywood

The question to ask, in reviewing Karan Razdan's Girlfriend, is whether we actually need another review of this film. It is not even clear that we need another account of the movie's reception in India. Opinions on the film, as well as on reactions to it, have proliferated, not only in India—in newspapers, magazines, and all over the Internet—but also in such diverse places as Al Jazeera, the Hungarian daily Masok, and Estadao in Brazil. The international media's reaction to the film, which features what the witty director has referred to as a "wreck-tangle" between two women and a man, has not varied significantly. Some have focused on the variation on Bollywood's classic boy-meets-girl formula; others have dwelt on the skimpy clothes and sexy girl-on-girl scenes; few have been able to resist a comparison with Deepa Mehta's 1998 film Fire, a somewhat less lurid and more optimistic look at desire between women. In terms of chronicling reactions to Girlfriend in India, the international media has, in general, relied on catty references to "strange bedfellows," poking fun at the fact of the Hindu Right and lesbian-feminist groups both protesting the same film. The mainstream Indian media adopted, for the most part, a lofty superiority, locating itself above the "sleaze" of Razdan's film, the "shrill" feminists, and the "immaturity" of the Shiv Sena and other right-wing groups. We shall return to this later.

In any case, the plot of Girlfriend, such as it is, is as follows. Tanya (Isha Koppikar) and Sapna (Amrita Arora) are best friends who share a house (and a bed) in Mumbai. While both are classic long-haired, short-skirt-wearing beauties, it soon becomes apparent that Tanya is—gasp!—the man. She fixes the plumbing in the house, engages in street fights for prize money when she and Sapna are short on the rent, and rides a roaring motorbike. Tanya also beats up a bunch of guys in a bar after they hit on Sapna—though immediately afterwards, she and Sapna grope each other on the dance floor in front of the drooling men and sing, together, one of lyricist Praveen Bhardwaj's most trite songs, which translates roughly as "Come closer, let us show you what real love is."

Oh, but did we mention that Sapna is straight? There was just this one drunken incident in college, shown as a flashback, where Sapna and Tanya rolled around on shiny black sheets and moaned a lot. While there are several more scenes of Sapna-Tanya action in the film, these are coded as dream sequences—either wishful thinking on the part of Tanya, or tortured nightmares on the part of Sapna's boyfriend.

Because of course there has to be a boyfriend. Sapna meets Rahul (Ashish Choudhary) while Tanya, who works in a jeweler's shop, is out of town on business. Sapna goes to a party with a friend, a gay man who is, of course, a limp-wristed queen, since Razdan is not one to miss an opportunity to exploit yet another stereotype. Sapna is spotted by Rahul, who decides that the only way to seduce this shy bird is to pretend to be a gay man also, thus lulling her into a false sense of security. And Choudhary plays a simpering, falsetto-voiced caricature, experiencing, no doubt, the same sense of accomplishment that Koppikar felt in playing Tanya; as she told the Hindustan Times: "I've worked so hard on being convincing as a butch that now I'm afraid men will be scared away."

The film itself is a stereotype of lez-ploitation movies of the worst sort. The coy silence around the naming of lesbianism is broken only at the end, during a violent confrontation between Tanya and Ashish. Until then, we are left to infer that she is a lesbian on the basis of comments about how little she likes/ trusts men, and the occasional burning glance she casts on Sapna. As for why she behaves so oddly? Well, "there is a thought-provoking psychoanalytical theme justifying Ishaa Koppikar's character's kinky behavior," the winsome Razdan has said. Which means, Tanya is a dyke because a) she was abused by a neighbor when she was seven, and we know that sexual abuse creates lesbians, and b) her father would beat her mother, and we know what happens when a child is presented with an unhappy prototype of heterosexual matrimony. In the end, of course, in the tradition of any moral fable featuring lesbians, Tanya dies. She tries to kill our heroic heterosexuals, only to fall through a window and plunge to her death. And then we realize, as the camera dwells lovingly on crosses in a cemetery, that Tanya was Christian. As if her difference from the normal, heterosexual Hindu Rahul-Sapna couple had not been sufficiently emphasized.

Razdan clearly couldn't decide if he was doing fantasy or reality. On the one hand, he asserted, the story was all-too-true, based on his own life experience: "There was this scheming babe who became over-friendly with my girlfriend and tried to drive us apart, until I aborted her devious plans," he told reporters in Mumbai. He told the BBC, however, that it was pure fiction, pure entertainment: "I have just ventured out to find some new kind of drama which has not been existent in the Hindi commercial cinema," he said guilelessly.

Some protesters, in their reactions, played equally fast and loose with the division between the on-screen and the off-screen. Jai Bhagwan Goel, the head of the Delhi branch of the Shiv Sena, fulminated: "This film is evil and it will be stopped," adding that "it pollutes our society and moral culture." Unfortunately, some elements of protest by progressive activists risked the same confusion, the same inevitable connection between a film and its effect. Said Tejal Shah, in an open letter to Razdan that is otherwise wise, passionate and politically sharp: "It's time that we stopped separating the issues that films address and their impact on the audience within a given socio-political context." Her conviction that a message such as Girlfriend "endangers the life of any woman who may look or behave boyish, any woman who chooses to experiment with her sexuality, and any woman who asserts her right to different choices including those women who are good friends and hold hands when they walk down the street" gives too much authority to Bollywood, too little agency to its audience.

This is not, however, to club all anti-Girlfriend protest into the same category. Razdan has already done as much, in any case, dismissing both the Hindutva forces and the lesbian activists: "Why don't these agitators take up issues of poverty and hunger? Why do these so-called guardians of morality not stand up for such issues?" And he suddenly reasserts the distinction between reel life and real life, positioning himself in the former and scolding activists for not sticking to the latter.

Some progressive activists in India located themselves above the fray, and noted that the only result of the protest was to turn what was a box-office disaster into a relative hit, as audiences flocked to theaters to see what all the hungama was about. "Why protest? Let it die a natural death," urged Saleem Kidwai. It is not clear that silence in the face of such distortions is the answer either. For the moment, though, the experience of Girlfriend could serve as an experiment, a way to think about the making, watching and protesting of future Bollywood movies that feature and caricature the queer. After all, Shrey Shrivastav's Men Not Allowed, which reprises the same theme with Payal Rohatgi and Monica Castelino in the starring roles, is scheduled for release in just a few months.

Comments

This is really an exciting article and I loved it. It's somewhat refreshing and it's really direct to the point. - Missed Fortune
http://www.abortionclinicconnecticut.com/ And again we realize, as the camera dwells acquiescently on crosses in a cemetery, that Tanya was Christian. As if her aberration from the normal, heterosexual Hindu Rahul-Sapna brace had not been abundantly emphasized.
i loved this article. you really nailed it and conveyed the message so eloquently. being a gay nri teen, i kinda wanted to see what all the fuss was about. i laughed myself to bed, the movie was that bad. let the shiv sena do their shtick, i personally dont feel progressives and feminists shouldve even wasted their time protesting.

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