Lesbian and queer movies: South Indian filmmakers dismiss patriarchy

While Bollywood is still easing the Indian audience into the crib of homosexuality, south Indian filmmakers know how to get to the point. How important is it to have more regional language movies? 

They were no longer rushing to the cinemas to watch same heterosexual romantic movies. They were now rushing to watch a part of themself being played out loud. And since then they weren’t alone anymore, they felt seen and heard and more importantly, they felt accepted. 

Bollywood is the primary industry when it comes to filmmaking and entertainment in India. They make blockbuster movies about all kinds of stories but when it comes to romance and love, it’s predominantly heterosexual stories. Which is fine because it gains a lot of appreciation and admiration for their unique ideas of covering all aspects of love. Family, friendship and even winning over the heart of an enemy. People go to watch these movies to feel familiar and to relate to certain situations in their lives. They get inspired and dig deep into their soul to know what their idea of love is. 

A still from a Kannada (South Indian) movie called “Naanu Ladies” which means “I’m also a lady”. The movie shows the budding love between two ladies who found their own form of love and faced a lot of challenges to protect it.

Lately, there have been a lot of attempts to also show the other types of love to educate the Indian audience and that is LGBTQIA+ movies. While most might agree that their advances in portraying same-sex relationships is commendable, members of the LGBTQIA+ community don’t really seem to think the same.

Shailaja Padindala, a non-binary/queer south Indian filmmaker in Bangalore said, “The first Bollywood film I was exposed to was Girlfriend in 2004. It portrayed the lesbian antogonist in such a regressive manner that many people were having doubts with my queerness. And had then thought I was a horror to society.

“But there was actually a brilliant and sensibly made Malayalam (Kerala) film called Sancharam that came out around the same time as Girlfriend in 2004. This movie actually gave me hope that I wasn’t alone as a queer person.”

There is an undeniable separation between north and south India when it comes to culture and caste. Hindi being the superior language in India overshadows the existence of south Indian languages. And while south Indian states have their own film industries that are almost equally massive, the recognition favours the north. 

The first ever lesbian movie that released in 1996 called Fire received a lot of backlash for queer expression and cultural appropriation. And one could argue that Bollywood did it first when no else did but today it is more about acknowledging the presence of south Indian regional movies that do try to artistically portray their stories. 

Shailaja said, “Bollywood eats up the cultural market and identity of India by mounting the entire country with language superiority. It is sad that most of us recognise the Indian film industry with Bollywood while there have been way more vibrant film industries with way better content in south India.”

Shailaja is a renowned filmmaker in Bangalore and they have a movie called Naanu Ladies (I’m also ladies) releasing soon. They have made some short films in which they break stereotypes of women talking about sex and exploring their sexual side. However, with their new movie, their intentions are little different this time but important. 

The trailer of Naanu Ladies which is set to release very soon in India and international movie festivals. The movie is in talks of being critically acclaimed globally.

Shailaja said, “Naanu Ladies is to re-understand the role of a MAN within a society. The film is an attempt to show that the FATHER FIGURE is a manufactured aspect of its need with the fabricated society. 

“A woman is always considered respectful in Indian society when she is married. Or if not, she must at least be living with the support of a man such as a father, brother or a godfather figure. This isn’t because women can’t live by themselves, it is because if they do, then men won’t have a role at all to play.”

While Bollywood movies in recent times are busy sugarcoating the idea of lesbian/queer relationships in India, young filmmakers like Shailaja are taking bold steps to shatter the patriarchy of men being the superior gender in India.

Along with gender non-confirming documentary filmmaker and artist, Malini Jeevaranthinam from Chennai, Tamil Nadu. They released a documentary in 2017 called Ladies and Gentlewomen which highlight suicides and honour killings of lesbians and queer people in India.

Rather humble about their many achievements after the release of this documentary and their fame in Chennai, their mission is to use their filmmaking and artistry into activism and commercial journalism. 

Malini said, “I once had a dream in which 2 queer women committed suicide. And even in reality I heard about 2 people killing themselves. As I started to learn more, I got to know many more of such cases in villages. 

“Which is still not known to many because it is not identified as queer death cases. They are simply labelled for other reasons and closed off. The truth is not allowed to reach out to the society because even the news describes this incorrectly. So my documentary will bring out the truth to our people.”

After having interviewed several women and queer people for both their artworks, they felt the need to take responsibility to stand up for queer and lesbian women. Both of them were assigned female at birth but their paths of discovering their sexuality has been the driving force of inspiration.

Shailaja, who acted and directed Naanu Ladies shares wonderfully intimate moments from the movie to capture the audience. Photo by Sharath Padaru and Shailaja herself.

They had to break through the stigma of being a woman, and only a woman in a south Indian society. Both of them had male mannerisms in them which made them question their sexual identities. But eventually, they realised that gender is just a social construct and that you choose to be either or none, and only they get to choose. 

Shailaja said, “It’s not like one day I realised I was queer but even before that, I attempted to come out in my own ways through different phases of my life. Through mannerisms, clothing, interests and various other expressions. And these attributes that I was building to express my identity did not fit into the cis-cultured Indian society.

