Which is worse — being openly prejudiced and shouting your opinion from the rooftops, or being so insensitive as to subtly but inexorably grind a knife in and not realize it?
Virgin Mobile have recently come up with a series of ads that encourage you to ‘think hatke’ (differently). In one of these, a young woman tricks her parents into getting permission to go on a trip with her (presumably) boyfriend by first pretending to be gay. It puts the parents into such a tizzy that they insist she must go to Goa with a certain Tensing, including the logic, ‘He’s a boy, must be good.’
Most people find this ad hilariously funny, not realizing how it subtly reinforces some dangerous stereotypes. It’s not funny if all of us are not laughing. Some of us can’t.
I have been accused of over-analysing the ad, but the very fact that someone immediately assumed I’d have an objection to it even before I brought it up suggests that there probably is an objectionable aspect to it. (Interestingly, some of the reactions I got were similar to the way a lot of men get defensive when unable to see or admit to a feminist viewpoint.) And why should we not analyse it? We seem to analyse nothing in our society — not corruption, not the irresponsible media, not even our irresponsible selves… A particular characteristic of our way of life is our ‘chalta hai’ attitude, which loosely translates into ‘anything goes’. Mostly we care little about all that concerns society at large; we are too apathetic to take a stand against anything that doesn’t affect us directly.
Back to the subject at hand, someone also pointed out that it actually makes fun of homophobia itself, as the girl uses her parents’ fears to get her own way. But it is the reason that makes something like this funny that I have a problem with.
As a society, we have far too many other problems for LGBT activism to have ever been centre stage. Because of which far too much ignorance exists on the matter. Sexuality is not a lifestyle choice. And how ever much one wishes to have lived in the 51st century when, according to science fiction at least, ‘straight’, ‘gay’, ‘bi’, etc. are just ‘quaint categories’, it doesn’t make reality go away.
Somebody mentioned that I should just let it go. Why highlight it? After all, we know the media has sold its soul and not even a veneer of responsiblity exists any longer. Well, my understanding is, why ever not? This is a case where ignorance isn’t bliss and certainly not forgiveable either. Generations of LGBT activists have fought for the basic dignity of being acknowledged as human beings living, working, and contributing to the same society; of having the same wants and desires, the same fears, the same needs, and one little joke raked up all those prejudices that we are all supposed to be putting behind us. Would Virgin Mobile have joked about race or religion?
Of course, we live in the land of Section 377, which as Sanjay Kumar of the activist-feminist Pandies theatre group so succinctly put, ‘could punish us for having sex with ourselves’. The term ‘hetero-normative’ takes on a whole new meaning when applied to Indian society. The right and wrong of what is socially acceptable is so deeply hammered into us that most of us live our lives without being able to imagine there could be valid alternatives.
And what of the very age group the ad targets? Those men and women trying to come to terms with being ‘different’ through no fault of their own, yet being reminded by a social structure and a very rigid cultural conditioning system that they are somehow not ‘normal’ at worst, and less acceptable at best? All right, this might be going into the over-analytical zone (and, after all, anything we don’t like about ourselves can be blamed on parents, right, as Phillip Larkin said?), but here’s a basic concept of communication defied, one of the first lessons we learn, in fact — when you are reaching out, do not actively alienate any group.
Funnily enough, I had initially misinterpreted the ad, thinking that Tensing was a woman, and she had manipulated her parents into an outing with her girlfriend (which might actually be true, though unlikely). Even though that would still make the ad homophobic, it was a pleasant surprise to find an acknowledgement of LGBT space in the mainstream media. Yes, there’s such a thing as too much optimism!
This was especially interesting to juxtapose against a very hard-hitting and emotional play put on by the Pandies group at IIT Kanpur on 30 March about a lesbian working-class couple, and the prejudice and abuse they suffered for no other reason than having loved each other. Scripted and directed by Sanjay Kumar, it was one of a three-play performance that is usually performed under the title ‘Danger Zones’, and was based on a year-long research conducted on lesbian couples in the slums of Delhi.
Each act started with the words, ‘Yeh meri kahani hai. Ek prem kahani hai. Main Nafisa se bahut pyar karti hoon’ (This is my story. This is a love story. I love Nafisa very much [feminine verb]). It sent a chill down one’s spine as one waited for the moment when it would slip into past tense.
It was disturbingly forthright in its telling, and left most of the audience near tears. The language was brutally hard, the portrayal pulled no punches, held nothing back, depicting in stark realism the prejudice, ridicule and abuse that stalked the couple for decades. To quote from the Alfaaz website, the play explored:
the travails of the couple from childhood to middle-age facing the onslaughts of patriarchy (its tools of marriage and family) and right-wing hatred… castigated, ridiculed, even raped for being different; to be rejected by patriarchy (society) for being unable to conform.
Even though the lovers suffered a break-up of sorts, when one of the women’s husband was killed and she was left destitute (remember, we are talking of slums and extreme poverty here), her former lover returned to help. A specially telling remark was whena local bhais (rowdies, as they call them here) threatened to have them booked under Section 377, one of the women remarked, ‘Mil kar kamate hain, baant kar khaate hain’ (We earn together, and eat together). They were poor, but they were productive, contributing members of society, bringing up two children in a household that was perhaps more egalitarian and free of prejudice that most of us in the safety of our middle-class cocoons, strutting our labels of being ‘educated’, could ever hope to provide our children.
So while Virgin Mobile may in its narrow world-view have subtly but surely undermined some of the understanding and acceptance many of my gay, lesbian and bisexual friends had begun to garner in a very warped society, one hopes that activist groups like Pandies theatre will do far more to sensitize us to all that lies under our noses but we refuse to see.