At the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival that concluded on May 29, actress Celina Jaitly arrived fashionably late for the closing ceremony. Dressed in a mint-coloured gown and looking like a debutante late for her cotillion ball, Jaitley sashayed down the aisle to deafening cheers. On stage, she gave an impassioned speech about equal rights and paid tribute to slain Bangladeshi gay rights activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy, who were brutally murdered in their Dhaka apartment in April. Jaitley closed her speech by condemning Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises homosexuality and affects the lives of the LGBT community in more ways than one.
Jaitly has been associated with the Kashish festival as an ambassador since its first edition in 2010. In its seventh year, the festival organisers got British actor Ian McKellen and actress Sonam Kapoor to inaugurate the opening ceremony on May 25, but their loyalties remain with Jaitly who describes herself as a “lifelong ally” of the community.
How and why has Celina Jaitly become the patron saint of the LGBT community?
In an email interview with Scroll.in Jaitly said, “People sometimes ask me why I feel so passionately about LGBT rights. The answer is you have to be the change that you want to see.”
The former Miss India 2001 began her movie career in 2003 opposite actor Fardeen Khan in Feroz Khan’s Janasheen. The film flopped. Jaitly appeared in several multi-starrers after Janasheen, but her career graph has been chequered. By 2010, she appeared to be on her way out, with only one release, Hello Darling, a thinly veiled copy of the 1980 comedy film 9 to 5 that focuses on the lives of three working women. Jaitley bowed out from the movies, got married to hotelier Peter Haag, and has two sons, but she has also channelled her energies into becoming a role model for the queer fraternity.
“I have had a very privileged life of a safe and supportive family, a great career, acceptance and many million things for which I have immense gratitude and at the same time there are thousands around me, some of them probably more competent and better then me even at what I do, those who will never have the opportunity to reach their maximum potential as a human being, just because they were LGBTQI,” she said.
Jaitly was 16 when she found out her boyfriend was gay. It tormented her and she prayed to god to make him “normal”. When that didn’t happen, she accepted him for the way he was, she claims. He died of a bulimia-induced stroke, leaving his mother’s jewellery for her. Jaitly’s first make-up artist was a transgendered man, who treated her like a daughter. She promised herself that she would take up the cause of gay rights once she got the opportunity.
The Kashish festival offered her a place at the front of the march, but it wasn’t going to be easy to explain. Few entertainers have gone so far as beyond campy roles that stereotype the representation of the queer community.
Jaitly’s commitment isn’t mere lip service, confirms Pallav Patankar, programme director at Humsafar Trust, an organisation that promotes LGBT rights. “Celina has consistently supported the community, her support has not been a one-off appearance or a one-off quote,” Patankar said. “She has been there in spirit and has gone beyond her television news hour appearances.”
Patankar cited instances of Jaitly helping people with financial aid and moral support. “She has used her own funds in travelling to and fro for LGBT functions,” he said. “She has supported the Mr Gay World nominee financially. She has been doing this for more than 10 years now.”
Having been a beauty queen, Jaitly is canny enough to understand that the podium is the best place to make a public announcement and invite members of the audience to join hands with her. However, seeking allies has been Jaitly’s most challenging task. She says that she hasn’t been able to gather support from the film industry, in which most actors and filmmakers fear that their reputation will be tarnished if they are associated with queer rights.
“Bollywood has a closeted love affair with the LGBTQ,” Jaitly said. “Bollywood is probably the only industry in India where the LGBTQI have the freedom to be themselves, but there are many who are closeted, many who don't want to acknowledge LGBTQI and only want to stick to their creativity and do not feel it's their responsibility to contribute to change in any other way.”
Apart from openly gay filmmakers such as Onir and Apurva Asrani, not too many heterosexual actors have openly championed queer rights. “People don’t realise the importance of a straight ally,” Jaitly said.
Shobhna S Kumar, who runs Queer-Ink, India’s first online queer bookstore, and also produces films, of which the short Any Other Day was shown at the Kashish festival, recalls Jaitly’s early days. “I remember listening to Celina’s speech at a press conference in 2010 and felt that she spoke from her heart,” Kumar said. “Celina was quite articulate and compassionate. Her language was inclusive, knowledgeable and sensitive to the complexities of the queer community in India.”
Kumar is convinced that Jaitly wants to bring change, unlike other actors who disappear after “paid appearances”. Kumar said, “At no point in time I felt Celina is acting, that she is being politically correct. I did not feel tolerated by her, but accepted.”
Jaitly has pursued other interests apart from acting. In 2014, she made her debut as a singer for a United Nations Free and Equal human rights campaign. In the music video “The Welcome”, a young man takes his boyfriend to meet his family. After initial reluctance, the family sings “Uthe Sab Ke Kadam” along with Jaitly, and they dance to include the new family member.
Jaitly keeps herself busy with product endorsements and is also recognised as a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals activist. She was nominated by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as a UN Equality Champion in recognition of her support for LGBT rights. Her efforts earned her the Harvey Milk Award last month. With so many crusades, Jaitly has her work cut out for her beyond headlines.