By Dr. Asma Sayed
Granting basic rights to all humans requires respecting everyone- irrespective of race, gender, class, religion, and sexual orientation. And while one hopes that modern societies would value principles of equality, the reality is not always comforting.Majority of the developed world still struggles with upholding human rights; developing countries’records are equally disturbing. Countries such as India are among those which don’t have good human rights records in spite of a democratic government and legal system (Aamir Khan’s current TV show Satyamev Jayate focuses on human rights violations in India and has been received with much enthusiasm in India and globally). India has failed to defend human rights in various areas, but especially troublesome is the inherent homophobia in society – not to say that issues dealing with female foeticide, dowry deaths, custody deaths, untouchabilityetc. are not equally important; homophobia is particularly disturbing because of the near absence of discussion of the existence of LGTB – lesbian, gay, transgender, bi-sexual - communities in the public sphere, given the cultural taboos, and a legal system which until recently criminalized homosexuality. The everyday harassment of the LGTB communities by police is a reality that the members face, and further fear the repercussions of ‘coming out.’
Much like social interaction, cinematic discourse in India has rarely focused on the LGTB communities. Rather, endorsing nationalist, patriarchal, upper class, and heteronormative agendas, India’s popular cinema has done very little to break down socio-cultural taboos. Recently popular films such as Kal Ho Na Hoand Dostana have showcased what may be identified as ‘gay situations’. However, the characters in these films are either perceived to be gay when they are not, or pretend to be gay for some mutual benefits and are put in comical situations; audiences rejoice at the sexual innuendos that lead to slapstick comedy. It has beenreasoned that even such stereotypical, comical representation of the gay community has, as a minimum, brought it to the forefront in a society that is highly homophobic and intolerant, and thus, such accounts may be read as progressive. Arguments have been forwarded that humour is a medium by which taboo subjects may be introduced in a society;yet, one also wonders if misplaced humour furthers the taboos and re-marginalizes a community that is struggling to de-marginalize itself.
Conversely, there have been some films, although few and far between, which have tried to present an alternate view. Recently, Queens! The Destiny of Dance (2011) illustrates transgender identity; historically, films such as Tamanna (1997), Darmiyaan (1997), and Shabnam Mausi (2005) depicted transgender subject sensitively. Bol (2011) from Pakistan is also noteworthy. My Brother Nikhil (2005) has been identified as the first mainstream film in India with a gay protagonist. Even with a high profile actress Juhi Chawla in the cast, the film did not attract much attention commercially; it did well in the film festival circuits. Yet another film, Memories in March (2011), carries forward the tradition set by My Brother Nikhil, and has been hailed as a brilliant film by art cinema connoisseurs.
Memories in March
Written by Ritupurno Ghosh and directed by Sanjoy Nag Memories in March won award for Best English film at the 58thNational Film Awards in India; Ghosh also plays a lead role in the film. Ghosh, a well-known Bengali film director and actor, has won several international film festival awards. Influenced by Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, he is also known for playing a transgender filmmaker in Bengali film Aareki Premer Galpo (2010) which set Kolkata abuzz. Open about what he calls his ‘fluid sexuality’ Ghosh has been instrumental in bringing about the subject of alternate sexualities incinematic and social spheres.
