Beyond Normative Sexuality - Siddharth Narrain

Beyond Normative Sexuality Queer Desire and the Cinematic Imagination

Siddharth Narrain

The four-day film event ‘Films of Desire: Sexuality and the Cinematic Imagination’ organised by CREA and the South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality, held at the majestic Neemrana Fort Palace from March 7 to 10 brought together film makers, academics, activists, students and media practitioners on a common platform to debate, discuss, listen to presentations and of course watch films related to sexuality.

The event was an opportunity to watch some of the contemporary films in the region, and to listen to academics and film makers on their work. By focussing on transgressions, a major part of the event focused on questioning the framework of normative sexuality and how non normative sexualities get represented.

Nivedita Menon’s presentation, in which she skilfully unveiled the ‘glowing filaments in the invisible webs of heteronormativity’, set the tone for the discussions in the conference. Emphasising that defining non-normative sexuality is not easy, she used a number of examples to expose this web. ‘Enormous effort goes into spinning these filaments, to make sure they are as invisible as possible. I’m going to focus on the point on which the light has glinted, and the filament has been revealed, i.e. the light that slants on the filament is constantly circulated by other kinds of discourses – spinning around off these productive glints,’ she said.

Among the examples that Menon cited was that of the matrilineal system of the Nairs in Kerala, which was legislated out of existence, as it was seen as a form of non-modern prostitution, through a series of land reform legislations. Menon’s mother, who grew up in the matrilineal system told her the story of how when she (the mother) was a young girl, her brother was memorising his English school work, rocking to and fro and repeating ‘family means wife and children’. Menon’s great grandmother who was present at that moment was appalled. She started shouting at her daughter saying, ‘Is this why you send children to school? To learn such unnatural nonsense?’

This finds resonance in Sea Ling Cheng’s presentation, where she discussed the idea of the heterosexual couple pursuing a nuclear family as unnatural from the perspective of the Mosuo matrilineal people in China. Cheng also cited Catherine Frank’s fascinating analysis of The Bachelor, a reality TV show to discuss how that even in the fetishism of heterosexuality there can be internal questioning. Cheng quotes Frank, who after the analysis of The Bachelor asks ‘What if we reconceived monogamy as a fetish?’

Film maker Sabeena Gadihoke’s presentation ‘Translating Heterosexuality’s Nervous Encounter with Queerness’ highlighted the difference between the hetero-normative self and the hijras. By focussing on the documentary form, Gadihoke, in a fantastic analysis of Thomas Watman’s ‘Between the Lines: India’s Third Gender’, looks at the transformation of the photographer Anita Khemka in her journey to document Bombay’s hijra community. Khemka, who starts off from her voyeuristic position behind her camera, crosses over to the focus of the film maker at some point, as she gets fascinated by the life of Laxmi who is one of the hijras in the film. In a startling moment, Laxmi completely turns the table on Khemka by questioning the heterosexual norms she lives by.

In a bold analysis of transgressive desire in Bollywood films, Rashmi Doraiswamy looked at the incest taboo. Ruth Vanita’s reading of Bollywood songs tracing same sex desire between women and Helen Hok-Sze Leung’s reading of queer undercurrents in Hong Kong cinema put in focus queer readings of mainstream cinema. Arvind Narrain’s presentation on dosti(male friendship) in Bollywood films explored the possibility of using queer readings of film for social interventions.

Helen Hok-Sze Leung’s presentation on the emergence of Queer Asian Cinema looked at the problematic implication of the metropolitan directionality of many of the movies in this genre. She looked at the notion of ‘inevitability’ in the recent Hong Kong film ‘Butterfly’ to make the point that the film departs from the ‘global gay model’ to suggest that the answer is not of personal liberation but of queer conformity to what must happen..

Richard Fung’s presentation on pornography examined the contradictory tensions within gay Asian pornography, which while affirming the desire of Asian gay men, reinforced anxieties of the Asian being the subject of white male desire. Lawrence Liang, in his presentation on censorship, located sex and sexual expression at the intersection of the ability of queer persons to constitute a subject of speech, and looked specifically at the productive aspects of censorship.

Four days of intense film watching and academic discussions that wove the different threads of desire, sexuality and cinematic representation together, made Films of Desire an unforgettable experience.

Siddharth Narrain works with the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore. Trained in both law and journalism, Siddharth’s interests are broadly human rights and law related. At ALF he currently works on areas related to socio-economic rights, sexuality media. He has worked for Frontline Magazine and The Hindu newspaper as a correspondent based in New Delhi, covering mostly socio-legal and human rights related issues.