“Through the struggle of trying to fit into a heteronormative dominant society, as time passed I realised that the freedom of being guiltylessly queer was in fact the most common aspect of nature.”

Malini said, “I identify my gender sexuality as queer and I feel that I’m a gender non-confirmed person. I grew up as an unwanted child in my family. My mother loved me very much but before I could come out to her, cancer took her away from me. It was hard enough to be a lesbian in an Indian society, I was also left all by myself after my mother passed away.

“However, god blessed me with a producer for my documentary and it got recognised even internationally. And then fortunately I moved into my mother’s side of the family during Covid-19 and never had to hide my sexuality again even if I’m still figuring it out. They accept me and love me for who I am, just like my mother.” 

They’ve both led lives that challenged them every step of the way and found a way to tune all the injustice into meaningful stories that need to be heard. And to watch two people from south India work against the heternormative society to advocate freedom of speech and expression is empowering.

Every artist or activist comes with a particular purpose when they create any art form. They channel all the pain and misery they faced in their days into being the voice of reason for many lesbian or queer women who need support. 

It’s very rare that a woman from a village comes out about her sexuality to anyone. They wouldn’t even know what they’re feeling and more often than not are taught not to feel anything at all. It’s the lack of education and the willingness to be educated when it comes to heterosexual people. 

Malini said, “There’s no proper education about gender non-confinement, gender fluidity or gender queer. Which is why we’re being treated differently and sometimes it’s harmful or even a form of bullying. Queer or lesbian rights is a normal thing and it’s sad that we have to fight so much for it. Which is why my films are more focused on not disturbing the mental health of the audience and rather teach them about normalising queer rights. I want my movies to even reach the simple-minded.

A brief definition of gender non-confirming and non-binary identities in the form of an infographic created on Genially.

The lack of sex education in the country has been a common complaint across all LGBTQIA+ communities in India. It’s always talked about but the government would never consider being inclusive of this. The government would say it’s against religion but in actuality, they would never fund for a cause that is ‘against their nature’. 

Which is why it is important to educate people in rural areas and villages about their rights and options. They’re always silenced by the government but treated nicely when elections are on the rise. When there is so much corruption in India, filmmakers like Malini and Shailaja take it upon themselves to save the lives of their fellow queer friends. 

Which is why it is so important to have regional language lesbian or queer movies to spread awareness and keep them wary.  

Shailaja said, “It’s very important because most of rural India think that queerness is a defect that sometimes one acquires when exposed to modernisation and city life. These misconceptions have led to suicides, mercy killings and various types of violence. Queer content not only opens boundaries for the queer but also for many marginalised members.”

Imagine being in a society that doesn’t let you have a voice, a purpose to exist and only survive and be commanded to for the rest of your life. That is exactly what queer women in villages go through. 

It sometimes feels like solving poverty is near impossible for such a populated country but their mental health is probably hanging by a thread. And these are services that the government should be able to provide. 

And people in villages don’t have the access to the internet to call communities and ask for help. These women just wake up and swallow a hard pill every morning and what’s worse is, they eventually even get used to it and turn numb.

Malini said, “More than a human right activist, I like to identify myself as a mental health activist where I strongly believe that which destroys our peace of mind and stimulates negative thoughts in our head is not a good creation. In an insecure society, to even come out  and talk about our rights and work is an everyday battle.”

Speaking of ‘not a good creation’ is a hindi movie called Dangerous by Ram Gopal Varma, a famous Bollywood director. Which is a selfish portrayal of his fantasies made into a very sexual lesbian movie. He claims to be an ally but it is people like him and their perverse thought that causes a major setback for the LGBTQIA+ community. 

And a few other movies like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga that only scratch the surface of what the community actually is or what a queer or lesbian relationship is. A step forward is always appreciated but Bollywood chooses not to be bold. They choose to be neutral about everything to save face. 

Unlike regional south Indian filmmakers who want to show the devil in the details, the truth of the matter and the unsaid words of women who are forced to stay silent. 

That is storytelling genius, to take all the relevant circumstances people are facing and present them in a powerful way. 

Shailaja said, “We must understand patriarchy  just didn’t emerge overnight. It is a systematic propaganda throughout all religions of the globe and not just in India. It is manufactured through a system of endogamous marriages. A few years ago women working was a taboo but now since the economic situations have pushed men to alter their values of women working. But still, the financial control lies with the men of the families.

“These propagandas are so precisely manufactured that despite women having had a horrible marriage experience, personally speaking, it still feels like the ultimate solution to a daughter’s life is marriage. And to untangle a community of such burdening and assumptions, it should also be systematic.”

And Malini, who used their native language to communicate with me during our interview, spoke their heart out about regional movies making a powerful impact. 

They said, “When regional movies showcase their nativity and their stories, it speaks volumes about the reality. Showing a random foreign couple in a foreign land or people in urban cities living a westernised life isn’t relatable for people in rural cities.”

They should be shown their own people, their own language to bring out a sense of relativity which will then go on to become a normal wa

Malini continues to explain why regional movies are important in her native language Tamil (with subtitles).