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Through a reading of Roopa Rao’s independent web-series, The ‘Other’ Love Story (TOLS)Kashish Dua focuses on the integrated subversion of mainstream Hindi cinema and dominant hetero-patriarchal frameworks, highlighting the temporal transformations in the operation of lesbianism in India, and radical possibilities of aesthetic visual representation of lesbian love making in primarily hetero-patriarchal spaces.

It is strange and interesting at the same time, how a few historical and political events can vastly alter the culture of a particular nation. The existence of the Konark Sun temple and the Khajuraho temples in India along with literary research conducted by Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita, reveal that India was not as intolerant towards homosexuality before the onset of colonialism, as it is today. A nation that at present criminalizes homosexuality once harboured descriptive texts like the Kamasutra and Rekhti poetry – manuals that do not shy away from explicit description of homosexual love making. Kidwai and Vanita’s studies show that it was the result of cultural imperialism that India installed thepractice of marginalization of nonheteronormativity. While there are social, legal and historical factors to be blamed for the persistence of such oppression of homosexuals, one cannot ignore the unrequited potential of popular Hindi cinema to battle the marginalization faced by lesbians in India. Popular cinema in India, instead of challenging regressive perceptions, ends up, instead, orienting itself around the general mindset of people when it comes to homosexual relationships, especially lesbianism.

If one tries to think of names of popular Hindi films that have had anything substantial to do with lesbianism in India, the list remains limited to just five names: Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996/98), Karan Razdan’s Girlfriend (2004), Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya (2014), Shonali Bose’s Margarita, with a Straw (2014) and Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses (2015). While Fire is problematic, for it veers towards showing lesbianism as an alternative to failed heterosexual relationships, the lesbian gets portrayed in Girlfriend as the deviant and obsessive woman threatening the supposedly pious heterosexual family structure and status quo. Additionally, Dedh Ishqiya and Angry Indian Goddesses shy away from tackling the sexual intimacy between the women in love, whereas Margarita, with a Straw engages with lesbianism as a mere phase in a larger coming-of-age story of its protagonist.

It is the lack in all these commercial films that highlight the refreshing change Roopa Rao’s The ‘Other’ Love Story (TOLS)proposes to bring to the depictions of lesbianism in India. TOLS is a web-series of twelve short episodes that were released on YouTube in August 2016. Set in the late 1990s in a city in India, TOLS, in the words of the writer and director, is a story of two college girls, Aadya and Aachal ‘as it happens in Indian gallis, not as an issue, not as a stigma…just as two human beings coming together and finding each other in love.’

A complex dimension has been added to the various popular exemplars of visual depictions of lesbian relationships by the production of TOLS. There seems to be a subversion at work in TOLS at the dual levels of both the format and the theme, wherein are inscribed the financial battles independent cinema in India constantly fights as well as the struggle against hetero-patriarchy that lesbians in India have waged individually and in groups. The radical potentials of TOLS lie in it being half crowd-funded and being released as a web-series, as it ended up lending the series a much larger audience – which might not have otherwise watched the film, given the expenses of accessing big screens.

When it comes to popular culture, many theorists and critics such as Ruth Vanita and Shohini Ghosh have read queer themes in films with an otherwise heterosexual focus. Their exercise to prove how queerness cannot be eliminated entirely by agents of hetero-patriarchy, as it finds space to emerge even in the most heterosexual representations, extends even to the study of popular Bollywood songs. What had till now only been discussed in theory finds manifestation in TOLS, as it subversively and consistently uses elements of mainstream, heterosexual, commercial Hindi cinema in the domain of a web-series, to paint the visuals of the ‘forbidden’ lesbian romance. Right from the first episode, ‘The Meeting’, various popular Bollywood songs and dialogues of the 90s become indicators of the situation and the emotions of the protagonists.

