Sunday, 19 September 2004
Hindi flick sets anger aflame By Michael S. Rose

An Indian film has triggered widespread protests and civil unrest on the subcontinent over its overt portrayal of lesbianism.

(BOMBAY) – It’s not often that a film triggers widespread protests and civil unrest, but such was the case in India this summer. Karan Razdan’s Girlfriend, with its overt portrayal of lesbianism, has set anger aflame among two very different activist contingents on the subcontinent.

During Girlfriend’s premiere week in June, screenings of the film were disrupted by hundreds of Hindu fundamentalists, some of whom burned effigies of the film’s director. Using blackshirt tactics, the protestors vandalized cinemas in a dozen Indian cities, tearing down posters and billboards advertising the controversial film. One protestor in the central Indian town of Indore even threatened immolation if the film continued to be screened. Characterizing Girlfriend as “vulgar” and “senseless,” the religious protestors said they believe the film offends the moral sensibilities of the Indian public.

“We’re going to push the government to order the deletion of objectionable scenes in the film,” Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the vice-president of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya party, told the Associated Press. “Shots which are against Indian culture should be removed,” he added, presumably a reference to the film’s gratuitous lesbian sex scene.

The more censorious critics, however, have been India’s gay and lesbian watchdogs. They denounced the film as a “homophobic, hetero-patriarchal” portrayal of lesbianism in India and charged the director with the high crime of creating a “conscious, articulated homophobia” for mass consumption.

Girlfriend, starring westernized Indian sex-symbols Isha Koppikar and Amrita Arora, is a candyfloss drama about two longtime women friends who sleep in the same bed and share—explicitly, on screen—a single drunken sexual encounter. When one of them later falls in love with a man, the other becomes consumed by a jealousy that leads to psychopathic obsession. By all accounts, Razdan’s modus operandi was to titillate the Indian public with the taboo sexual theme sprinkled with several eye-popping scenes. To be sure, Lesbianism is a rare theme for Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry based in Bombay.

Until very recently, in fact, Bollywood actresses typically did not want to alienate their conservative fans, nor did they want to endure salacious flak from journalists. Thus they were none too keen on even kissing men on-screen, and many proudly trumpeted their refusal to do so. The Girlfriend starlets, representative of Bollywood’s new breed, evidently have no such concerns.

Koppikar, who plays the traumatized lesbian Tanya, doesn’t mind being known as a sexually-liberated shocker. “It was just another role for me,” she told the Hindustan Times, “nothing more, nothing less.”

Razdan, who also has a reputation in India as somewhat of a shocker, noted that his film passed India’s federal censor board and pointed out that Girlfriend “hardly has any bare skin.” Nevertheless, he added that it is not up to protestors to decide whether a film should be screened.

“The next time I make a movie I won’t take it to the censor board,” he quipped to the Times of India. “I’ll try to get approval from these custodians of morality.”

Despite the physical attacks on property from fringe Hindus, the more vitriolic attacks have come from India’s gay and lesbian groups who say Girlfriend is a warped and negative portrayal of lesbianism.

That charge offends Koppikar’s professional sensibilities. She told the Hindustan Times that she worked very hard on getting the lesbian body language and attitude just right: “I’ve worked so hard on being convincing as a butch that now I’m afraid men will be scared away.”

Real-life lesbians in India don’t seem to agree. In a hysterical denunciation published in Outlook India magazine, the lesbian activist group Humjinsi characterized Koppikar’s role as a “sexually abused, violent, obsessive killer, psychopath lesbian.”

“The movie tears away the anonymity of lesbian existence,” the denunciation went on to say. “The word lesbian is actually used in the film and the image created is a ghastly and revolting one.”

Chatura, head of the Pune-based Organized Lesbian Alliance for Visibility and Action (OLAVA), called Girlfriend “a cheap and titillation-oriented film masquerading as one that’s liberal.” The single-name lesbian activist claimed that the film “reinforces all the negative stereotypes about lesbian and bisexual women.”

Gay activist Ashok Row Kavi went one step further. He accused Razdan of “demonizing” lesbians. “The film takes our sexual identities and makes a joke of them,” he charged.

In an open letter to the director, red-faced activist Tejal Shah wrote that he feared Girlfriend’s “conscious, articulated, homophobia” would be a major setback for the decades-long campaign by gay rights activists in India.

In sum, the critics in this camp object to Razdan’s portrayal of lesbianism as “unnatural”—as “abnormal…people who must die at the end of the film, so that they are aptly punished for their unnatural existence.”