Memories in March is about a mother grieving the death of her son, but also coming to terms with the details of his sexual orientation. Arti Mishra (Deepti Naval) gets news of the death of her only son Siddhartha/Sid/Babu, an advertising professional, and she comes to Kolkata to attend his funeral and collect his belongings;Siddhartha died in a car accident as he drove home drunk after an office party. Arti is received by Suhana (Raima Sen), Sid’s colleague and friend. Suhana loved Sid, and Sid had revealed details of his gay relationship to her; consequently, Suhana has learnt to love in silence and without expectations. As the events unfold, Suhana discloses to Arti that Sid was involved in a romantic relationship with his male boss Ornob (Ritupurno Ghosh). Arti,who has been dealing with calm and composure with the news of Sid’s death, is shocked on learning of her son’s homosexuality. Death is difficult to deal with, but her son’s sexual preference comes as more of a jolt to a mother who thought she knew her son well. Arti questions her mothering skills and has moments of doubt when she wonders if she had raised her son right, and if she would have been able to ‘cure’ his ‘abnormality’ if she would have known. When she mentions her doubts to Ornob he lashes out at her for such thinking and reminds her that if anybody needs to see a psychiatrist, it is Arti, who has trouble accepting alternate sexuality as a norm. Arti accepts that she is conservative minded; when Ornob asks her:“What is more important to you? That Sid is no more? Or that he was gay?”, Arti explains that she will never come to terms with Sid’s death, but as much as she tries to accept that he was gay, as a mother, she found it very difficult. As Ornob talks to Arti about his relationship with Sid, Arti rediscovers Sid, now through Ornob. Eventually Arti warms up to Ornob, and takes him out for dinner before she leaves Kolkata.On their way back from the dinner, as they stand in front of the railing where Sid’s car crashed, Ornob reminds Arti of the song – “yeh ratein, yeh mausam, nadin ka kinara, yeh chanchal hawa” – a song from the film Dilli ka Thug (1958) – which Sid used to sing often. Arti reveals that she used to sing the song as a lullaby to Sid; in this beautiful moment, as the two recall the song, they also reconcile and bond. By the time she leaves Kolkata, Arti has learnt that Sid was not only hers, but that he left bits of him in everybody whose lives he touched. Arti also realizes that even before she came to Kolkata, she was part of Suhana’s and Ornob’s lives; they knew much about her through Sid. The audience does not get to see Sid; Sid is introduced only through voice-overs and his e-mail and text messages to his mother.
The film has many moments of intensity that audience has to grapple with. WhenArti wants all of Sid’s belongings from his office Ornob asks for some time before he can part with the possessions; but as the film progresses and the two struggle and argue over the tangibles, both realize that the memories are theirs to keep. At yet another moment in the film, Arti asks Ornob if he will take Sid’s aquarium; Ornob refuses and explains that he doesn’t like putting anyone/thing in boxes – why box anybody? Let everybody be free. The inherent message of freedom and equality for all is clear. Also, both Arti and Ornob subdue their pain, but there are moments when they break down – Arti when looking into the freezer in Sid’s apartment and Ornob when passing by the accident site. Suhana serves as a link among all the characters. The three characters are united in a complex, and yet special, relationship that they now share in angst and memories of Sid.
Although Sid’s death is the backdrop of the film, grief over losing him does not emerge as the central concern; instead, it is the way people deal with grief, their closeness, and understanding of other person’s pain. Nor is the film necessarily about the relationship between Sid and Ornob.As director Nag insists, the film is not about gay issues, but rather about a mother’s journey; thus, the gay identity of Ornob and Sid is situated within conventional discourse. Such non-conformist portrayal of the gay relationship is a bold move in a society which refuses to accept any changes to the traditional heterosexual model. Both Nag and Ghosh have to be credited for bringing to screen a tabooed subject and for treating it so brilliantly without categorizing the gay community, and presenting the anguish of a gay lover as part of the normal course of life.
A linear narrative, the story is constructed around Arti’s memories of Sid’s messages and Ornob’s memories of the events after the accident that killed Sid. Both Arti and Ornob visit the accident site separately a few times; but when they visit the site together, their discussion of the railing which was broken in the accident, and has subsequently been repaired, reminds viewers of the importance of the minutest details of Sid’s life for both the characters. Memories of Sid are all that they have. Do memories belong to anybody? Who has the right over Sid’s memories – Arti, Ornob, Suhana? The film raises such questions delicately and pushes the audience to revaluate their understanding of relationships – the intense human touch adds to the charm of the film.There is no Bollywood style masala melodrama. Emotions are presented with maturity and depth. Expressed grief, suppressed tears, uttered joys, agony of loss, enriching silence – all add to the poignant density of the film which is about relationships, acceptance, and reconciliation.Ghosh’s performance of a lover in grief is commendable; Naval is a seasoned actress and does not disappoint. Deboyjoti Mishra’s music adds a touch of excellence.