From Sanjay Dutt and Pooja Bhatt starrer Sadak’s (1991) ‘Hum Tere Bin Kahin Reh Nahin Paate’ (‘I could not stay without you anywhere’) signifying intense longing in the separated lesbian lovers to the heterosexual cult song about first love, ‘Pehla Nasha Pehla Khumaar’ (‘first intoxication, first hangover’) from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992), indicating the beginning of love between Aadya and Aachal, the series appropriates mainstream Hindi cinema to fulfill the needs of an independent web-series. In doing so, it also overturns the heterosexual dominated realm of Bollywood songs by revealing how, regardless of Hindi cinema’s constant exclusion and invisibilization of lesbians, its elements cannot be prevented from blending into the world of lesbians. The time frame of the 1990s also interestingly provides a retrospective glimpse of the challenges faced by middle-class lesbians in an India of no cell-phones or easily accessible internet. Even though the series begins in 1998 – the year of the Fire controversy – the confusion Aadya and Aachal have about the rights and the wrongs of their love, indicate how even the word ‘lesbian’, the idea of a community of lesbians, and information on sexuality was not common knowledge in every city of India. Such a representation in 2016 becomes a marker of the gradual and ongoing change that has occurred over the years in information availability and media coverage of not only the existence of lesbians but also of their socio-cultural, political and, most importantly, legal struggles against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

One of the major reasons for the invisibility and/or problematic visibility of lesbians has been the frequent categorization of lesbianism by people in general as either a form of sexual excess or as just platonic love, both of which render lesbianism as deviance, disease, or a transient phase in the lives of women. It is this stereotyping and the eventual marginalization of lesbians that TOLS shatters by aesthetically reclaiming the visual space in India for lesbians. The redemption of lesbian relationships from falling into the binary extremes gets facilitated by a gradual development of relationship between Aadya and Aachal, who slowly move from being acquaintances to friends and then to lovers, in a timeline stretched over a period of almost three years. A less problematic lesbian visibility also gets a space in TOLS through a sensitive engagement with lesbian romance and an unhastened pace with the right amount of emphasis on conversations, intellectual compatibility, and emotional dependence which together lead to a sexual relationship between the protagonists.

The idea of space that lesbians occupy and are not allowed to occupy becomes a vantage point for studying the exploitation of lesbians along with their manipulation of the same framework that exploits them. The invisibility in this case acts as a complicated phenomenon that allows lesbians to live and love within the bounds of the heterosexual institution of family, needless to say, in fear and secrecy. This gets brilliantly represented in TOLS which plays with the idea of space by portraying Aadya and Aachal’s first love making in Aadya’s house that otherwise stands as an epitome of a heterosexual patriarchal family set up. Episode 9, ‘The Love and More’ can therefore, indirectly, be seen as one of the most subversive parts of the series for not only showing how lesbian romance flourishes within the space that ostracizes it but also for the aesthetically shot intimate moments between the two lovers that extend for almost eleven minutes, making the episode one of the longest in the series.

The age old association of lesbian love making on screen with male voyeurism takes a backseat in this episode which does not indulge in evoking titillation, yet the camera clearly records the nuances of love making between Aadya and Aachal. Another generalized dimension of lesbian misrepresentation that gets busted in TOLS is the invariable active-passive, male-female or butch-femme role playing by lesbian couples. Such inequality in relationships is harshly critiqued by many lesbian feminist theorists such as Sheila Jeffreys, Julie Bindel, etc. as imitation of what can be called the ‘flaws’ of heterosexual relationships. Hints of dominance and power play in such depictions push back lesbianism in the oppressive space of hetero-patriarchy. What makes TOLS different is that although the two girls are in love with each other, the idea of consent remains crucial. It gets featured when before going beyond kissing in the act of love making, Aadya takes permission from Aachal, giving their relationship a companionate dimension and ultimately emerging as a radical moment. Going back to the history of visual culture in India, often there have been grim endings to lesbian tales which are in some or the other way associated with death, be it the accidental death of the man-hater, psychotic lesbian in Girlfriend, the failure of the lesbian relationship in Margarita, with a Strawimmediately after the death of the protagonist’s mother, or the shift in focus from lesbian wedding to the death of a heterosexual rape victim in Angry Indian Goddesses.

There have been only two films by far including Fire and Dedh Ishqiya that have shown the victory, even if temporary, of lesbian love over the venomous hatred of heteropatriarchy. However, the happy ending of TOLS where the lovers reunite in a train, can be seen from multiple perspectives. It might act as a 1990s trope to resonate with the masses who look for positive endings and approve of entire films based on their conclusion but it can also be seen an attempt to instill some optimism in a discourse which has largely remained cynical.