Ladies and Gentlewomen is the only film I managed to catch at the recently concluded Chennai Rainbow Film Festival. Directed by Chennaiite Malini Jeevarathnam, the film (if you haven’t already guessed) is about women. Specifically, about lesbian relationships in India, both in the past and the present.
The present, shown through interviews with lesbian couples, writers, journalists and activists, is the familiar narrative – the questioning of attraction (or none at all), the exploration of sexuality, fear of expressing love, consequences of acceptance and rejection. So are the stories of disapproval and disownment by families, of loving in secrecy, of struggling to find homes, of sorrow and suicide when the love is unattainable.
In the film, the tales from times bygone are visualised through vivid sketches and versatile actors. There is the tale of Tija and Bija, a lesbian couple who is believed to be living happily to this day among the ghosts, because well, compared to the violence humans can unleash, living with the former is less scarier. Another tale that features in the film is that of the lovers Pappathi and Karupaayi. The Tamil tale is about the two women from different castes, who chose death over a life without each other. More people, in other interviews, spoke about the prevalence of lesbianism in our culture — numerous folktales, the kamasutra and how the sculptures of Konark and Khajuraho are proof of this. The contrast between the past and the present cannot be clearer. If you’re wondering how we got here from where we were, I must remind you about the tale of Nangeli, an Ezhava woman from Kerala who chopped off her breasts in a haunting gesture against breast taxes (that actually existed!). This story is missing from the official archives, but remains a local legend. It is only recently that it has made a re-appearance on social media and some cultural spaces. Also remember: The CBSE removed an entire section titled ‘Caste, conflict and dress change’ from its social science curriculum a few weeks ago.
Somewhere along the path, oral testimonies have been taken down, ‘her-story’ has been rewritten as his, female sexuality has been made sinful, lesbianism has become a ‘lesser’ love, epochs have been erased, fights have been forgotten, and we have been left with a silenced and sliced narrative of the past. It’s easy to forget sections of history if we don’t make an effort to keep the stories alive and pass them on. We live in an age of revisionist history, where the past is being changed fast to suit political futures, and maybe at this very moment, a piece of public memory is being fragmented to nothingness. If we know, and still continue to let it happen, we will have to face the ‘danger of a single story’ (Note: Watch the speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). But if we want to stay from this danger, or the danger of the future that is being built for us, we should now re-kindle, re-visit, re-ask, refind, and re-tell. Only then can we reverse this regressive cycle to make ‘her-story’ possible and our stories available.
(The writer is a Chennai-based activist, in-your-face feminist and a media glutton)