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Issue 11

Bombay Begums

What made me watch Alankrita Shrivastava’s six-episode Netflix series Bombay Begums was its title itself – laden with royalty. Watching the trailer, one could possibly ask, why call the lives of five women located in the city of dreams ‘begums?’ Each episode delves into the anxieties of these women’s private yet socially relevant lives. Their engagement with the ‘social’ reveals concealed realities of their ‘personal.’ Rani Irani, Fatima Warsi, Lakshmi Gondhali, Ayesha and Shai, with all their vulnerabilities in a man’s world “mend the pieces and move on, until it happens again.”  

“We are all part of the problem, Fatima …” aptly puts across our attitude towards preserving power while discrediting the powerless. The characters depict complexities accompanying the notions of power, freedom, dignity, sexuality, and integrity within a queen’s realm. It leaves one with thoughts that the world is too hesitant to express. The dialogues, narration, and the plot does not miss out on any opportunity to critique ways in which the patriarchal world fails each time it tries to understand women’s language of desire, power and respect. The series is flawed in its own ways, and that’s exactly how the lives of these women play out. Flawed. Yet unapologetic. 

These women are artists – with art fading at every possible turn of their lives, but their firm determination towards striking their brush once more, on that empty canvas, speaks for itself.  Their strength to assert their power in an oppressive world is what makes them the begums.

Another interesting aspect of the series – five out of the six episodes are named after books by eminent women writers who have aspired to live through all the lows and highs in their own, independent journeys. The plot of these episodes stays inseparable from their names, depicting relevant connections between women’s stories from a foreign land in a city closer to home.

“Our wounds can heal, and our souls blossom. And the jagged and sparkling dreams of women can find both earth and sky,” summarises the series at its best. With all the critiques and applauds that the series has received a month into its release, Bombay Begums is a must-watch for all.

Picture Credits: Tribune India

Ariba is a student of English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Categories
Issue 8

Queering Valentine’s Day: Navigating singlehood and ‘compulsory heterosexuality’

It is inevitable for people to feel choked during February, with all the hype around love and the joys of coupledom. It is an important month to analyse how ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (in Adrienne Rich’s terms) has hijacked our understanding of love, desire, and sexuality in our society. Valentine’s day takes me back to my teenage years. As a queer person, I remember having to force myself to fit into the idea of love that is constructed by this notion of ‘compulsory heterosexuality.’ A concept coined by Adrienne Rich, ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ expounds on the way heterosexuality becomes a political institution having the privilege to limit our understanding and expression of ‘other’ desires. This heterosexual compulsion feeds the popular cultural metanarratives of greeting cards, and other media to celebrate love, desire, and sex as heterosexual. 

Love and desire are understood as heterosexual in our society which leads to the alienation of ‘other’ identities and sexualities on valentine’s day. This raises questions like: Why is it that we have a special day to celebrate one kind of love, but not others? Do such celebrations reflect (and reproduce) a kind of hierarchy of love that is present in our culture? And how might such hierarchies be problematic, both for those who are excluded from them and for those who are included?

The problems of exclusions are more obvious than those of inclusion. Who is really included or excluded on Valentine’s day? Is it necessary that a ‘heterosexual’ couple is included, and queer couples and single folks irrespective of their gender and sexuality are excluded? 

Singledom is not the only exclusion. Valentine’s day reminds us that the romantic love that is accepted is hetero. Most cards portray pictures of heterosexual couples, or male and female animal soft toys, etc. Similarly, commemoration cards are generally intended to be from a wife/girlfriend to a husband/boyfriend and vice-versa. Sitting with a ‘same-sex’ partner in a café on Valentine’s night feels different. While most outlets—after the decriminalisation of section 377—are now welcoming, there surely is a difference to the experience of a queer couple. There may well be a similar feeling for others whose relationships aren’t considered quite as acceptable: mixed-race couples, couples where either one or both partners don’t meet the ideals of conventional attractiveness, those with an age-gap, or people who want to celebrate with multiple partners on a night where every table is set out for two.

