Madhavi Menon Wants Us To Embrace Ambiguity
Excerpts from the conversation:
Shruti Janardhan: So, I watched Badhaai Do recently, and I am sure that you already know this, but it’s about a marriage between a closeted gay cop and a lesbian PT teacher. I wanted to hear some of your thoughts on “lavender marriage” as a term, as an act of self-preservation, and as an act of resistance against the legal heterosexual framework within which it exists.
Madhavi Menon: I saw the term for the first time in the email that you sent me. I have no idea what it means. What is it?
SJ: A lavender marriage is one of convenience between two people who are queer so that they can be protected from a lot of the pressure from their respective families and immediate communities. It becomes a way for them to live authentically in a specific arrangement while appearing heterosexual for the sake of self-preservation. I think the term was popularly used in the US.
MM: Of course it was.
SJ: I don’t know where it first appeared, but it was used in Hollywood in the early 20th century when closeted celebrities married each other. I know you have spoken extensively about how we take these terms from mainstream American queer politics and apply them directly here, and you have also outlined the limitations to that.
MM: It would have been nice if she was the cop and he was the PT teacher, but I don’t think some stereotypes go away. You know, it is so interesting to see what has been carved out as a niche of queer acceptability. And it is clearly this kind of humanistic, pietistic thing of “we should all get along” and be able to do whatever we want, and, you know, I completely subscribe to that narrative – of course everybody should do whatever they want and be free to follow their desires no matter what. But I suspect that all these films want to do is expand the ambit of the heterosexual, rather than outline a sphere of the queer. That – as a mode of cultural representation – is far less interesting to me.
SJ: That is exactly how I was feeling while watching the movie. Sumi [Bhumi Pednekar] and Rimjhim [Chum Darang], as a couple, don’t challenge the ideas of romance we already have. They also want a long-term relationship with a child at the centre of it. How do you think this queer relationship between two women, which exists in the idea of romance we already have, complicates the idea of obscenity?
MM: The reason obscenity is so fascinating is that, definitionally, it is that which cannot be defined. It is that which is off-stage, behind the scenes, which you can’t see, let alone classify. To have a set of acts and judgements to judge what is obscene is actually quite funny – if it wasn’t so ridiculous. And you are right that certain kinds of non-normative sexualities have been brought into these films now to sanitise them. But through this sanitised representation, it perhaps allows us to see what is better off not seen. It’s a complicated argument because I obviously don’t think that only some sexualities should be seen and others should not. All I am suggesting is that the more you think you can see sexualities, the more you police how it should look. If you agree that this vast arena that we call sexuality is, in fact, resistant to naming, resistant to being seen, then you actually develop a healthy respect for that kind of unknowingness, or un-seeingness.
SJ: Can you tell me more about this pursuit of unknowingness. What does the term “queer” entail from an academic point of view now?
MM: The word “queer” itself is not new. It certainly existed in the sixteenth century, which is also my period of specialisation. “Queer” [in academia] very much means strange and “at-odds with”. It came in specifically to replace what was then called “Gay and Lesbian Studies” in the latter half of twentieth century and early 2000s, because it was considered that “gay” and “lesbian” were too identitarian. It is about engaging with what is considered “odd” with a specific set of questions.
For example, when you think of homosexuality, you think of queerness, but that is also because it is a sexuality that is stigmatised, one that is at odds with a heteronormative framework. But what we are really trying to answer is how stigma comes to be associated with sexuality as such. If we are thinking about that larger question, and then focussing on a particular identity category, it really doesn’t give you the kind of capacious canvas on which to paint your thought – which queer theory requires. And certainly, there is a libidinal attachment to sexualities, but not to sexual categories per se.
SJ: I want to talk about queer criticism in terms of identity politics. I have grown up with the internet and this idea of “self” that emerges in the digital space, where who gets to speak for whom has been deeply internalised. I know you have touched upon the topic in some of your works, so I’d like to understand your point of view. I assume you are calling to identify the value in this identity-based politics while asking that we sometimes shift from this kind of essentialism.
MM: The last thing you said is absolutely right. I completely understand and respect people’s need to feel visible and counted, like they are not alone, like they are in company and in a group of like-minded people. What surprises me the most, is when the solution to that is completely opposite of that need. I think you cannot say in advance where you will find your like-minded people. For instance, it is a sociologically established fact that in ’60s and ’70s India, most gay men identified as such after watching Helen in Bollywood. Helen is a woman; she is a heterosexual woman, and if you did, as you said, grow up in the internet age, “heterosexual woman” is a different category, and “male homosexual” is a different category. And to me, that [identity essentialism] is a complete loss of creative energy because you don’t know where you will find your most desirable representation. I do not understand the desire for a company that is a prediction in advance and fixes people in a way that is, to my mind, completely anti-creative and anti-political. And going back to the internet, it seems like one doesn’t have to think – one goes with certain labels to find common parlance around the world. And I believe, now more than ever, one needs to complicate one’s thinking and embrace a certain notion of ambiguity – I find the assertion of certainty around us very frightening.
SJ: I also want to talk about the urgent need to see your lived experience reflected in the texts you read and the things you watch. To legitimise how you feel about yourself in a certain way is also how you see your bodily experience articulated in culture around you, and I can see this strand of thought becoming central to popular queer criticism.
