queer rights

‘I kissed a girl’ and other cliches: How Indian TV is missing the mark on same-sex relationships

The quantity of programmes with LGBT characters has increased, the quality only slightly.

Last week, there was a rare sighting on Indian television: a love story involving two women. The latest episode of MTV’s Love on The Run, an anthology show inspired by real-life tales of star-crossed lovers, traced the relationship between a college professor and her student who risk social condemnation to be together.

The episode, titled Love Has No Gender, centres on the carefree Falak (Shruti Sinha) who is carpe-dieming her way through life when she crosses paths with the reserved Purva (Niyati Joshi), a victim of domestic abuse. Purva, a dramatics teacher at Falak’s college, develops a bond with her student, who helps her escape the horrors of her domestic life by infusing her days with some lightheartedness.

Falak too is trapped in a loveless relationship – she isn’t physically attracted to her boyfriend – and the two find warmth and solace in each other. But, as host Shantanu Maheshwari warns us repeatedly, trouble is looming in the form of Falak’s scorned boyfriend, Purva’s abusive husband and that omnipresent antagonist, society.

The episode was aired on MTV on January 7 and is available for viewing online on Voot.

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Love Has No Gender, Love on the Run.

Among the positive elements in the episode is the fact that Falak and Purva’s relationship unfolds with tenderness (although it seems rushed) instead of being overly sexualised. But the situations are too contrived, the performances are sub-par, the characters are caricaturish and lack chemistry. There is a perceptible lack of depth and nuance, and the gaps in logic are too glaring to forgive.

However, the real problem with the episode – and the show as a whole – is that it fails to navigate the line between being progressive and sensational. While purporting to do the former, it often slips into the latter.

While it’s commendable that Love on the Run takes on topics considered taboo, it does not allow those themes to transcend their purported boldness to establish that they don’t deserve the fuss – or the taboo tag.

The show also shies away from showing any intimacy between the two women (though that coyness is consistent with earlier episodes). There is an allusion to a kiss, but it is not shown on screen. Though it is better to have no intimacy at all than to show it just to titillate, this does seem like a step back for a channel that had, a little more than two years ago, famously depicted what was touted as the “first lesbian kiss on Indian television”.

That episode was as contrived and silly, and also problematically included in a series titled The Big F, dedicated to showing forbidden fantasies on the small screen.

I Kissed a Girl centred on fashion design student Sharmistha, who develops an attraction for Madhurima, a model. But Madhurima flirts with both Sharmishta and her best friend, Riteish, leaving the protagonists (and viewers) confused about her motives. In a particularly nauseating dialogue, Madhurima sums it up in the end when she says: “I like both of you...but Sharmishta, I want you.”

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Big F.

The insinuation that homosexuality is a forbidden fantasy and the half-baked plot notwithstanding, the episode was hailed as a welcome beginning for programming centred on same-sex relationships in Indian television. In these two years, such programming could have come a long way. Sadly, it hasn’t.

In the interim, shows with LGBT themes have sprung into life on the internet, forming core or sub-plotlines on multiple web series. The result is a mixed bag: most miss the mark, but the one-odd show that is right on target holds out the promise of better days.

In what is perhaps a sign of inclusiveness, a number of shows built on the familiar premise of a group of friends coming of age through a series of adventures now often include at least one gay character.

The 2016 show Confessions…It’s Complicated, about three women from as many corners of India starting their lives out in Mumbai, skims the surface of an attraction between one of the protagonists and a woman who identifies as bisexual. Unfortunately, not much time or detail is attached to this thread. On the plus side, there is not much drama around their relationship either. It flows into the narrative and does not demand attention for being bold or progressive.

The very forgettable Love Life and Screw Ups (2017), which marked 1970s star Zeenat Aman’s comeback, revolves around a group of friends who share snacks and terrible tea at a cafe every day, but not their many dark secrets. The show co-stars Diandra Soares of Bigg Boss fame as Mansi, who is engaged to her long-time boyfriend but is in a secret relationship with her roommate, Payal (Mahi Sharma).

The show is so clumsy that it often seems satirical – it features, among other things, a gay man who embodies all the offensive stereotypes and then some and a plus-sized woman who is constantly fat-shamed. Soares’s character leaves much to be desired but is perhaps the best etched out among all in the show. A conversation between Mansi and her modern-but-hypocritical mother is perhaps the only moment in the show with an inkling of soul.

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Love Life & Screw Ups.

Nia Sharma’s turn as a femme fatale in Vikram Bhatt’s erotic web series Twisted (2017) grabbed much attention for the soap star’s dramatic makeover. The show was possibly created with the lone agenda of being scandalous, and a lesbian sub-plot in this erotic thriller cum murder mystery fits right into that theme. Sharma’s Alia is shown to be in a secret live-in relationship with a woman and the two share an extremely uncomfortable kiss and a cringe-worthy love-making scene that seems to exist only to ratchet up the views.

Another show that seems to be made with the singular purpose of being progressive is Ekta Kapoor’s 2017 show Dev DD, for her youth programming online division, Alt Balaji. This contemporary adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas reimagines the alcoholic and self-destructive protagonist as a woman. But in trying to undo the damage caused by the regressive portrayal of women in her sprawling TV show empire over the decades, Kapoor ends up hurting her cause further by confusing feminism with creating a protagonist who is a foul-mouthed rebel without a cause. Devika locks horns and lips with many people in the show, and one of her encounters involves her lesbian best friend, Chandni. None of these relationships are particularly well fleshed out.

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Web series centred on gay relationships seem to have had a little more success, with shows like Romil and Jugal, Untag and All About Section 377 receiving some praise for attempting to do something different.

Standing far away from this crowd, in a league of its own, is Rupa Rao’s The Other Love Story (2016). The 12-episode show that depicts the romance between two college students Aadya (Spoorthi Gumaste) and Aachal (Shweta Gupta) in Bengaluru in the 1990s is a revelation. The romance between the two unfolds gradually and organically, the performances are sincere and the raw honesty is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Though the award-winning show has been billed as India’s first lesbian web series, Rao wants this to be seen as a love story that just happens to involve two women. “I just wrote about a relationship,” she told Scroll.in in 2016. “I wrote about two people falling in love for the first time.”

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The Other Love Story.

While shows exploring LGBT themes are still in a nascent stage, they’ve been around for far too long to claim to be path-breaking just by virtue of their existence. Unfortunately, the nuanced and realistic depictions of the many contours of sexuality and sexual preferences is sorely lacking in most programmes.

But if shows like The Other Love Story are anything to go by, there is hope still.

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