Saturday, August 1, 2020

Sridhar Rangayan | Breaking Free

out of the twilight zone
by Douglas Messerli

Sridhar Rangayan and Saagar Gupta (writers), Sridhar Rangayan (director) Breaking Free / 2015

In one of my reviews of Indian gay films in early 2000—and there have now been a number—I rather fatuously commented that it was amazing that such a film might be allowed to be made in India. I won’t exactly take back that statement, but after watching the documentary Breaking Free, which was seven years in the making, I’d suggest that I might simply have restated my comment, noting how important films like the one about which I was writing were for a strong yet still somewhat nascent LGBTQ movement in that country.
     Indeed, about a fourth of the way into this important recounting of the development of a Rainbow coalition in India, I paused in watching the film, convinced that what I was observing was so similar to such conscious-raising shifts in many other countries, including the US, that I might need to continue.

    Yet as the director/writer Sridhar Rangayan makes clear, India is a very special case. First of all, Indian culture had never truly rejected same-sex love until the British Raj of 1858-1947 which enacted a great deal of laws hitherto unheard of in the sub-continent. Even throughout British rule and including today, the Hijra (or Kinnar), a broad gathering of eunuchs, intersex, and transgender people, continued to be recognized as a third gender.
      With regard to gay, lesbian, and bisexual, individuals, the British-created Section 377, however, made it near to impossible for an open LGBTQ community to exist. The law reads: Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.
       Even if one were suspected, as were many kothis (effeminate gay men), of same-sex relationships, they could be arrested, imprisoned; or, just as often, they might be sexually attacked by the police or military and bribed, with threats of reporting such activities to their families, which in that patriarchal society might lead to their expulsion from their homes, jobs, and social interactions, ending in perhaps even death. In many other cases, young women and men secretly involved in same-sex relationships, were married-off by their parents in the long tradition of Indian matchmaking, about which Netflix recently posted a new comedic series.
      As the director and early narrator of this film declares, gay and lesbian love, in their world, was without a name. They hovered in the shadows, lived for years “in the twilight zone,” sharing the reality of their sexuality with only a few close friends.
      Was it any wonder that so very few films about LGBTQ life were made before the gradual and somewhat startling changes which this film documents?
      Kothis are, in fact, at the heart of this film, relating particularly to cases in Lucknow, Delhi, and elsewhere, in one case of which a young transgender woman, Kokila, simply waiting for a bus in Delhi at 10:30 at night, was picked up by police and taken to the station where she was raped by 11 officers. 
      Pandian, a 21-year old street sweeper in Chennai was also gang-raped one night at a police station, where they used Section 377 as permission to orally attack him, tearing away the lining of his mouth with their penises; when he protested in pain they rammed their batons into the soft tissue, returning the next few nights to repeat the attacks. Suffering and in fear of further abuse, Pandian committed suicide.
     Finally, the Lucknow-based Bharosa Trust, a National Government Organization that was conducting an HIV prevention drive (the movie makes clear just how difficult it was to distribute condoms and teach the LGBTQ community safe-sex practices when most of those involved were nearly invisible), were raided in 2001 by police and taken to an open courtyard where they were repeatedly kicked in their asses and forced to drink filthy open-sewer water.
     The previous cases, described above, were taken to court, but since the lawyers and others had filed for the society at large rather than for the individuals involved, they were dismissed.
      Heeding the court findings, the same individuals—many of whom we encounter in Breaking Free—determined to hold, along with Mumbai LGBTQ activists, their very first public rally, which suddenly offered, in a manner similar to the US Stonewall police raids, new possibilities for gays, lesbians, and others. The young Kokila, who was attacked in Delhi, filed and won her case in the Karnataka High Court in 2004.
      When the Bengaluru police determined to evict hijras from their city, along with the previous attack against the Bharosa Trust group the national case against Section 377 became stronger. In 2009 the Delhi High Court finally decriminalized consensual sex between gay persons in private, the now-growing LGBTQ community, many of their members breaking into tears, finally feeling the burden of the British law had been forever removed from their shoulders.
      As journalist Hemal Shringla writes in The Leaflet (a newsletter dedicated to issues of Indian justice):
The best part of Breaking Free, however, are the testimonies of the generation which came out after the 2009 Delhi High Court judgment. You wonder at how much the movement managed to achieve in just eight years. Balu is a handsome young gay man and he recounts how amused he was at his parents’ perplexity when he came out to them. Sonu is a young and bright-eyed transsexual who is waiting to have SRS (Sex Reassignment Surgery) after which he will marry his girlfriend. The movement also encouraged parents to come out. One of the most inspiring images in the film is that of Chitra Palekar, film and theatre personality, in a pride parade wearing a placard that says “Mother With Pride.”

     So, it might seem, ends the story of the rise of the Indian LGBTQ community. Yet in 2013, the Indian Supreme Court surprisingly reversed that decision, with justices declaring “The Court held that there is very little evidence to show that the provision is being misused by the police.” Section 377 had come back to haunt them, and although they declared that from their experiences of mobilizing their community, things would never be the same, you can easily recognize through their display of tears and facial expressions of horror, that all their hopes had been quite suddenly dashed. And this mix of frustration and hope is, in fact, how Rangayan’s important film ends.
     In that highly wrought reversal of justice I suddenly could perceive a possibility that I had hardly considered in my own life, that with the highly conservative court we have in the US today, let alone the possibility of an addition of one or two further conservatives—which could well happen if Trump were to be elected for another term—that such a thing could even happen here, in my own country. The reaction to such a decision would surely cause a far more militant outcry in the US, but the effects it might bring about would be absolutely devastating for our young Balu’s and Sonu’s of the younger generation.
     Since the 2015 release of this film, however, the same Indian Supreme Court reversed their opinion once more on September 6, 2018, permitting consensual sex between adults of all sexual orientations. As Justice Chandrachud argued: “Sexuality if the fundamental experience through which individuals define the meaning of their lives.” As the renowned Telugu actor, Siddharth, tweeted: “When judges speak with such beauty you want to fall at their feet and say thanks. Why is it raining in my eyes dammit?”

Los Angeles, August 1, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2020)

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