Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Theatre: Gay is not a gender

At the very heart of Purva Naresh’s new play, Ladies Sangeet, is the failed marriage of Megha (Lovleen Misra) and Yash (Joy Sengupta), a middle-aged couple, even if the giddy narrative is cheerily driven forward by arrangements being made for the forthcoming nuptials between their daughter, Radha (Shikha Talsania) and her long-time boyfriend, Sid (Siddharth Kumar). As if to highlight the generational divide, both Talsania and Kumar evoke a charming, easy-going chemistry and speak unaffectedly in trendy English, whereas the parents are prone to heavy-duty theatrics and appear to be trapped in a time warp underscored by 1980s music (from films like 1982’s Saath Saath) and references—a flashback is reminiscent of a similar scene in Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (also 1982), in which Shabana Azmi wafts around an empty flat bought for her by her husband, although unbeknownst to her, he is a love rat.

That conceit is taken forward here. For five years, the couple has not been on speaking terms, because Megha suspects Yash of an affair with another woman. This is where this Hindi play attempts to veer away from melodramatic predictability. While this is essentially a spoiler, it is important to talk about Yash’s revelation that he is gay, especially in the context of the flimsy politics of representation the play flirts with dangerously. When the disclosure of a character’s sexuality is given the treatment of a “big reveal"—as in the recent film Kapoor And Sons (Since 1921)—it effectively “others" him not just for the characters in the play, but for the audience itself. Here, it is positioned as a narrative masterstroke in keeping with the play’s mildly progressive tenor, as it jauntily, if superficially, moves from one talking point to another via characters who seem to be ciphers for the same world view.

Sengupta grapples thanklessly (and earnestly) with his characterization, that of a gay man married to a woman, but in a relationship with another man. What is telling is the conflation of his sexuality with his gender identity, which is shown to be feminine—Yash often yearns to don his wife’s saris.

In one scene, he rummages through his daughter’s trousseau. Naresh conflates disparate identities here, and appears perilously to view gender and sexuality through the same prism. The transgender closet is a completely different beast than the gay closet, and the play does justice to neither by coalescing their conflicts so flippantly.

Later, as if in a nod to his role in the Mahesh Dattani play Dance Like A Man, Sengupta performs an ardhanarishvara dance routine. None of this can be seen as anything other than a morass of stereotypes conjured up to purportedly sugar-coat the bitter pill Naresh thinks she is offering the audience. This is a shame because up to the half-way point, the play shapes up as a breezy entertainer with inspired comedic turns from supporting players like Sarika Singh and Trisha Kale. A giant glow signboard, with Radha “Heart" Sid emblazoned on it, provides a quaintly prescient backdrop to Radha and Sid’s nocturnal trysts, in which a wedding planner (the irrepressible Gopal Dutt) invariably plays spoiler. The conversations between various characters refreshingly challenge the social expectations that women are held to and the musical interludes include classical bandish (compositions) that add untold gravitas to the proceedings. The big reveal, meant to veer the play into uncharted territory, derails this endeavour.

Ultimately, in a play about women (including, unbeknownst to it, trans-women), not many women emerge unscathed, especially those who must be unshackled from their deep-seated beliefs. With Radha lamentably sidelined in the second act, Misra’s awkward Megha takes centre stage. It is hard to get a read of this inconsistent character—she is sanguinely self-aware one moment, and oddly complaisant the other. Nivedita Bhargava, a performer with a richly redolent voice, is Yash’s mother, and the mainstay of the musical score. She spends so much time in skirmishes with her second granddaughter (played by Kale) defending the regressiveness so innate to lyrics in classical music, that she is hardly the intransigent matriarch who upholds patriarchal norms in this women-heavy household. In a mind-boggling final sequence, Yash’s latent femininity is given pride of place as the symbolic repository of the play’s themes, and he is accepted back into the fold by the women in his life.

For a play that is certainly keen to be progressive, this is a strange validation of gay men who are married to women. Empathy for circumstances is one thing, but it is also important to call out these social evils for what they really are. In Ladies Sangeet, paradoxically, it appears that patriarchy wins yet another round.

Ladies Sangeet will be performed on 9-10 July at Kamani Auditorium, 1, Copernicus Marg, New Delhi (43503351). Click here for details.

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