Alternative Female Sexuality in Indian Cinema

Sampurna Majumder depicts the treatment of homosexuality in Bollywood.


Sexuality and its discourses are rarely voiced in India. In a society where even heterosexuality is discussed in a hush-hush manner, it’s extremely isolating to belong to a community marked as sexual minority like the gay or lesbian.

Exploring lesbian relationships had always been a taboo in Hindi films, though some earlier films had strong undertones to it. One such incident was the period film Razia Sultan where Hema Malini played the protagonist. A song sequence has Razia lying on bed with her lady-in-waiting beside her, played by Parveen Babi. The latter is seen passing a feather on the former’s forehead lightly. The sequence had obvious lesbian undertones.

fireHowever, it was not until the late nineties that lesbianism as a theme began to be considered seriously by Indian filmmakers. Indian-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta in her film Fire made one such serious attempt. The film demonstrates the struggle of two women in love in a deeply patriarchal backdrop. Radha and Sita are sisters-in-law who develop a close relationship and find solace in each other after their unsuccessful marriages. Once their “affair” is discovered, their spouses desert the two women. Before they are reunited, Radha undergoes a literal trial by fire as she tries to escape the oppressive patriarchal household. The fire symbolizes the rugged road that Indian lesbians are forced to travel in a society that frowns upon homosexuality. However, the movie shows that the two women ‘turn’ lesbians due to loveless marriage, which is not the case always. Some people have that particular kind of mental orientation, which makes them feel for the same sex. The film is known for the controversy it ignited. Weeks after its release, Hindu activists banned the movie for violating Indian traditions and culture. Despite such events, the film did receive positive feedback from critics.

ishaamritamasalaA couple of years later, another film called Girlfriend was released that dealt with lesbianism as well. While Fire was steeped in sensitivity, Girlfriend can be passed on as crass. Directed by Karan Razdan, the film revolves round two housemates Tanya (Isha Koppikar) and Sapna (Amrita Arora) who have been friends for long. Tanya, a jeweler by profession is devastated when she discovers that Sapna has fallen for a man named Rahul (Ashish Chaudhury). Enraged with jealousy, Tanya vows to fight with Rahul and win back Sapna.

The film upholds a stereotypical image of lesbians where Tanya is always seen wearing shirts and trousers and has her hair closely cropped. She is unnaturally mannish and hates men folk. On the other hand, her housemate, the extra feminine Sapna is in distress with her relationship with Tanya and must be rescued from sliding into homosexuality by the male hero. Conservative religious and political groups protested against the screening of this film as well. However, this time the protest was backed by homosexual organizations as well who objected to the ugly portrayal of lesbians in the film.

the-journeyAnother film worth mentioning in this genre is Indian-American filmmaker Ligy Pullappally’s The Journey. The film set in rural Kerala, traces the story of two friends, Kiran and Delilah. Kiran discovers her love for Delilah while helping a neighbuor boy woo her by ghostwriting his letters for her. When Delilah finds out that Kiran is behind the letters, she immediately reciprocates her feelings. Their families have mixed reaction once they discover the truth. However the film ends on a positive note when the two girls are united.

It can be said that despite the continuing stigma things are changing and specially after the decriminalizing of homosexuality in India. Since Fire, Indian society has become more liberal and accommodating to gay and lesbian relationships. The fact that lesbianism can be situated within a world beyond mainstream is a positive development indeed.

4 thoughts on “Alternative Female Sexuality in Indian Cinema

  1. Ganesh S

    Sampurna, you could have spoken about the recent “Bombay Talkies” also. Just a suggestion. A thoughtful article !


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