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Shakuntala Devi Showcases The Woman & Mother, But Almost Erases Her Pioneer Work In LGBTQIA+ Rights

Posted: August 1, 2020

Shakuntala Devi succeeds in portraying a flawed and unapologetically ambitious woman, but its erasure of her work as a gay rights activist and of the history of LGBTQIA+ people in India is unforgivable.

Alert: This review contains spoilers

As much as I tried avoiding listening to opinions about Shakuntala Devi, the movie, before I saw it for myself, the opinions did trickle in. The word ‘cringe’ came up a lot. So did the word ‘melodramatic’. Yet, I decided, I would keep all that aside and judge for myself. I genuinely wanted to like this movie.

Now that I have, I am so deeply disappointed, not because of what was on screen, but because of what wasn’t.

A flawed, unapologetic woman at the center, who makes it worth the drama

One of the first things I did after watching the trailer for the movie is to look up old videos of Shakuntala Devi, to see if she was as flamboyant and over the top, as Vidya Balan was shown to be. I found that while she had a confident demeanor, she did not come across as ‘loud.’

But well, many things nowadays dictate what an ‘Indian’ should be, and this film tells us that Indians are “drama or nothing.”

So we have Vidya Balan pirouetting as if she were high, an abundance of ‘punch dialogues,’ and humour that I can most kindly describe as ‘cutesy.’ However, I also know for a fact that most people will love the movie for exactly these reasons. In fact, there are odes being written in praise of Vidya Balan’s performance.

The other reason this film is being loved, is because of its ‘feminist’ messages.

A girl/woman who is good at math – check

A girl/woman who doesn’t take rubbish from men – check

A woman who pursues her career, even when it means having an imperfect family life – check

A woman who is flawed and unlikeable, and real – check

A message that we must see our mothers not just as ‘mothers’ but as women – check

Despite the stilted dialogues and general ‘in your face-ness’ of the movie, these components actually make it watchable.

What lets it down is the disservice it does to Shakuntala Devi’s work as a gay rights activist.

A near complete erasure, of her work and of LGBTQIA+ history in India

Shakuntala Devi was a genius when it came to mathematics, but as a gay rights activist, she was a pioneer. As this piece points out, “Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was scrapped only in 2018. But Shakuntala had called for its decriminalization in 1977.”

She wrote a book, titled, World of Homosexuals, in which she argued, “nothing less than full and complete acceptance will serve – not tolerance and not sympathy.” A message that people still don’t seem to get in 2020.

To quote LGBTQIA+ rights activist Harish Iyer, “This book came at a time when there weren’t even whispers about homosexuality. In the sense, people didn’t speak about it at all. Forget homosexuality, there was very little conversation about sexuality per se. And at that time, you know, in early 80s, to come and speak, and to come out with a book on homosexuality is historic.”

So when the movie presents us with the idea that her reason for writing the book – her attempt to understand her husband’s homosexuality, was something she (possibly – the film never clarifies) made up to sell more copies, it is that history that is being erased.

To make it very clear, whether or not her husband really was gay/bisexual or not is not the real issue. The issue is that with the film’s refusal to engage with or portray in detail her work as an advocate for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, the movie erased a huge and significant part of her life’s work and of the history of the queer community in India.

Why is this erasure problematic?

As film maker Onir, put it, “Usually i refrain from commenting on films frm our fraternity unless I like them. But could not stop myself frm this. Was there a “homosexual “man in #ShakuntalaDevi?The perfect example of how the mainstream marginalises the existence of a gay character into becoming invisibility.”

Further, responding to the director of Shakuntala Devi, Anu Menon, who urged him to watch the movie before commenting on his disappointment, he reaffirmed that he had seen the movie and that “as an out and proud queer person I felt invisible.”

A few days ago, I watched this video in which author, marketer and entrepreneur, Raga Olga D’Silva chats with her partner Nicola Fenton and couple and film maker duo Hanan Kattan and Shamim Sharif, about their lives as women who live in queer households. A point that particularly struck me, is when Nicola says that in their time in India, she did not experience open hatred, as much as she experienced invisibility and silencing. As long as they didn’t mention that they were sexual partners, and pretended that they were friends or sisters-in-law, people ‘tolerated’ them, even when they knew the truth.

The movie seems to have a similar position on homosexuality. A brushing under the carpet of something important, because it is inconvenient.

The film anticipates this criticism, because it adds the disclaimers that it “does not claim to be a documentary/biography” and that it is “based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter, Anupama Banerji.” Anupama herself has stated that she is happy with the way her mother’s life had been brought to screen.

While Anupama may be happy, I am deeply conflicted and unhappy.

For its unconventional take on motherhood and womanhood, the film deserves applause. However, the problematic way in which it erases homosexuality and her work in that sphere, left me disappointed.

We may never know why the makers thought that such a noteworthy aspect of her life was worth only a single scene. Why something that was a ‘first’ in our history was not worth talking about more. Someday, maybe we will have a movie about her work as an activist. For now, this is what we have – an inadequate tribute to a woman who was both an exception and an inspiration.

Author’s Note: The author of this review does not belong to the LGBTQIA+ community, and does not claim to represent it. She acknowledges that people within the community will have a range of different viewpoints regarding the movie’s take on the issue of homosexuality.

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