South Asian Sapphic cinema recommendations for the soul

by Yuvthi Misser


Representation for the LGBTQ+ community in Bollywood has never been bountiful, but if you sift through the erasure, you will find some hidden gems. The terms in which sapphic relationships have been showcased are not ideal, but they are lily pads in the greater pond of heteronormative Bollywood. These are in no particular order. Warning, spoilers lay ahead.


Devi (Goddess) (2017)

देवी

Romance, Drama - 13 mins

[A scene from Devi (2017) From Vimeo.]

Although Devi is a short film, I have decided to put it on this list because it is a worthy contender. In its short run time, it manages to touch lightly on the caste system, as well the rife homophobia within Indian households.


The story follows Tara, a rebellious teenager who pursues her attraction towards her family’s domestic helper, Devi. The film starts off with a crowd yelling slurs at Tara, for reasons not specified in the film. She is then taken home by her mother and her domestic helper, with a bruise on her face. In a close-up shot, we see her mother’s clear unhappiness at Tara’s masculine-presenting energy and her overt feistiness. When they get home, Tara shares a cigarette and conversation with Devi before going to bed. Unable to sleep, she pretends to lock herself out of the house and ends up sleeping in the same bed as Devi. The next day, while her mother is hosting a function at home, Tara kisses Devi right as one of her aunts walks in. What then ensues is a heated argument that culminates in her mother replacing Devi with another woman. The final shot is of her and her mother, eating their breakfast while the newly appointed domestic helper cleans the stairs.


The caste system is still prevalent in India and the desi diaspora. While the film does not go out of its way to showcase this, one can deduce that lower caste people who are given jobs in higher caste households are relied upon to do many things but are not given nearly enough credit. In this instance, as soon as Tara’s mother is aware of Tara and Devi kissing, she ends up firing Devi and sweeping the issue under the rug. She has very little regard for Devi’s opinion and her life, evident by her very swift removal from the household.


Admittedly, this film was difficult to find and I was not even aware of its existence until recently. Finding it was even harder since it was not that popular amongst contemporary audiences. I thought it would not be as good as I had hoped, as a short film, but I was pleasantly surprised. This film makes me wish that it was longer so that the story and characters could be more fleshed out. Even though it ends off with a sad ending, like typical lesbian storylines often do, it is a modest leap forward for the South Asian community. One must not look at this film from Euro-centric standards but rather look at it in the context of South Asian cinema.


Overall, Devi (Goddess) gives the viewer an outlook on Indian society that they may have otherwise not been aware of.


Fire (1996)

आग

Romance, Drama, Erotic - 1h 48mins

[A scene from Fire (1996). From Muslim World Today.]

Upon its release in India, Fire was met with outrage by the public, which resulted in riots from conservative Indian parties. Critics, however, revered the choice of adding lesbian sexuality on top of its feminist storyline and viewed it as barrier-breaking. The film is mostly in English but is set in New Delhi, India.


The plot follows two sister-in-laws who are trapped in loveless marriages and their developing relationship. Sita is married to an unfaithful Jatin who has a mistress named Julie and Radha is married to Ashok, a devoted Hindu who took an oath of celibacy. Interestingly, Sita and Radha are both named after two goddesses in Hinduism. Sita is known as the God Ram’s consort and Radha is known as Krishna’s consort. Fire relies primarily on one of the stories from the Ramayana, a Sanskrit scripture that forms half of the sacred Hindu epic poems. It is in one part of the story that Sita must win back Ram’s trust by walking through fire, unscathed. After she successfully walks through the fire, and the flames bloom into beautiful flowers, Ram then apologises and begs for Sita’s forgiveness. The audience sees this part of the poem when Ashok is at the temple, reciting lines from the Ramayana with the rest of the devotees. This concept is used throughout the story, along with the battle between desire and self-control. The pivotal scene within the movie is when Ashok confronts Radha about her unfaithfulness and lesbianism while she is cooking. When Ashok starts to become more physically violent, the edge of her saree catches fire. In a hurry, she flings it to the floor and the lower half of her saree ignites, mimicking the imagery of Sita walking through fire. Except, the viewer can gage that Radha has been significantly injured as she runs away to meet Sita before they depart New Delhi for good.


As mentioned before, Fire had many Indian conservatives angry which led to a mass discussion of Freedom of Expression in India. The men who were protesting against this movie pushed the narrative that if women think they can resort to lesbian relationships in order to receive gratification, then the very institution of marriage would fall into disrepair.


The director and writer of the film, Deepa Mehta, continuously mentioned that Fire was never meant to be a movie about lesbians but rather a movie with lesbians in it and about the choices one can make in life.


Regardless, Fire was very ahead of its time and is a major victory and path-breaker in LGBTQ Indian cinema, as it garnered love from many LGBTQ activists. Not only is the story genuinely good, but it contains some of the first few exhalations of women’s rights and lesbian rights in India.


Margarita with a Straw (2014)

एक स्ट्रॉ के साथ मार्गरीटा

Coming of Age, Romance, Drama - 1h 40mins

[A scene from Margarita with A Straw (2014). From The Guardian.]