What bothers Shah and likeminded social campaigners is that (in Shah’s words) “values of heterosexual love, marriage and normal families” are upheld in the end. They would much rather see the film pander to the normalization of homosexuality, gay marriage, and the Western-style gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered high life.

Not surprisingly, gay and lesbian activist protestors also condemn the Hindu fundamentalists for their religious and moral objections. Whereas the activists see lesbianism as a gift to the world, the Hindu fundamentalists preach a strict moral code that condemns lesbianism as an unnatural disorder involving immoral sexual acts. Indeed the two groups of protestors represent two opposing worldviews in India’s present day culture war. Perhaps that’s why the real-life lesbians seem unable to recognize that religious-minded Hindus—even the fringe element that believes busting out windows is an effective way to influence popular opinion— similarly believe it’s time to stop separating issues addressed in films and their impact on viewing audiences.

The bottom line is that both groups of radical activists find the film offensive, albeit in two very different ways. While gay and lesbian activists, who promote Canadian-style forced acceptance of homosexuality, are concerned with the film’s effects on the lesbian subculture in India, the fringe Hindus are concerned with the film’s overall effect on public morals in traditional Indian culture. They fear that promotion of sexual immorality will turn their country into a society of broken people, an idea that the real-life lesbians find absurd.

All this, of course, is being played out in a country plagued by systematic sex-selective abortion (abort the girls), forced child prostitution, and a notorious flesh trade that is no longer confined to the dingy red-light districts of India’s bulging cities. Reports over the past several years, in fact, have documented the rise in human trafficking for purposes of sex tourism—an immorality peculiarly Asian. In fact, India is one of the few countries where human trafficking is much more lucrative than drug trafficking or the arms trade.

The statistics that testify to India’s ground zero Western-style immorality are staggering. UNICEF, for example, estimates that 50 million women are absent from India’s population today due to systematic “gender discrimination” —that is, the baby girls get aborted or are victims of infanticide, mainly so that their parents won’t have to pay out a steep dowry.

Bollywood diva Revathy Menon raised some eyebrows in the Western press this summer when she claimed that young adults in India believe that the idea of monogamy is “farce.” She was quoted as saying, “when commercial sex workers are available for as low as 50 rupees [roughly equivalent to $1], promiscuity has become rampant.”

Despite the state censor’s penchant for editing out titillation from Bollywood films—all films released legally in India must pass through the Central Board of Film Certification—a recent call by the nation’s head censor to legalize the screening of hardcore sex films in India has called attention to the already widespread underground porno-industry. The X-rated proposal came on the heals of the Indian government legalizing striptease nightclubs throughout the land. Clearly the cultural and moral landscape is shifting.

Still, the question of whether India can now be considered a promiscuous society in the mold of a U.S. or a Great Britain, is open for debate. Nevertheless, a recent poll conducted by India FM suggests that there is indeed significant popular opposition to lesbianism on the Bollywood silver screen. Nearly 42% of those surveyed agreed that Razdan’s Girlfriend ought to be banned from the subcontinent.

Razdan, of course, is tickled that his film is being contested. Despite the director’s vocal contempt for the fundamentalist protestors and his shock at the lesbian activists’ shrill objections, the director said the debate his film has provoked is ‘healthy’ for India. In an interview with BBC Radio, Razdan said he is pleased. “Now obviously it’s all out in the open, and people are talking about it. I think that is healthy.”

It’s healthy at least for Razdan’s pocketbook. Prior to the protests film critics across the board panned Girlfriend as a C-grade movie “redolent with cliches.” Said one critic: the film is “avoidable, very avoidable.” Since the protests and public outcry, however, the film’s popularity has skyrocketed as Indians are reportedly thronging the cinemas to see what all the hubbub’s about before the film gets yanked.

Given the public unrest and raucous protests provoked by his controversial film, Razdan believes that Girlfriend will now find its way into cinemas in the United States and Britain. That may be wishful thinking, but Razdan may still very well go down in history as the man who paved the way for a westernized Bollywood.

Michael S. Rose is author of the New York Times bestseller Goodbye, Good Men and Executive Editor of

More international news
During Girlfriend’s premiere week, screenings of the film were disrupted by Hindu fundamentalists.

India’s gay/lesbian watchdogs denounced the film as a “homophobic” portrayal of lesbianism.

Until recently, Bollywood actresses typically did not want to alienate their conservative fans.
All this is being played out in a country plagued by systematic sex-selective abortion, forced child prostitution, and a notorious flesh trade.

Isha Koppikar doesn’t mind being known as a sexually-liberated shocker. “It was just another role for me. Nothing more, nothing less.”

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Girlfriend website
A Bollywood Primer
Country profile: India
Isha Koppikar

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