A couple of years ago, two ‘mainstream’ Bollywood films — Ishqiya (2010) and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) — challenged stereotypes attached to heroines: the demure village belle, the urban miss goody two-shoes and the skimpily-clad woman with grey shades to her character. The films showed that women can be wicked and scheming, loving and lusting. Since then the heroine has evolved more — be it the resilient woman-on-a mission Vidya Bagchi in Kahaani, the free-spirited Zoyas of Ishaqzaade and Ranjhanaa or the commitment phobic (traditionally the preserve of the leading man) Gayatri in Shuddh Desi Romance.
And then Dedh Ishqiya happened: the bisexual leading lady made her debut.
While the disinterested, closet homosexual nawab leads his wife Begum Para to seek solace, friendship, sisterly dependence and love in the arms of her maid and confidante Munira, the latter’s sexual choice is not because of any deprivation — she loves Begum unconditionally but at the same time unabashedly initiates a sexual encounter with a roguish conman, Babban.
One way to view the two would be as lesbians (and consider their attraction towards Khalujaan and Babban as con acts). Instead of any explicit sex scene, the lesbian nature of their relationship is portrayed beautifully through playful talk and shadow play. In this scene, Khalujaan tells Babban, “Lihaaf maang le” while the shadows suggest Begum and Munira have become physically intimate. The scene is director Abhishek Chaubey’s and writer Darab Farooqui’s ode to Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf.
Clearly, the filmmakers know that subversion is a great tool to drive home a point. By not placing emphasis on any sexual act, the film forces the audience to question the ‘unnaturalness’ associated with same-sex relationships: are their emotions any different from those of heterosexuals and why is romantic love considered to be governed only by heterosexuality? Chaubey and Farooqui also inject ambiguity regarding Begum’s and Munira’s sexuality. Perhaps they want to ask the audience: what is the need to compartmentalise it or seek conformity?
Madhuri Dixit could not have chosen a better role than this for her comeback. The movie is so befitting of the era we live in, of sexual repression and rebellion, especially so in the aftermath of the Supreme Court verdict criminalising homosexuality. I did not expect Dixit to take on such a role, still anathema in Bollywood. Huma Qureshi must also be applauded for her superb performance.
Dedh Ishqiya has made a subtle-yet-firm statement on sexual identity and bisexuality. We are yet to see a bisexual hero, unless one considers the lead character, Abhimanyu, in one of the shorts in Onir’s very offbeat I Am (2010), which had overtones of sexual ambiguity. It’s probably time the bisexual hero and other sexual identities too came out of Bollywood’s closet.