Romantic love is intrinsically linked to sexual love, and popular Valentine’s gifts include both the sentimental gifts (such as flowers, chocolates, and soft toys) and the sexy gifts(underwear, sex toys, and erotic games). For this reason, other exclusions may include those who are assumed not to be sexual (by virtue of being too young, too old, or disabled, for example), and those who are assumed to be sexual but in fact are not. A person who is asexual and romantic, or a couple whose relationship started out as sexual in nature but is no longer so, may feel painfully aware of assumptions and expectations around Valentine’s night.

Turning to those who are included in Valentine’s day, there are difficulties here as well – although they may not be so obvious.

If a person wants to include their friends on Valentine’s day, it is deemed questionable. But then the question is: Why should the partner be considered more important than those other people that we are probably closer to? Isolating ourselves from friendship can be daunting in a relationship. It can make a person feel lonely despite being in the company of their partner, regardless of how much they love them. There is a sense of privacy around the couple whereby we aren’t meant to share what is going on with anyone outside of it. As well as exacerbating the sense of exclusion of our single friends, this can be damaging for those in the relationship as they come to rely upon each other for everything and feel unable to get support from outside when they are struggling. Hence, Valentine’s Day and an overtly heterosexual understanding of love can limit our growth as individuals. 

Valentine’s day can add to the pressure for those who are going through a tough period in their intimate relationship. There are expectations and assumptions about how we must feel on Valentine’s Day and the kinds of declarations that we must want to make to each other. Two common responses to such pressure are to either assume that the relationship must be wrong and to bolt from it, or to focus on presenting an outside image which seems appropriate whilst denying (to others and to oneself) that we are struggling, until it has reached a critical point.

One way to release the pressure is by expanding the meaning of love; it does not have to be ‘romantic’ in a very heterosexual way, but rather in a queer way. Knowing what we want to feel as opposed to knowing what to feel or what we are expected to feel can narrow down our understanding of desire, love and intimacy. This kind of re-evaluation can also expand our understanding of what might be included in romantic love, friendship, and in the blurry space in between (the friends-with-benefits arrangement, the romantic relationship which has developed into friendship over time, the friendship that has all the intimacy, passion and challenge of a romantic relationship).

So instead of ignoring Valentine’s week or the fourteenth of February, we should ‘queer it’. Make it unconventional, challenge the heterosexual ground that it is built on and re-work/re-model it to fit our identity. Prescribing a way to do it would be going against the argument of queering it. So, it is important to decide for ourselves what we want, rather than what they would conventionally want us to feel. Just remember love is not one thing or one kind of feeling; it can hold myriad feelings or meanings. Love begins when you are truly yourself. 

Artwork by Muskaan Kanodia.

Roshan Roy is a senior student of English Literature at Ashoka University. He can usually be found reading anything non-fiction, listening to John Mayer or contemplating life while listening to and singing along with Passenger’s songs. His areas of research and writing include sexuality and gender. He navigates life by writing performance poetry and non-fiction.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 8

Feminist Bollywood, Really?

The question – are you less of a feminist if you listen or dance to songs that demean women is perplexing. All of us regardless of whether or not one is a feminist should feel degraded by writing, singing, dancing, or listening to songs that demean any human being. 

Unquestioningly accepting disparaging attitudes -whether in-jokes, images, music, or literature –  normalizes conversations and behaviours that exacerbate an already existing unequal power structure. 

All this matters particularly in the context of popular culture. Bollywood plays such a disproportionate role in defining our culture and values that it would be the obvious place to first examine what is being propagated.  Bollywood songs are everywhere. Not only does the music influence us but so do the themes, dress, dialogues, and the subtle ideologies that are conveyed almost imperceptibly. Clearly, Bollywood’s broad reach both mirrors Indian culture and shapes it.      

