Aamir Khan’s Tv show ‘Satyameva Jayate’ recently telecast an episode on non-normative sexualities. While some gender identities were carefully ‘invisibilised’, the hoopla around the whole issue makes one wonder about the ‘instant gratification’ framework of such a liberal mindset. Sayan Bhattacharya questions such a movement which hypes a certain politics of representation either by celebrating it or by critiquing it..
So the latest outrage is that Aamir Khan has been slapped with a notice to which he has to reply soon. The charge? Contempt of court for “promoting homosexuality” on his TV show Satyameva Jayate. This, just a couple of days after Tim Cook “came out” as gay. So there begins again the much repeated saga of comparisons between the primitive east which does not respect one’s individual choice of partner in love (which is not a crime) and the evolved west where one’s individual choice is respected and celebrated, and where you can mint truck loads of money inspite of your love. One can almost feel the wetness of the tears, the hotness of the outrage as both keep flowing forth copiously in the media and social networking sites.
After the Supreme Court set aside the Delhi High Court verdict that had read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code last December, for months on end, educational spaces were agog with protest rallies and discussions on non-normative sexualities, celebrity authors like Vikram Seth chose to lend support to the cause (by posing unshaved on a magazine cover and then later waxing eloquent on love), the media too covered the judgment quite extensively. This level of mobilisation was quite unprecedented and though the class and caste dimensions of such a massive response were largely elitist, at least discussions around sex, sexuality and desires were coming to the fore. Topics often invisibilised in middle class homes were making their uneasy presence felt. But one curative petition later, all went quiet on the rainbow front. Outside of the regular pink parties, pride parades, the conversation around sexualities started losing steam. Till the messiah in the form of Aamir Khan arrived on the scene. Having already salvaged manual scavengers, battered housewives, fetuses, alcoholics and others discarded on the margins, he chose to train his gaze this time on the queers. So there he was with his assembly line of the transwoman, the gay man, the lesbian woman and the hijra. LGBT, no LGTH. The B left out? Too complex for a show of one and half hours?
However, what concerns me here is not so much about who or which identity label remained outside Aamir Khan’s benign gaze but about the tone and tenor of a movement which needs resuscitation from a corporate sponsored television show telecast on a channel which will go down in contemporary Indian history to have begun one of the most regressive phases of Indian television with the K soaps. The politics of representation is always charged and is inherently incomplete. Lived realities are far too complicated to be neatly fitted into little jars with labels. For instance, when one says gay or lesbian, what does it connote? What about those men/women who have sex with other men/women and who refuse to identify as gay or lesbian? These are old debates and they will always be there and so will the political compulsion of identity labels as they articulate realities that rupture the hegemony of a single or dominant narrative. So the question is not about how Khan chose a particular identity over another and in the process invisibilised others. The question is about our expectations from a structure which is already prefigured to showcase only one kind of reality only.
For a moment, let’s get back to that much celebrated episode. A uniform narrative runs through all the ‘cases’ presented. Parents/relatives disapprove, then approve … today all the characters are economically well off, their days of struggle for inclusion now a haze (in fact so smooth is the transition from invisibility to confident articulation of self that one wonders whether all the stories of violence one hears about the clinic, family, school and so on are exaggerated). Out of the four individuals on the show, three belong to an upper class background and the fourth (the hijra) ran away from home (the only unaccepting family), became part of a hijra clan and is now an established sexuality rights and HIV activist with a big NGO. So a linear progression from guilt, resentment to acceptance, confidence. The project of the ideal law abiding, family loving citizen whose choice of lover is only incidental and hence harmless enough to be accepted. Now you might ask why is the teleos here already worked out? What if the gay man chose to run away from home, not settle down with one lover but took multiple partners? What if the lesbian chose to keep her husband as well as her same sex lovers? Or what if there were a segment on sexual abuse in school, or one on “corrective rape”? What about the working class male sex worker? The transman who is foreover invisibilised even post the NALSA verdict? What about the dalit lesbian girls contemplating suicide? Or the kinky and queer individual? Yes, these are all absences … telling absences. Yes, Aamir Khan is talking of the dominant caste, upper class queer person who is craving for inclusion in the New India project. But then, my question to you is, why should we even expect the teleos to be not worked out in such a mediascape?
A show that runs on huge donations from Reliance will surely not be probing non-normative desires among tribals in the forests of Dandakaranya! As if Reliance— whose tsar spread out his largesse for the BJP before the elections— doing its token bit for liberalism not enough! During the show, Aamir Khan advertised a toll-free Airtel number on which the viewers were asked to give a missed call, in support of the reading down of Section 377, somewhat like a signature campaign or an online petition. A close to a million calls was received and Aamir promised to take this massive support to the government and press for the reading down of 377. While queer activists across India are rejoicing at this new elixir of hope, one wonders what will their tribe thrive on when the reading down actually takes place eventually with or without petitions? Section 377 which criminalises certain sexual acts (any intercourse other than peno-vaginal penetration) and not sexual identities is reflective of the heteronormative patriarchal state premised on procreative sex but in saying so, do we also assume that when the spectre of these three digits vanish, the edifice of patriarchy will crumble? If not, then why are our queer movements predominantly focused on a piece of law, which in any case has little impact on large swathes of the Indian population ( think of the tribal girls who committed joint suicide even during the rainbow optimism of the Delhi High Court judgment days or the dalit female athlete who is constantly subjected to taunts about her muscular build)? Yes, some individuals will feel emboldened by all these conversations in the media and talk about themselves in their family spaces or at work or elsewhere but when did movements become only about some individuals with access to knowledge capital and its attendant privileges?
So then the problem is not with a superstar who has built a brand around a thinking-superstar-who dabbles-in-issue-based-films type and who loves role-playing as a saviour. It is not even with a channel which has realised that the K soaps and dance reality shows have reached a saturation point and the viewers expect newer formats and newer content. It is not even with Reliance which is doing its bit in the name of that mythical/chimerical animal called corporate social responsibility. It is but obvious that their donations will be only for the big ticket NGOs working in Delhi and Bombay, NGOs focused only on law and HIV-AIDS and nothing else. Surely they will not be sending their blessings for autonomous women’s groups, or Dalit transgender bodies! They are all doing their jobs towards a desired goal. Perhaps then, the problem is within a movement which gloats in a safe notion of victimhood (from which the only way out is to ‘come out’) and then looks for a safe way out (law will give you the gay utopia you dream of). But then are movements monolithic? There are not and perhaps that’s the hope!