Margarita with a Straw, although not perfect, is still a worthy contender. It could do without the white-passing and non-disabled lead and the harmful cheating bisexual trope, though. It is still valid as a coming of age film that involves a sapphic relationship but does not focus on it as the main aspect of the film.


The story follows Laila, a teenage writer and composer with cerebral palsy who lives and studies in Delhi. After receiving an offer to study in New York, she is thrust into a new, multi-cultural world. It is there where she meets Khanum, a blind activist at a protest, and Jared, in a creative writing class. She becomes confused about her sexuality because she is attracted to both of them. After Laila and Khanum get into a serious relationship she makes the mistake of sleeping with Jared. She doesn’t tell Khanum about her affair until they are in India, visiting Laila’s parents. A dramatic fight ensues and their relationship is undetermined while Laila’s mom is in hospital for stage-four colon cancer. When her mom passes, the family slowly picks themselves up and puts their fragile household back together. Khanum then leaves Laila, and it is up to her to go on a journey of loving herself and accepting herself, leaving us with a heartfelt and adorable ending; with a margarita and a straw.


[The final scene from Margarita With A Straw. From Netflix.]

Overall, the film is a sweet coming of age story that involves a multi-faceted teenager that has not otherwise been shown in Bollywood. The film offers a valuable and sweet look into the trials and tribulations of growing up and uses both English and Hindi in its dialogue. It depicts Laila and Khanum as fully fleshed-out characters that go beyond their disabilities, which is very different from what most South Asian films tend to do.


The aforementioned is the issue of having non-disabled people playing disabled roles which is highly problematic, as well as the trope of a bisexual character cheating. Yet, Margarita With A Straw is a worthy contender for this list because it combines two things South Asian audiences tend to shy away from: disability and queerness.


Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019)

(How I felt When I First Saw That Girl)

(एक लड़की को देखा तो ऐसा लगा)

Romance, Drama, Comedy - 2h 10mins

[Trailer Poster for Ek Ladki ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019). From Brown Girl Magazine.]

If you’re a non-desi and worried about trying to say the title of this film, do not worry about it. Instead, listen to the original song from the film 1942: A Love Story, and then the re-written version for this movie. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga was the first true mainstream Bollywood film to depict a lesbian relationship. The film essentially “straight-baits” (the opposite of Queer- Baiting) the audience into thinking that they are going to see the new Anil Kapoor movie, but are instead met with a heartwarming story of a girl coming out to her Punjabi family.


The story starts off with the main character, Sweety, meeting another woman named Kuhu at a wedding. After a small dance number, we are taken to Delhi a year later where we meet Sahil Mirza, a playwright who has some doubts about his ability due to his father. As Sweety watches Sahil’s play, whilst sitting next to him, she explains that the romantic storyline is cliché and cursory. We also find out that Sweety is hiding from her brother, who barges into the theatre. After a scuffle with Sweety’s brother, Babloo, in which Sahil accidentally hits a police officer, he is taken to the station where he learns that Sweety stays in Punjab. Meanwhile, Babloo tells Balbir, their father, that Sweety has been seeing a Muslim boy in Delhi, which comes as a shock to their Hindu Punjabi parents.


They confine her to the house and, after a while, Sahil comes around to see Sweety and is mistaken for the boy whom she has been seeing. Later, a house employee assists Sahil in order to see Sweety, where he confesses that he loves her. Sweety tells him that Babloo lied about the Muslim boy and that she is actually in love with a girl. Sahil is glad to be a confidant for Sweety but is outraged by her compliancy when Balbir and Babloo agree to let Sweety and Sahil get married despite their religious differences. A plan is hatched by Sahil, whereby Sweety and her girlfriend, Kuhu star in a play titled Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, (translated to “how I felt when I first saw that girl,”) which is a love story between two women. When Balbir finds out about the play and about Sweety and Kuhu’s relationship he storms out angrily. Insisting that the show goes on, Sweety, Sahil and Kuhu carry on with the play while Balbir makes his way home. Balbir looks through Sweety’s diary and empathises with her, deciding to return to the stage to defend and support Kuhu and Sweety. The film then ends happily for all parties involved and Sahil ends up showcasing the play in other places thanks to Sweety’s persuasion.


Ek Ladki not only shone a spotlight on a marginalised community in South Asia but also displayed an empathetic and sweet account of acceptance and love. This is also an example of the rare occasion where two lesbians are still together and alive by the end of the movie, which makes it even better. Once again, this film must be viewed in the context of Bollywood movies and not compared to the standards of Hollywood and other Euro-centric mediums, because these industries are very different.


I remember being at my grandmother’s house, watching Mela on SABC 3 when they began to advertise this film. I remember clamming up and beginning to sweat profusely because I was and still am not out to my grandmother, and I was waiting with bated breath for her to say something homophobic. But she didn’t. She simply watched the short advertisement and continued on with her day.


Ek Ladki not only instils hope for a better tomorrow for LGBTQ South Asians but also embodies the key characteristics of any other mainstream Bollywood film, with its upbeat musical numbers, dramatic moments and beautiful actors. It is a newfound classic that, I hope, is just the beginning for a more inclusive Bollywood.

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