This two-way stream of influence makes it difficult to establish causality. But anecdotal evidence suggests that our everyday mimicry of the reel becomes our reality.  

Let us first consider a song like ‘Makhana’ by Yo Yo Honey Singh. A hugely popular Indian singer, rapper, composer and actor. Yo Yo’s (as he prefers to be called) single hit ‘Makhna’ climbed the charts soaring to around 19 million viewers immediately. He was flooded with messages welcoming him back, cheering this song and eagerly awaiting the next release. Some viewers talk about the beat that makes one want to jump onto the dance floor. While others have protested and wanted to file a case against the vulgarity of the lyrics. At a Delhi poetry slam another rapper Rene Sheranya Verma wrote and performed an open letter entitled “Namkeen Kudi” berating Honey Singh’s lyrics and views.  The most offending verse in Makhana says: 

 “Par Main Hu Womanizer

Mujhe Akele Main Mat Mill” .  

Misogyny in Bollywood lyrics has come a long way from the now seemingly innocent “Choli ke peeche kya hai” released in 1993, which had caused such a stir in those days. 

Some critics have attributed what they call India’s ‘rape culture’ to suggestive dance numbers and glamourized often forceful courtship to Bollywood.  But did this problematic portrayal of women already exist in our culture or has it been created and exacerbated by Bollywood? Indian culture seems to hold the veneration of women goddesses and the denigration of women seamlessly in the same hand. 

The issue, of course, is not merely about the lyrics but also about the in-your-face, crass eroticism of scantily and sexily clad women who sing and dance in an exotic carnival-like location. Women in Bollywood films often are not mere objects of and in the songs but are an integral part of it – by participating in it as actors, watching it, dancing to it, and, loving it. Where does one draw the line? Misogyny is not only a men-only domain. These ‘item numbers’ are as much for what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey termed the voyeuristic male gaze as they are for women who could also take pleasure in the women but also in the bare-chested, hip-thrusting men and even the bad-boy image projected by Honey Singh’s Makhana. Is it feminist to enjoy this kind of turning of the tables or is it merely reverse sexism? 

 If we accept the huge impact of  Bollywood on the Indian psyche then the fabric of our culture is already interwoven with misogyny. Honey Singh might be a one-off example, but so much of the way Bollywood depicts women and men’s relationships remains questionable, and, yet we continue to accept them as normal – ‘it is like this only’. Till recently we took Bollywood’s men forcing their unwanted attention on women and not taking no for an answer as acceptable if not ultimately desirable.  The many ways women are mentally, emotionally and physically abused and demeaned are visible in almost all Bollywood films. Even so-called feminist films such as English Vinglish or Dangal remain problematic.

Feminism may not dictate a response but we as individuals and part of a patriarchal community should not find it too difficult to come up with our own creative responses to what we find offensive. One might be to have these kinds of songs banned or censored and have Honey Singh and others of that ilk castigated, another would be to respond in kind as did the Delhi rapper Rene but ultimately the answer would depend on each individual. However, these individual protests need to blossom into something bigger that will raise awareness about what our popular culture is actually teaching us.  

There is no one size fits all formula for the degrees of feminism one should aspire to. I find Honey Singh’s songs vulgar and lewd not only because I am a feminist but they should offend anyone because the lyrics, and indeed the whole package is offensive.

Let’s not make feminism a rigid rulebook. We know censorship is a bad approach, especially in today’s borderless world. Already we see that Ailaan and Asi Vadangey – two Punjabi songs critical of the farm laws have been taken down from YouTube at the behest of the Indian government. There is no great distance between politically objectionable and culturally offensive.  

Geetanjali is currently Associate Professor in the Department of English at Ashoka University. She has also been Senior Lecturer in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Yale University, where she taught for 15 years. She received her Ph.D. in English Literature from Hong Kong University and her Master’s degree from George Washington University. 

