Desi Dykes

With a flick of her video remote, Pratibha Parmar's filmi fantasies are realised2This presentation was originally made at Desh Pardesh II: A Festival of South Asian Culture held in Toronto in 1992.
By Pratibha Parmar

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One of the most vivid memories that I have from my teenage years is sitting in the living room with my family watching Indian movies. I would imagine that the man who was about to kiss the woman behind the unusually large close up of a flower was, in fact, a woman. This fantasy image brought such a hot guilty flush to my body that I remember having to run out of the room. It was only years later that I learned that this kind of transference or substitution—this fantasising—is incredibly common.

I do not want to give a theoretical exploration of how we—as lesbians—receive, appropriate and transform celluloid images as a way of making ourselves known to each other. I do not intend to be a film theorist nor will I deconstruct heavily coded filmic texts searching for lesbian references. Instead, I would like to share with you my observations, impressions and anecdotes: many of them gleaned from sitting around with other South Asian lesbians on long winter evenings in England and watching Hindi movies. Fast forwarding through the boring, predictable comic scenes, and the painfully long languorous heterosexual seduction scenes, we would rewind, slow down and pause—constantly— during the dance sequences with Rekha in Umroa Jaan. We would moan with delight and pleasure at Parveen Babi singing to Hema Malini in Razia Sultan.

As diasporic South Asians we hunger for images which in some way reflect our dreams, desires and realities. Media representations are a critical component of identity formation for all people but those of us who are perceived to be on the margins of the mainstream, the malestream and the white stream, our need for reflections of ourselves and our communities is pivotal to our survival. As cultural 'outsiders,' representations of ourselves both on the big screen and on the small screen are important in shaping our sense of selves. For lesbian and gay men the ability to make oneself heard or seen and the ability to alter what others hear and see are very necessary to our survival.

Hindi films play a crucial role for many of us whose links with our ancestral homeland are historically and geographically distant. The Indian film industry is today the largest in the world in terms of annual film production. In 1990, India produced over 800 films— more that two a day. It is the Hindi films made in Bombay that have a wide appeal to South Asians scattered around the globe, providing cultural and linguistic familiarity. For many people, these films not only keep alive memories of home but sometimes also provide reference points for creating notions of Indianness in different cultural contexts.

Often, these reference points perpetuate the problematic. Often, these films present sexist and degrading images of women, relying on stereotypes of the self sacrificing Indian mother, the harlot, the whore and the pure, downtrodden victim. As South Asian lesbians we have a great stake in media representation. Media images are an important site for contesting and negotiating a whole range of cultural and political values. Many young lesbians form a sense of their identity from media representations, but what is it they see?

Lesbians of all and any colour, culture and ethnicity have been singularly under-represented, or obliterated from any and every media. In mainstream Hollywood films, lesbians have appeared primarily as predatory, or bitter, old angry spinsters, or lost, confused and pathologically deranged women. With a few exceptions such as Desert Hearts in 19851Since doing this presentation the scenario for lesbian films and videos has changed and continues to change. There are several independent feature films that have been made as well as many currently in production. For instance, Fresh Kill (by American Shu Lea Cheang), a feature length drama featured South Asian actress Syreeta Chowdrey playing a lesbian character, in a multi racial cast of dykes. Midi Onodera's first feature, Skin Deep, is currently screening in England. Go Fish (1994) by director Rose Troche, a lesbian-girl-meets-girl story, was a wonderful cross-over success, widely distributed by Samuel Goldwyn. (While the central characters were white , there was a visible African-American and Latina lesbian presence.) Shani Mootoo in Vancouver, Hema B in San Francisco, Tanya Syed in London and Gitanjali in Toronto, are only some of the exciting new South Asian lesbians creating interesting work. Let's hope that by the end of this century (only 5 years to go) that we will be seeing lesbian feature dramas with South Asian women in the lead and behind the camera! there have been no major Hollywood films that have celebrated lesbian sexuality. Inevitably all these images have been of white women, with the exception of She's Gotta Have It.

Deep meaningful gazes, lingering eye contact, hands moving slowly and meaningfully, just touching a breast, the kiss behind the feather fan and my absolutely favourite bit: Hema Malini curling up her toes in orgasmic delight.

But what we want is not just equal time on the screen. Of much greater concern is how we are portrayed on film. These representations affect our ability to affirm a lesbian existence and also reflect and shape our concept of lesbian sexuality. As lesbians of colour, we have a desire to see ourselves on the screen which resonates from our childhoods, our families and communities.

I want to share two moments from two very different Indian films, both illustrating quite diverse approaches to the often unintended depiction of lesbian sexuality on the screen within Indian cinema.

The first film called Subha, was made in the mid-1980s, featuring Smita Patil in the main role. This film is part of the new, progressive cinema in India with an emphasis on realism and social concerns. This film is important not only because of an absence of fantasy or make-believe elements within it, but because it actually names lesbianism, (in English). The story is about an Indian woman's struggle for an independent identity and her boredom with her role as wife and mother. Smita Patil is a social worker who is a warden of a women's reformatory. My favourite moment begins at the point where the women in the reformatory are celebrating a festival.

