Sunday, 10 August 2008

Bollywood in Italy

Lazy, hot summer days of August. Olympics are on. I wish I could watch some badminton and table tennis matches at the Olympics but I don't think that I will get to, since both games are not a priority for Italy and so they are focusing on games that are more popular here and games where Italian teams are playing.

Last night, on the Italian national TV channel, they showed "Cheeni Kum" at prime time, dubbed into Italian. It was an absolute first for Bollywood here. One arty channel had shown films like "Kagaz ke phool" and "Pather Pachali", in late night slots. Another private TV channel had shown "Lagaan", starting it around midnight and finishing it around five in the morning. So I don't know how many people had actually watched those films.

Thus "Cheeni Kum" was a pleasant surprise. The film, quite urbane and witty most of the time, without any naach-gaana, was quite European (except for the scene of loud crying at Qutub Minaar by Amitabh Bacchan and his melodramatic running between the pillar and his mother, near the end of the film), so probably they thought that this one Bollywood film could be shown to normal Italian audience or does it mean that Italian TV is going to give more space to Bollywood in the future, remains to be seen. (BTW, Chinese films have been on prime time TV for many years now).

However there are lot of Bollywood fans here and there is a market for Indian DVDs that is not being tapped now. Actually it is partially being tapped by friendly neighbourhood pirated Asian DVD shops, but since even they do not have Indian films with Italian subtitles, so I am sure that there is scope for doing much more.

Every month I get two three enquires about how to buy Indian DVDs with Italian subtitles. Since I have been writing articles on Bollywood cinema and doing film reviews in Italian (on the Italian part of my website), people often come to me to ask "expert" advice. "Taare Zameen Par" got so many enquiries including persistent enquiries from an association of Dyslexic children, who want to use this film to create awareness about Dyslexia in Italy (if Aamir Khan is reading this please do something about it!). It would be easy to take the film and do Italian subtitles and distribute a few copies, but that would be illegal and I personally don't want to get into that. Last year, we did do Italian subtitles for small parts of different Indian films (Chameli, Umrao Jaan, Veer Zara, Bombay, etc.) for a women's festival but we didn't make any DVDs out of that experience.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Defining Human Sexualities

On Shunya’s Notes, there is an interesting post about Sudhir and Katherine Kakkar’s recent book "The Indians: Portrait of a people" (2007), focusing on issues related to homosexuality in India.

I briefly met Kakkar earlier this year during a literary event organised by Grinzane Cavour Awards in north of Italy and I remember him as very likeable and soft spoken person. ‘The Indians’ sounds very interesting and I hope that it will be soon available in Italian as well and I will have an opportunity to read it.

To come back to the blog post on Shunya’s Notes, it mentions various differences between the Western and Indian attitudes and practices towards homosexuality, such as the following:
  • Christian West, homosexual acts were persecuted as a sin against God (and less often, seen as a disease). Indians, on the other hand, denied the idea of homosexuality, while tolerating homosexual acts.
  • Notion of a homosexual liaison as a proud and equal alternate to a heterosexual one doesn't exist outside a small set of urban Indians;
  • (In India) Vast majority of even those who continue having sex with other men do not see themselves as homosexual
I agree that in India, persons deciding to live as overt gay or lesbian couples would have a difficult time, even if their public display of affection such as holding hands, putting arms around each others' necks, etc. would probably be seen as less problematic, since that is accepted behaviour for both men and women in Indian culture (but their kissing in public would be very problematic, but then even heterosexual kissing in public would also be equally problematic in India). And I also agree that for young homosexual Indian men and women, there would be tremendous family pressure for a “normal” marriage.

However, in my experience, there are infinite variations in the way people perceive, exercise and express their sexualities and I find a bit problematic this way of classifying persons in groups such as homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, transgender, etc. If we look at life stories of persons spanning different decades, the variety of sexual behaviours and desires that usually comes out, are difficult to put neatly into a few boxes.

To restrict sexuality to sexual intercourse is another problematic area for me. During a research that I did almost a decade ago , the definitions of sexuality that had come up during discussions in a group of Italians, also included terms like intimacy, affection, feelings, closeness, etc. If we consider sexuality in these broader terms, then in my opinion, ideas of homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality, etc. become even more problematic.

I think that part of the problem lies in what I call “western dichotomous way” or “psuedo-scientific way” of thinking, that is based on the assumption that every thing can be defined and classified, and if something is one then it can’t be another at the same time.

I believe classifying and putting everything in to neat boxes is fine if it serves as an exercise for understanding the key issues, the barriers, the oppressions, the violations, and finding solutions to these through laws and practices that respect dignities and rights of people. In that sense, I understand the usefulness and importance of categories like homosexual, heterosexual, etc. However, I have some difficulties when we start confusing the categories and boxes with people and how they are suppose to behave in their every day lives.

I think that like everything else, even human sexuality is a spectrum that varies from exclusively gay or lesbian to exclusively heterosexual in terms of sexual intercourse, but also in terms of psychological affinities and affective relationships, at different times & ages in our lives. In between these two extremes there are infinite variations. And if people do not wish to be put into a box or under a category, I think that it is absolutely fine for them to choose to do so.

In the post on Shunya’s Notes, the author writes, “While the Indian response reduces open conflict, the flip side is a muffled suffering: countless men and women lead double lives, hiding from their true natures and denying themselves the most precious of intimacies and self-knowledge”. While I agree that there are many homosexual men and women in India who are forced into marriages that create needless suffering for them and for their spouses, I also find such views problematic in terms of denying that there can be persons whose sexuality encompasses both sexes and can be forced into a corner because someone believes that “they are not aware of their true natures”.

Thus, I also think that overcoming barriers and finding solutions does not mean that all persons who enjoy homosexual relationships are all supposed to "come out" and be either gay or lesbian in the way the two distinct gay and lesbian cultures have developed in the west.

This is also because, I feel that people from different cultures fighting oppression and exploitation, can find and negotiate emancipation and self-expression in different ways. The gay and lesbian cultures developed in the west are legitimate and can be empowering, but this does not mean that they are the only path to sexual emancipation. Here I would like to draw parallels from works of Indian feminism activists like Madhu Kishwar, who have looked at the way women in India have negotiated spaces for their own emancipation and empowerment, in ways that are different from the way western feminists look at this.

The Indian (or perhaps I should say eastern) way of inclusive thinking, that looks for harmony among apparent contradictions is a different approach to life compared to the rational and scientific approach. While looking at issues of human sexuality, I would be cautious in throwing away the specific cultural solutions towards homosexuality that have been found over a period of centuries in the Indian societies . I would rather prefer to look at them critically, without the using western eyeglasses, but analysing them on their own terms and merits.

Such a critical appraisal of Indian responses to the issue of sexual diversity in India can’t be done by outsiders, but requires persons who face these challenges in India. Perhaps persons linked to GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender) organisations in India would take up this challenge (or perhaps they already have done such analysis, but I am not aware about it and such views are not well known internationally?)
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