MM: But Shruti, there is a more fundamental question there, which is why would I want to watch a movie or read a book or look at a piece of art that I think is “me” – what is the impulse there? The understanding over the centuries of literature, of which I am a professor, is that you go there to lose yourself, not find yourself. That you read texts in order to inhabit flights of fancy, in order to find people who are not like you and might be able to shape who you think you are. And frankly, to read about somebody who is like me, I would be completely uninterested in that. But I think you are putting your finger on something. There is an increasing sense of writing as expressing the self and reading as a means of finding the self, which completely goes against the grain of what art is. If we engage in what you said, then we are subjected to the deluge of Ayushmann Khurrana’s films. So there has to be an ability to expand one’s horizons rather than shrink them. Imagine saying “I am the centre of the universe and everywhere I look I have to see myself”. I find that kind of homogeneity and uniformity extremely scary.
SJ: I think this goes into the heart of critiquing as a practice, and I love that you have spoken a lot about having fun with texts, and with critiquing the concepts and ideas that we live with. But…I also don’t think we know how to do it as a collective. Have fun, I mean.
MM: (laughs) The inability to laugh at oneself speaks to me of a very rigid mindset. If you were lucky enough to go to the Shaheen Bagh protest when it was still happening, you would have heard a lot of laughter there. I think people are so caught up in the idea of living sanctioned lives, that they forget how to laugh. I teach very dense material and intense texts, and people are so frightened they won’t get it that they miss the humour in them. We are so scared to let ourselves off the leash – but if you don’t, then all you are doing is supporting the status quo. Which is why I always associate rebellion and revolution with laughter.
SJ: I attended an online Ashoka University event recently, where you spoke about iconic romances like Heer-Ranjha and Laila-Majnu, and how the desires of those protagonists had to be realised outside of society. Even towards the end, it [desire] doesn’t get released within that social space.
MM: Oh yes, I remember.
SJ: I am curious to know how we will put that framing in the context of an iconic Bollywood romance like DDLJ that, as a point of conflict, is centred on an arranged marriage that needs to be resisted against. And to use a more recent example, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, which I don’t think is as romantic as the previous example, but it tapped into a specific mood and is revered and quoted a lot in popular culture.
MM: It’s a good question. You see, when I say “anti-social”, I mean it in the way that Shakespeare’s plays are anti-social. You have Romeos and Juliets, which are very much like Lailas and Majnus, where they end in death, which is clearly an example of anti-social romance – a romance that cannot be fit into the perimeters of the social. So, if we put the end of a film or a play on a pedestal, we are losing out on all the queer energies in the middle. Can you imagine if you were to watch Anand  and say, “How is this a queer film – the man and woman end up together?” If you read all those films with Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Dharmendra and Rajesh Khanna, they can’t be read teleologically for the end. The queerness is everything that goes on in the middle. I think Shah Rukh Khan is a great example of an inheritor of those kinds of milieus in classic Bollywood cinema. The idea that desire does not have to conform to certain social scripts is what makes an anti-social movie. And whether that move happens within a heterosexual relationship or a homosexual one, it is the energy of the direction in which you are moving that is interesting to me, not the destination per se. So, I don’t have problems with any of these films ending up with a happily ever after, but I do have a problem with what you were describing as “lavender marriage”, which is this touchy-feely “I will do everything you want me to because what I am doing is normal and natural”. You see, naturalising the queer to get to the end is uninteresting to me. Highlighting the queerness of what seems straight – that is much more interesting to me, and I think someone like Shah Rukh does that all the time.
SJ: Shah Rukh Khan’s queer energy in cinema is a great note to conclude this with.
MM: It is always great to end it with Shah Rukh.
SJ: Yes, absolutely. I have been thinking about the possibility of an iconic queer romance filmography in Bollywood. We have obviously come far from Girlfriend and Dostana , both of which were pretty atrocious, to Kapoor & Sons and Badhaai Do, which I think indicate progress, and I also believe that Kapoor & Sons marked a decisive shift in some way. I think I feel hopeful.
MM: Unfortunately, I don’t share your hope, Shruti. I am glad you have it – some of us need to have it, not everyone should be cynical like me! I don’t share that hope because none of these films speak to me. The films that speak to me are anything by Sanjay Leela Bhansali – that’s an iconic queer film for me. Or anything with Amitabh and Shashi. I really enjoyed Kapoor & Sons, but I am not particularly interested in the partying shenanigans of a group of well-to-do privileged kids. I am much more interested in queer fissures and queer energies, and, for me, the only film-maker right now who reflects that is Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
SJ: Can you tell me more about the queerness of Bhansali’s films? I would love to know what you specifically read as queer in them.
MM: I think every single movie he has done is quirky and eccentric, and for me the really iconic ones are Bajirao Mastani, Ram-Leela and Padmaavat. And he is a very Bollywood film-maker, very Indian in his sensibility, because he really puts his finger on the pulse of what makes India culturally and sexually so queer. This, of course, is why he has been roughed up and beaten up, and I feel this movie coming out [Gangubai Kathiawadi, which released on Feb. 25] might be marked with all kinds of PTSD. Poor guy. But Bhansali’s saying that this is a culture that will always be occupied by Hindus and Muslims, and by sexual excess, that this is a culture with too much colour and too much sound, too many dances, too many clothes … that “too muchness” for me encapsulates queerness. And if you keep trying to pare yourself down and say “we fit in, we will be just like you”, that’s a waste. If you are larger than life and announce the brutality and vivacity of desire in your films, that’s what’s queer for me.