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In 2009, after the Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults, the streets of metropolitan India were filled with members of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer), community celebrating the recognition of a fundamental right that was denied to them for decades. Pride marches have been held in the country before, but for the first time in the history of the queer movement, India had to reckon with the sheer reality of numbers. People had to wake up to the fact that the LGBTQ community did not merely refer to lawyers and activists fighting for justice and marching on the streets, but also included thousands of others who choose to stay away from the public eye, and get on with their lives quietly, like the rest of humanity.

Between then and last year’s Supreme Court order effectively upholding Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which penalizes all sexual behaviours other than heterosexual intercourse for procreation, the idea of LGBTQ politics in India has changed profoundly. At the Global Day of Rage protests, organized last month in several Indian and international cities, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations showed up in solidarity to oppose the regressive Section 377. In spite of the hurdles of law and party politics, the discourse of queer rights in India seems to have progressed towards human rights—as it should.

Queer feminist activist and stand-up comedian Pramada Menon’s debut film, And You Thought You Knew Me, produced under the aegis of the Public Service Broadcasting Trust last year, explores the specific challenges faced by people assigned female gender at birth in India. Documenting the testimonies of five such ‘women’, the film surveys the link between activism and the formation of sexual identity—the way it is often misconstrued in the popular perception. Co-founder of CREA (Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action) Menon is a prominent figure in India’s gay rights movement. Her act, Fat, Feminist and Free, is not only riotously funny but also incisive in its comments on the politics of gender, sexuality and class. The film, stark but complex, does not use any archival footage of pride marches. It relies, rather, on five singular entities to present a striking counterpoint to visual representations of people belonging to the LGBTQ community.

“I wanted to explore the implications of the word ‘activism’," says Menon, “And show that it does not necessarily have to involve marching on the streets." Only one of the five characters who speak in the film—Lesley, a journalist—has an had ‘activist’ past, having appeared in the public protest against the vandalism of Delhi’s Regal Cinema during the screening of Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire, in 1998. The other four characters—two of who are only heard, not seen—recount their personal battles with family and society to live life on their own terms. Their stories are poignant, especially in light of the Supreme Court verdict, though the film was made much before it. (The voice of Justice A.P. Shah, who was part of the high court bench that delivered the 2009 verdict, reading out sections from the judgment, is one of the most moving sections in the film.)

The film opens with the voice of Anuradha, who grew up in West Delhi, pointing towards south Delhi as the locus of queer activities—as well as activism. “If you are gay, you have to go to south Delhi or to CP (Connaught Place)," she says, acknowledging the salutary effect of the Delhi Metro on her sexuality. The Metro, connecting the chic south-central part of the city with the rest of it, became “the Blue Line" to her gay world, says Anuradha, a succinct but powerful admission, drawing attention to the way in which the queer rights movement in India has been split across class.

Suchi, the other disembodied voice who speaks on camera, identifies herself as “gender-queer", and her account is juxtaposed against glimpses of iconic monuments in the city. “Public spaces, like parks, often end up being meeting points for gay men," says Menon. “I wanted to re-imagine these places as sites that also enable women to meet one another." The camera is also trained on people in the Metro or on street corners—spaces that look mundane to unsuspecting eyes but are full of symbolism and meaning to the queer gaze.

Debika, who got divorced after ten years of marriage and moved from Chicago to Delhi to be with her girlfriend, narrates the amazing support she received from her former mother-in-law. Although she is not quite the streetfighting sort, she stands by her integrity and principles as a person. “Don’t try to ignore that part of me," she says, referring to her lesbianism. “It is my reality."

The most arresting presence is Amalina, who is not only remarkably articulate but also incredibly self-assured. Speaking on a range of subjects, including cross-dressing, she voices concerns that not only strike a chord with queer people but should also resonate with any individual who believes in justice, equality and human dignity, irrespective of gender and sexual identity.

A fortnightly look at the world of arts from close and afar.

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