The premise seems exciting at first: a woman in her fifties, who doesn’t look like a lesbian, and certainly can’t be a lesbian as her son and husband imagine, is brought out without her consent, most problematically by her daughter Tara to legitimize her straight privilege. Initially, the lesbian category is stable when Pallavi (played by Madhuri Dixit) confesses to her daughter. But as the mother of a son who is getting married to an unpleasant family, she waters down that first statement: “Lesbian ka matlab kya hain batayenge monkey?” The writer’s error is masked as a rhetorical question that reverberates throughout the story – the movie isn’t sure either!
What made me look the film to the end was my curiosity about the inner life of a woman who doesn’t look “queer” but who has an interesting story to tell and thereby questions my preconceptions of what a lesbian looks like. In short, the film’s original premise challenges the idea of lesbians as “the other” kind of woman. And yet, despite the film using the “is she lesbian or not” curiosity to propel the plot, it pays no attention to the story of the love between pallavic and Kanchan (Simone Singh) – which would have been the heart of the movie if it was indeed a movie about lesbian desire. Instead, it’s a sort of apology for a past love, which Pallavi’s son Tejas describes as “chakkar” in a confrontation scene. What happens to these women’s inner lives – their guilt, their uneasiness and their jealousy – is all housed in the legitimate marriage plot between Tejas and Esha. In the writing of the film, both women are used as instruments for a sensational unveiling – unlike a Monsoon Wedding, where a wedding becomes a tool to uncover the deep dark secrets that lurk beneath the facade of happy Indian families. . Here the revelation does nothing to the family’s disposition in which it reverts back to a secret waiting to be discovered.
This is the trap of a “revelation” rather than a slow rise in a character’s progress – the story is a testimonial or a denial after that. Yes, she loved a woman, but didn’t have sex with a woman. At whose expense do we nuance the lesbian category and leave it open to interpretation? This is what happens when the subject is a possible lesbian in a straightforward thinking movie – she becomes a place for experimentation and we never get a glimpse into the character’s own journey, her conflicts and realizations. Rather, her dilemma becomes fodder for narrative stimulation. What is astonishing and indignant is that towards the end of the film – the woman once again upholds the myth of the happy family, at the expense of us never knowing what she wants, never refusing a modern version of agnipariksha in the name of la familia!
It’s the way we imagine families and the logic of marriage that tells the story of a past love (who doesn’t have one?) as a secret that needs explanation. Towards the end of the film, the Great Indian Parivar emerges even stronger and more muscular for having endured an accidental disruption to the outing. Even in 2022, Indian family logic (whether in India or the US) cannot view sexuality as a private choice, but push it into the domain of a secret that needs a confession/truth check.
We know that the myth of the happy family is mostly supported by the labor of women, mostly unpaid. Pallavi is the ideal wife – she adapts and does not complain. She begs her daughter “parivar toot jayega”. However, I thought the movie had hope when Pallavi said “Jhooth nahi bolungi, apne aap se bhi nahi”. The fact that “kya monkey lesbian hain?” is an open question in the film, a slow regression of Pallavi’s accidental confession to her daughter. The character’s arc learns nothing new from the journey it makes through the act of revelation.
If only, instead of asking “what is lesbian,” the film asked “what does lesbian desire do?” or “how do we support the desires of women” without reducing her to the role and function within the safe cover of the family, I would say this is a film that opens up possibilities for women and adds to the repertoire of lesbians . Instead, this is a story that indulges in a secret, excites the audience, and isn’t changed by the revelation. The only character that changes is Tejas – again using a woman to bring about a change in the central male character.
On the one hand, Pallavi seems eager to explore herself beyond the role of wife and mother, but she agrees to her husband’s plea not to leave him – she falls back into the arms of the loving family whose conscience can be quieted. by the pill of a pure, non-sexual, loving lesbian. The film introduces a strange mythological category to the world of gender and sexuality: a good lesbian who doesn’t upset anyone. So what if Indian straight men had women who once felt pure love for another woman – the great Indian family forgives all sins not having sex.
The ending leaves me disappointed. It is not easy to imagine the loneliness of the middle-aged woman in the great Indian parivar, whose emotional and physical labor is her glue. What does Pallavi think? She doesn’t know if she’s a lesbian, she confesses that she never really wanted her husband, a possible union with a former lover is interrupted by a chronic illness and we don’t even know if she had a lover other than Kanchan. Is this how we want to imagine middle-aged older women in India, devoid of desire, of fantasies, especially after recently meeting feisty octogenarian Mai in Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand? Do we want to portray middle-aged older women as passive and tasteless, unable to imagine themselves outside of the work they do for their families?
No one who has seen Fire (1996) can forget the scene where the simple act of women pushing each other’s feet is an act of tacit understanding, of defiance, of naughtiness, of play; or even in a movie like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, where cans are such powerful visual devices that the chemistry between the women lingers long after the movie. Recent films such as Sheer Qorma have used Indian tropes and contexts to delve into the layered space of the domestic, where desire can disrupt what we consider a given. In 2022, neutralizing desire between women through the childish, desexualizing it is deifying women, even if the film openly denies it.
Maya Ma doesn’t even attempt to develop the complex emotions like chemistry between Kanchan and Pallavi. That the great Indian family can swallow all kinds of desires within the folds of its mythological acceptance makes me shudder. Despite the fact that Pallavi briefly plays with the idea of identity outside of the role of mother and wife, she comfortably falls back into her husband’s plea not to leave him. In short, women’s desires for each other have no meaning for social institutions?
The category of lesbians outside of this movie is still political. And hopefully sexually too. It’s not as ambiguous as the film would have us imagine. It’s still about women choosing women in love and in life. In its aesthetic, lesbian is characterized by an excess that is difficult to comprehend, it is characterized by resistance and disobedience to the patriarchy – elements that are missing from the film. If the movie ever dared to ask “parivar kya hain samjhayenge monkey” instead of giving us virginal lesbians with pure thoughts and trying again to add “pyaar ya sex” as a retrospective nuance, I wouldn’t see it as an attempt to the label reclaimed through years of women’s labor and activism. It is the direction of a question, from where and for whom it determines that it is potentially radical.
The ending of the movie doesn’t leave us with an idea of what else Pallavi could be other than a wife and mother. The assimilation of the woman into the family as her role of wife, instead of stretching and queering the boundaries of a family, makes this film a missed opportunity. Queer phobia is a deep suspicion in the way lives are led differently from ‘normal’ families. This film swallows the robust category of “lesbian” and keeps it open to speculation, while not seeing the family questioned for once – the armor and facade intact with no signs of self-reflection.
Debolina Dey identifies as queer, especially the adjective. They teach at Ramjas College.