When section 377, India’s law criminalizing homosexuality, was overturned by the Delhi High Court in 2009, gay people and straight allies across the country celebrated it as a victory for human rights.
Thespian and film-maker Nayantara Roy thought that queer reactions to the ruling deserved an honest, human portrait that recorded a range of lesbian, gay, transvestite and bisexual (LGTB) voices.
So she, along with her partners in Mumbai-based theatre group Working Title, decided to make a film that decoded the impact of section 377, as well as the aftermath of its repeal, on the lives of LGBT people.
Her documentary, Over the Shoulder, weaves together several real-life narratives from people who have had to live with the law every day.
“What it means,” she says of the repeal, “is freedom. We have spoken to so many people who tell us, ‘India has been free since 1947, but I experienced my first real independence day that morning in July, when the high court decriminalized homosexuality’.”
Manvendra Singh Gohil and Nayantara Roy.
A key aspect of that freedom is simply ordinariness: the quotidian aspects of daily life that straight people can, to varying degrees, simply take for granted. Public attention pervades even the private aspects of gay life. Choosing a partner, raising a child and buying a house are all experiences fraught with particular social scrutiny.
This is, Roy says, “the real inspiration of the film—the stories of ordinary people, who live ordinary lives.”
In Mumbai, where Roy is filming her documentary, the speed with which the city absorbs and normalizes every kind of experience is something of an advantage to its LGBT population.
“It has the largest middle class of all cities, and so it contains the broadest spectrum of life,” she says of her experience filming here. “Its identity isn’t as privileged as Delhi’s, doesn’t have the constraints of Chennai—here, it’s easier not to stand out or be singled out.”
Her documentary also seeks out iconic queer voices that inform public discourse, to talk about life after “377”. These include Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla’s former royal family. An out gay man, Gohil now works as an advocate and an educationist on issues related to HIV and AIDS, among other things. Another queer icon featured in Roy’s film is transgender activist Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi, who recently made and acted in the Bollywood film Queens! Destiny of Dance.
Roy, a film student, will first show the complete film privately in New York, and then take it around the global festival circuit. But what she would really like, she says, would be for the film to take to the mainstream.
“I imagine it playing before a feature film at a big multiplex like PVR,” she says. “I don’t want to preach to the choir. I want ordinary people to see it and recognize that they are looking at the stories of people like them.”