‘Ladies And Gentlewomen’ – Malini Jeevarathnam Helms A Documentary About Lesbian Relationships

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At the recently concluded Rainbow Festival, Malini’s documentary won numerous accolades, and Archanaa Sekar shares her experience of watching it along with the cheerful audience in Chennai. Here’s wishing Malini a fantastic career and many such laurels!

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Ladies and Gentlewomen, the only film I managed to catch at the recently concluded Chennai Rainbow Film Festival. It is about lesbian relationships in India, both in the past and the present.

16010644_1246046562115296_1617423115_oThe present, shown through interviews with lesbian couples, writers, journalists and activists, is the familiar narrative – the questioning of attraction (or none at all), the exploration of sexuality, fear of expressing love, consequences of acceptance and rejection. So are the stories of disapproval and disownment by families, of having to love in secrecy, of struggling to find homes, of sorrow and suicide when the love is unattainable.

In the film, the tales from times bygone are visualized through vivid sketches and versatile actors. There is the tale of Tija and Bija, a lesbian couple that is believed to be living happily to this day among the ghosts, because well, compared to the violence humans can unleash, living with the former is less scarier. Another folktale that features in the film is that of the lovers Pappathi and Karupaayi. The Tamil folktale tale is about the two women from different castes, who chose death over a life without each other. More people in other interviews spoke about the prevalence of lesbianism in our culture – numerous folktales, the Kamasutra and the sculptures of Konark and Khajuraho are proof of this.

malininThe contrast between the past and the present cannot be clearer. If you’re wondering how we got here from where we were, I must remind you about the tale of Nangeli, an Ezhava woman from Kerala who chopped off her breasts in a haunting gesture against breast taxes (that actually existed). This story is missing from the official archives but remains very much a local legend. It is only recently that it has made a re-appearance on social media and some cultural spaces. Also to remember: The CBSE removed an entire section titled ‘Caste, conflict and dress change’ from its social science curriculum just a few weeks ago.

Somewhere along the path, oral testimonies have been taken down, ‘her story’ has been rewritten as his, female sexuality has been made sinful, lesbianism has become a ‘lesser’ love, epochs have been erased, fights have been forgotten, and we have been left with a silenced and sliced narrative of the past. It’s easy to forget sections of history if we don’t make an effort to keep the stories alive and pass them on.

Somewhere along the path, oral testimonies have been taken down, ‘her story’ has been rewritten as his, female sexuality has been made sinful, fights have been forgotten, and we have been left with a silenced and sliced narrative of the past.

We live in an age of revisionist history, where the past is being changed fast to suit political futures, and maybe at this very moment, a piece of public memory is being fragmented to nothingness. If we know and still continue to let it happen, we will have to face the ‘danger of a single story’. But if we want to stay from this danger, or the danger of the future that is being built for us, we should now re-kindle, re-visit, re-ask, re-find, and re-tell. Only then can we reverse this regressive cycle to make ‘her story’ possible and our stories available.

A version of this article originally appeared in The New Indian Express