Senior Thesis Series: Indian Lesbian Activism and Film

Read about senior and former Manifesta editor-in-chief Reina Gattuso’s thesis on Indian lesbian activism and film!

What concentration are you in?
Comparative Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality

Can you summarize your thesis briefly?
I wrote on the relationship between Indian lesbian activism and film in the past twenty years. More specifically, I focused on two films – Fire, an English-language film by an Indian-Canadian director, and Dedh Ishqiya, an Urdu language Bollywood film – that either catalyzed, or emerged during, major political crises related to lesbianism in contemporary India. I was interested in how these films used certain narrative devices, cultural/literary references, and formal elements to inspire a sense of “queer possibility,” or to encourage audiences to envision different or better worlds. I argued that not only did the films spark debate and even the formation of lesbian community, but that the emotional or affective experience of the films expanded queer conceptions of the possible.

Was there a particular experience or class that helped you get the idea for your research?
I studied abroad in Delhi junior fall, and made some of my closest friends among the Indian and international students in my university there. A lot of them were involved in queer activism of various sorts. I was in Delhi in December 2013, when the Indian Supreme Court made a decision to reinstate an 1861 law making gay sex illegal. It was an intense time: My friends and activists I was acquainted with were both devastated that the law had been maintained, and also newly invigorated with the need to continue fighting. When I watched Dedh Ishqiya for the first time, I got that same feeling of complex possibility.

Do you see your findings having real-life applications? If so, what kind?
Narrative shapes the way we think about ourselves, each other, and the world. As a writer, I am constantly interested in creating texts that are open to different experiences, different kinds of life. Language isn’t magical – it doesn’t mystically summon resources; it doesn’t necessarily, in the immediate moment, halt violence; and it alone can’t change laws. But language and the things we make with it set the frames we have for thinking about the world and what is possible in it. Opening this sense of possibility – through activism, through writing, through film – also opens the possibility of more just futures.

What was your most interesting/most surprising finding?
I was struck again and again by the inextricable political complexity of queerness. Especially in a South Asian context, you can’t talk about lesbianism without talking about colonialism, race, gender, class, religion, nation, language, caste, global capitalism, culture industries, and on and on and on. Saying that everything is intersectional maybe sounds trite, but damn, is it true. Both of my films depended on complex sets of cultural and narrative references with important religious, linguistic, and cinematic references; any message about queerness was thus a message about all of these things. Once you pull at one string in a political fabric, every element begins unraveling.

What was the hardest part about the experience of writing a thesis?
Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines…

If people want to learn more about your topic, what sources would you recommend?
Whenever I’d tell anyone what I was working on, reactions tended to be along the lines of: “Whoa, wait, BOLLYWOOD?” And then, “Whoa, wait, INDIAN LESBIANS?”

I think people found the project neat, but also, I think this reaction came from some pretty serious ignorance about India and Indian feminism. Bollywood is an enormous, globally-influential culture industry, and those of us who don’t have previous connections to the subcontinent would all do well to at least be somewhat familiar with it. And the fact that there is an active, kick-ass queer and feminist movement in India shouldn’t be surprising; there’s been so much news coverage about sexual violence and legal oppression of queer people in India over the past couple years, but less about all the incredible work activists are doing.

So watch these films and read up on various movements! Both Fire and Dedh Ishqiya are readily available through a variety of services online and in libraries. For bad-ass writing coming out of the Indian feminist and queer movements, start with Kafila for political commentary (it’s in both English and Hindi) and Gaylaxy Magazine for popular writing on Indian queer culture. Enjoy 🙂

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