Her book:  Indian Women in the House of Fiction (2008) is now in its third edition with the University of Chicago Press. Aside from participating in many conferences internationally,  Geetanjali has written numerous articles on various subjects including Sikh Masculinity, Representation of Sikhs in Bollywood, Children’s Literature in the diaspora, Indian women’s fiction etc. 

Geetanjali co-founded The Attic, Delhi – an interactive space for the living arts.

Picture Credits: reidy68/ Pixabay

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 8

Remembering SOPHIE

On the night of 31st January, as I was scrolling mindlessly through twitter, I came across a tweet from one of my mutual followers  that changed the course  of my night, for the worse. The tweet read, “Devastated to hear about the loss of SOPHIE. I thank you for helping me become who I am today, and who I might be tomorrow” attached with a picture of the phenomenal pop producer, SOPHIE Xeon. These rumours were later confirmed by SOPHIE’s UK record label, Transgressive, that released a statement regarding the 34-year-old artist’s tragic death in Greece. The statement read, “True to her spirituality, SOPHIE had climbed to watch the full moon and slipped and fell.”  

Rather than talking about emotions, naming them and laying things out for the listener, SOPHIE’s music was obsessed with the power of emotions, as can be seen in her singles  “Bipp“, “Like we never say “Goodbye“, and “It’s Okay to Cry“. SOPHIE’s heavy fixation on the power of giving yourself permission to feel with full intensity, without any inhibitions is a constant reassurance to all  LGBT+ teenagers who grew up questioning their validity, in places where disruption of the cisgender-heterosexual norm is almost always met with backlash. SOPHIE’s music not only provided some solace in a world where growing up closeted is nothing short of hell, but was also full of hope for a future world that was representative of everything progressive — the kind of world you would want to live in. 

SOPHIE’s unapologetic attitude towards her music and herself has not only been influential and life changing for the pop music industry, but also for her fans. From the very beginning of her musical journey, SOPHIE  adamantly refused to put her face on her work, or even create social media accounts in a world and industry that relies so much on social media — she claimed that she wanted her music speak to for her instead, and thus served as an inspiration for fans worldwide by showing them that it is not necessary to adhere to the rules that the world has set up for them, in order to live in it. But, this did not let SOPHIE shy away from reclaiming her voice and space as a transwoman, undeterred by the long list of critics and journalists who were constantly over analyzing her work and misreading it, some going as far as misgendering her.

SOPHIE was always a huge advocate of transparency and authenticity, both through her music and her words. Electronic music is often considered inauthentic or inferior to music that is more vocal in nature, however SOPHIE believed that “authenticity” is an individual and evolving process. In an interview with Sasha Geffin  early on in her career, she said, “A lot of people are interested in recreating an idea of the past, like the post-punk era or something, and would view this kind of recreation as less authentic…I think being completely authentic about the time you live in is something that I would view as a career-long objective — to find out what is authentically this moment.” Music was her way of asserting her true identity and expression. It was a reciprocation of how she experienced the world around her.

In a world where the LGBT+ community, especially transgender and non-binary people, are expected to provide evidence and justification for their identity all the time, SOPHIE’s music comes as an escape, creating an environment of experimentation and innovation that is like a playground for gender expression and identity. 

Calling SOPHIE a revolutionary genius is not an overstatement because she was light years ahead of her peers when it came to creativity and vision. She influenced an entire generation, both as an artist and as a person by reconstructing pop music and reimagining a worldview that places innovation at its core. 

SOPHIE’s loss is enormous for the music industry, but it is an even bigger loss for her family, friends and fans, whose lives SOPHIE coloured with compassion above everything else. They will live up to her legacy and keep honoring what was so close to her heart. 

Image Credits: SOPHIE, YouTube

Madhulika Agarwal is a third year English and Media Studies major who is interested in literature by children and for children. When she is not lamenting over her tiktok career that ended before it could start, she likes learning about animals and reading books with good art in them. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).