There is a group of women, singing and dancing, and they are being led by one particular woman. This woman begins focusing her singing on another woman who is on the swings. As the sequence progresses it becomes delightfully clear to both the viewer and the other women participating in the dance song that these two women are in love and only have eyes for each other. The other women whisper and giggle about the two women lovers and the dancing and singing abruptly has to stop. Later the two women are caught out in bed together and eventually harassed by the other women. The final outcome is, unfortunately, extremely painful and tragic.

This segment of the film always sends chills down my spine because the fear of discovery, the ostracisation and the public humiliation is something that many lesbians and gay men understand . Despite the film's intent on being progressive around this issue, it only succeeds in perpetuating the idea of lesbianism as being something depraved, immoral and a mental illness requiring psychiatric treatment.

But coming out is not always as traumatic as this film makes you believe. Were it not for all the joyful and happy coming out stories that we exchange amongst ourselves from our own experiences, this film could drive us straight back into the closet. For many people who participated in my film Khush (produced for Out, Channel 4,1991), appearing on film meant their coming out. For many of them, it was a huge relief.

My second filmi moment is from a film called Razia Sultan. It was directed by Kamal Amorhi and the leading players are Hema Malini, Dharmendera and Parveen Babi. This film about the life of a princess is a classic Bollywood epic, filmed in Technicolor, with lavish sets and a cast of thousands. The princess is played by Hema Malini and her lady in waiting is Parveen Babi, my current heart-throb. The princess falls in love with a slave, played by Dharmendera and so the narrative develops. My favorite moment comes at a point in the film when the princess is pining for her lover, and her lady in waiting is trying to appease her.

For some of us, this scene has become legendary. It is also absolutely compulsory viewing for all new and uninitiated South Asian lesbians.

The two women are in a beautiful boat draped with silks; the Hema Malini character is lying down and her lady in waiting is fanning her with a large, white feathered fan. Two young women are rowing them around the beautiful lake which is set within the palace. Parveen Babi sings a romantic song to Hema Malini and drapes herself over her mistress in an intimate manner. Towards the end of the sequence, the fan comes down over the two women as they kiss behind it.

Yes, what you are seeing is a live scene between two women (okay, one of them is fantasising about her absent male lover). And yes, they do kiss!. It's clear that all is not what it should be. We get the final validation of the illicit nature of this act from the two young girls who are rowing the boat One of them giggles at the sight of the kiss and the other, understanding only too clearly that their throats might be cut as a result, motions for her friend to remain silent.

For me this sequence from Razia Sultan is one of the most romantic and erotic scenarios that I have ever seen in a Bollywood film. Deep meaningful gazes, lingering eye contact, hands moving slowly and meaningfully, just touching a breast, the kiss behind the feather fan and my absolutely favourite bit: Hema Malini curling up her toes in orgasmic delight. For some of us, this scene has become legendary. It is also absolutely compulsory viewing for all new and uninitiated South Asian lesbians.

This fantasy image brought such a hot guilty flush to my body that I remember having to run out of the room.

My friends and I get enjoyment from this despite the fact that the main narrative of the film centres around a heterosexual coupling. There are so few lesbian references or sub-texts in the majority of these films, that we need to re-appropriate and negotiate our own readings: take charge of these images with the reins of our own fantasies.

It is quite clear that neither the masala films from Bombay nor the new wave cinema from India are going to satisfy our hunger and need for positive, affirming and empowering images of ourselves as South Asian lesbians. Re-appropriations—and fantasies—in the end only go so far. It is only when we begin to create these images for ourselves that we can go some way toward registering a lesbian presence on celluloid—a presence defined by our own terms and inspired by our own vision.

Notes

  1. This presentation was originally made at Desh Pardesh II: A Festival of South Asian Culture held in Toronto in 1992.
  2. Since doing this presentation the scenario for lesbian films and videos has changed and continues to change. There are several independent feature films that have been made as well as many currently in production. For instance, Fresh Kill (by American Shu Lea Cheang), a feature length drama featured South Asian actress Syreeta Chowdrey playing a lesbian character, in a multi racial cast of dykes. Midi Onodera's first feature, Skin Deep, is currently screening in England. Go Fish (1994) by director Rose Troche, a lesbian-girl-meets-girl story, was a wonderful cross-over success, widely distributed by Samuel Goldwyn. (While the central characters were white , there was a visible African-American and Latina lesbian presence.) Shani Mootoo in Vancouver, Hema B in San Francisco, Tanya Syed in London and Gitanjali in Toronto, are only some of the exciting new South Asian lesbians creating interesting work. Let's hope that by the end of this century (only 5 years to go) that we will be seeing lesbian feature dramas with South Asian women in the lead and behind the camera!
Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Pratibha Parmar
Pratibha Parmar's many film and video documentaries include the award winning Khush, A Place of Rage, Sari Red, Warrior Marks, The Colour of Britain, and most recently her first drama, Memsahib Rita.
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