Shyam Benegal is not my favourite filmmaker. I find his insipid, timorous treatment of gratuitous political themes, very compromised. His flirtation with issues of feudal oppression, gender conflicts, class struggles and rural resistance have been elaborate cover-ups against any serious show of commitment or any radical departure.
In his latest film, Welcome to Sajjanpur, however, Benegal has chosen to move out of his customary tokenism. One of its telling moments is the suggestion of a sexual/political revolution through the agency of a new party of hijras (transgenders), which trounces the routinely corrupt and violent ‘normal’ parties — with their rousing election song, Ab aayi hamaari baari (“It’s our turn now”). It might not be such a bad idea, after all, to explore this political alternative.
The timing is impeccable, considering the subtext of the film is framed by the utter confusion being exhibited by the Union Law and Home Ministries on the one hand and the Union Health Ministry on the other, in the case in the Delhi High Court over the anachronistic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which violates the rights of transgenders and homosexuals and punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” with imprisonment of up to ten years. Home Minister Shivraj Patil, in particular, has found time in between combing his whiskers to make homophobic remarks, too illiterate and Jurassic for comfort.
The Public Interest Litigation in the Delhi Court was brought by an NGO, the Naz Foundation, in 2001, arguing that Section 377 violated the constitutional rights of sexual minorities in India and interfered with the provision of HIV/AIDS prevention services. It asked for a reading down of 377, to de-criminalise consensual sex between adults of the same sex.
In 2005, the High Court dismissed the petition on a flimsy technicality. The Lawyer’s Collective, representing Naz Foundation, filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court, challenging the dismissal. In February 2006, the SC ordered the High Court to hear the case on merits and it is here that the government has exhibited comical reticence to rectify a 150-year-old colonial law, routinely employed to harass those with alternate sexual orientation.
Even the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) has impleaded itself in the case with a progressive affidavit claiming that the law contributes to pushing gays into hidden spaces, thereby rendering the sensitive issue of monitoring and treatment of some 8 per cent prevalence of AIDS in that community all the more difficult.
Section 377 is also used extensively to subject hijras to brutal violence, sexual abuse and extortion at the hands of the public as well as the police, even as it denies same-sex partners legal protection or recognition within the law.
It is not just Health Minister A Ramadoss who has now openly placed his weight on the side of revising the obnoxious law. In recent years, even official bodies like the Law Commission, the Planning Commission and the National Commission for Women have advocated the deletion of the Section.
Of course, the task is still uphill. There is a prevalent patriarchal, homophobic mindset of the State that has to be dealt with. Readers might have forgotten, but in 1987, there was a disgusting manifestation of this affecting a film made by the charismatic Malayalam director, Aravindan.
Dancer/Choreographer Chandralekha was commissioned to conceptualise Stree, a massive exhibition on Indian women, for the Festival of India in the USSR. She devised it around five exceptional concepts of women. It concluded with a futuristic statement on gender parity, referring to the older concept of ‘Ardhanarishwara’. She wanted to illustrate this through film on Indian dance vocabularies where male dancers perform female roles and, in the process, transform or ‘become’.
Some of the great names of the Indian dance pantheon like Kelucharan Mahapatra and Vedantam Satyanarayana Sarma, were lined up. Based on Chandralekha’s script, Aravindan made a flowing 30 minutes film called Sahaja, with Shaji Karun and Sunny Joseph on the camera.
After clearance from ministers-in-charge P V Narasimha Rao and Margaret Alva, when the film was mounted in Moscow, ambassador T N Kaul flew into a white rage and famously went on record saying, “Hum in hijron ko yahaan nahin dikhayenge. Hum hijre nahin hain; hum poore mard hain (We will not allow these eunuchs to be shown here. We are not eunuchs; we are 100 per cent males).”
To which Chandralekha’s equally famous rejoinder in the press was, “Mr Kaul must be an oddity. The rest of humanity is either 51 per cent male or female. Some may be 50 percent. Only he’s the unique 100 per cent.”
Sahaja was stopped and substituted with a hagiographic film on Indira Gandhi — in the exhibition section titled ‘Ardhanarishwara’. Ironically, Aravindan went on to enter the film at the next National Film Festival, in Hyderabad, and won the award for the ‘Best Short Film’ category.
But in the government, the ‘hijra’ mindset still prevails.
7 months ago