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Out Of

The Shadows

The Evolution Of Sapphic Representation in Indian Films.

Written By Yusra Khan

Enraged by the growing intimacy between her daughter and her sporting mate, Jessminder - shortened to Jess, Mrs. Paxton drops by the girl’s house on the day of her sister’s wedding, to finally put her foot down.

“Get your lesbian feet out of my shoes!” she yells as she notices the borrowed heels that Jules lent her for the special day.

A confused elderly relative looks on. “Lesbian? Her birthday is in March. I thought she was a Pisces.” 

“She’s no Lebanese, she’s Punjabi!”

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Gurinder Chadha’s 2000 sport romance drama, Bend it Like Beckham, is a study in queer-coded subtext, with a parallel story just simmering at the surface, bubbling with life. It is also a time capsule into the era of confusion where scriptwriters were still wondering how best to broach plotlines that did not rely on the heteronormative couple to provide the contours of their stories, without upsetting a conservative audience.


There have been rumors of the Chadha giving up an ending where Jess and Jules ended up together, but chickening out due to fear of backlash from a crowd that was still relying on the staple sexuality; missing out on a love triangle with a hot Irish coach caught in the middle, must have been too much of a gamble.

The story of Indian cinema’s march towards representation of female homosexuality is embedded in careful clues and lazy shorthands. The road is not without its share of bumps - but it has birthed brave, fiery gems and created space for breathing life into suppressed identities.

Long before the trailblazing Fire (1996), there were signposts that made the ground fertile for a lesbian awakening and queer-centric filmography. Bollywood has, on the odd occasion, subtly nodded to underline and acknowledge homoerotic undertones in popular songs. A unforgotten classic would be Falguni Pathak’s ‘Meri Chunar Udd Udd Jaye’ where a teenage Ayesha Takia, lonesome in her aunt’s castle-like house, finds comfort in a charming painting of a sari-clad woman; the helm of her pallu flying away as the girl gazes on. The two dance in abandon, as the previously held male interest fades into oblivion. Equally suggestive were the glances shared between Parveen Babi and Hema Malini in Kamal Amrohi’s Razia Sultan (1983), as they potentially share a kiss behind a bunch of feathers, a classic prop for modesty (another popular alternative included flowers snuggling together), deployed in the 80s and 90s.

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The 80s were surprisingly fairly bold in their experimentations. In Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi’s characters share a strong bond that is undergirded with lesbian undercurrents. Marathi jail drama Umbartha (1982), which miraculously escaped the censor board’s scrutiny, portrays two female characters in a reformatory home, caught in a compromising position, which then causes a scandal.

Crass tropes revolving around oversimplification of childhood trauma have also been thrown in from time to time for some armchair psychoanalysis. In Karan Razdan’s Girlfriend (2002), which the lead actress described as a “sleaze fest”, lesbianism is branded as a social deviance either arising from a momentary lapse in judgement while one is in a state of intoxication, or a coping mechanism for long-repressed childhood trauma and sexual abuse. In the last few minutes of the film, which verge on the hilarious as a result of being so fantastically cringeworthy, a psychotic Tanya tries to knife Sapna’s boyfriend as she explains her sexual orientation: “Bachpan se sataya hai mujhe mardon ne. Nafrat hai mujhe uss raat se.” (“Men have tormented me since childhood. All I feel for that night is hatred.”) 

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In another film, Men Not Allowed (2006), dysfunctional relations with father-figures add to the narrative that still finds ample space in urban cultures, associating “daddy issues” with the disruption of otherwise healthy sexual development, leading to avoidance of men, and turning to women for solace. This sloppy writing is rivalled only by the film’s sleaziness, too flamboyant in its aim to cater to male fantasies, hypersexualizing women while also de-centring their voices.

With the release of Deepa Mehta’s Fire, which managed to reach a broader audience, it seemed that the ambiguity surrounding explicitly lesbian stories could be done away with. Two sisters-in-law find themselves drawn to each other as a way out of their miserable marriages, and their relationship is borne out of both solidarity as well as passion. No matter the outsized role of Mehta’s film in visiblizing lesbianism in Indian imagination, homosexuality borne out of loneliness and a lack of satisfaction from a relationship remains a problematic idea to embed the infant stages of queer cinema in. A question that still lingers is: would Radha and Sita find themselves embroiled in a romantic affair if they had happy marriages?

Dedh Ishqiya (2014) partly follows the same line of thought, where the space for bisexuality or female homosexuality is opened up following the tragedy of a failed marriage and accumulating loneliness, as the two women engineer their escape from the suffocations of the Majibabad Palace. However, these movies are forerunners for more fleshed out narratives that engage in queer-positivity, taken up by more mainstream cinema, such as Geeli Pucchi (2021), Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019), Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), Majaa Ma (2022) and Badhaai Do  (2022).

One parameter to measure the success of these cinematic victories is to witness characters that are detailed, believable, and stories that do not resolve long-held prejudices to create the illusion of widespread acceptance; it is important to remember that legal victories, however important, have not created seismic shifts in perception.

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In Neeraj Ghaywan’s section in the four-part anthology film, Ajeeb Dastaans (2021), we are told the story of an upper-caste data operator (Priya), coping with the guilt of being unable to love her husband, who dotes on her. She strikes a friendship with Bharti, a Dalit worker in the same factory, but is neither able to fully acknowledge her reality, nor dilute her caste privilege. Importantly, the layered writing also shows us how a woman is masculinized not simply due to her sexuality, but also due to the role caste and labour play in making and unmaking gender roles.

In Badhaai Ho as well, we see a representation that is both sincere and heartwarming, with themes of adoption, isolation and familial disownment. The vehicle that carries forth the romance between Suman and Rimjhim, is a lavender marriage between Suman and Shardul, who serve as companions in their intertwined journeys for acceptance. Veering away from temptations of formulaic rom-coms where sham marriages give way to a discovery of soulmates, the movie sticks to its convictions.

There is no doubt that many powerful attempts are being made to excavate buried stories, to humanise the marginalised existence of lesbian women. However, it is interesting to note that even in the creative market where queer stories are finally being centred, there is a preference for one over the other. Faraz Arif Ansari, the director of Sheer Qorma (2021) – a movie which tells the tale of two women battling ostracization and throws light on the dynamics within a Muslim household – says that he struggled to find producers for the short-film. Investors still preferred stories of men over women. “Patriarchy is embedded even within the LGBTQ spectrum. Queer women are underrepresented," Ansari added, reminding us of the conflicted realities of progressive filmmaking.

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Yusra Khan is a writer and digital policy enthusiast based between Lucknow and Delhi. Her interests are versatile, but she is particularly fascinated by the intersection of politics, labour and technology studies.


Currently, she works at Nvidia as a prompt-writing specialist, bringing human creativity to AI-generated outputs. A film addict since childhood, she is rumored to have rewatched Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na over sixty eight times till date, and doesn't plan to stop.

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