Essay: Vidya Balan’s Shakuntala Devi biopic suggests the genius lied about her husband’s sexuality to sell her book
Why is The World of Homosexuals, a book published in 1977, back in the news? How does it matter when India has come such a long way, especially with the reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code by the Supreme Court of India in 2018? This pioneering book was written by the mathematical genius Shakuntala Devi whose life is memorialized in Anu Menon’s new biopic Shakuntala Devi (2020) starring Vidya Balan. It was released on Amazon Prime on July 31. Devi’s husband is played by Jisshu Sengupta, and her daughter is played by Sanya Malhotra.
In the last few months, there has been much excitement about this film in the queer community. L Ramakrishnan who works with the health and human rights non-profit SAATHII and volunteers with the Chennai-based Orinam queer collective, says, “Shakuntala Devi is considered an ally because of her empathetic approach to the situation of gay people in India, and her critique of the hetero-patriarchal system that forces many gay people into marriages with people of the other gender. Her stance was completely devoid of the posturing and condescension seen in self-appointed allies of the present ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ era.”
Published by the Delhi-based Vikas Publishing House, Devi’s book is now out of print but a digital copy is available online thanks to Orinam. Why was it important to include a sequence about this book in the film? Nayanika Mahtani, who has researched the film, and co-written the script, says, “There were so many astounding things about Shakuntala Devi but something that really stood out was her ability to embrace life with an open heart and mind, without letting judgement or prejudice get in the way. She did not allow other people’s opinions to influence the way she led her own life - and equally, believed that each person should have the freedom to live and love the way they chose to.”
Menon has crafted a scene wherein Shakuntala Devi is shown talking about her book at a release function. The moderator of the discussion asks her, “Given that you are not homosexual, how did you write this book?” Devi responds, “Well, I haven’t killed anyone either but I’ve written a book called Perfect Murder. Actually, I got interested in homosexuality because my ex-husband was a homosexual.” This is a funny and moving moment because she breaks the stereotype of the persecuted heterosexual wife trapped in a ‘fraud marriage’ with a gay husband (Paritosh) who wants to lead a double life.
The moderator expresses sympathy but Devi stops her immediately. “No, you should not be sorry. It is his choice and I support him.” The daughter, Anupama, gets so uncomfortable that she leaves the venue. Devi runs behind her. “How can you lie through your teeth?” she asks her mother. Devi says, “I want to change people’s attitudes towards homosexuality. Personal stories affect people the most. If you want to sell something, you need to weave a story around it.” Is Devi’s stature as an ally diminished by this revelation, or does it only humanize her?
This section of the film might be triggering for queer audiences who believe that only queer people should tell queer stories because sensitivity cannot come without lived experience. Is this a form of gate keeping, or is it an attempt to ensure that people from marginalized communities are not exploited by others for fame and financial gains? If a person wants to be an ally, is it ethical to tell a lie? There are no unambiguous answers here.
In her preface to the book, Devi writes, “I am neither a homosexual, nor a social scientist, psychologist or a psychiatrist. My only qualification for writing this book is that I am a human being. And I wish to write about a group, a minority group, of my fellow human beings, who have been very little understood and forced to live in ‘half-hiding’ throughout their lives by a society that is merciless towards everything that differs from the statistical norm.”
Were any creative liberties taken with respect to this specific aspect of Shakuntala Devi’s life? While Devi might come across as an opportunist, Mahtani believes that Devi did not have any bad intentions; she was merely giving the media what they wanted -- an exciting story. Queer viewers might have a range of reactions to this new piece of information about an important ally for the community. Instead of writing her off, it might be helpful to examine the emotional nuances behind Devi’s choices.
Mahtani says, “This was exactly how it was related to us by her daughter, Anupama Banerji. Shakuntala Devi, during her various discussions with her daughter, would say that she made up the story about her husband Paritosh being gay as she was constantly challenged on her credentials for writing a book on the subject of homosexuality that was such a taboo during those days.”
A newsletter published in May 1988 by Trikone, a support group of gay and lesbian South Asians in Palo Alto, California, confirms that Devi’s credibility was indeed called into question. An archival copy of this newsletter was accessed with the support of Sandip Roy, author of the queer novel Don’t Let Him Know (2015) and editor of the Trikone newsletter in the 1990s till early 2000s. In an interview with journalist Arvind Kumar for the May 1988 newsletter, Devi referred to a review of her book by gay rights activist Ashok Row Kavi.
“He made an issue of the fact that I was not a lesbian. What right did I have to write on the subject? He said it was a voyeuristic type of a book, as though I was looking in at what other people are doing and writing about it. He felt only a homosexual should write about homosexuals. I say a lot of things can be learned by observation. I don’t have to be one in order to write about it.”
Is Menon’s biopic the only film so far that addresses Devi’s personal connection to the subject of her book? No. Vismita Gupta-Smith’s documentary film For Straights Only (2001), available on YouTube, also features Devi. She made this film to chronicle the struggles of South Asian gay men and women who face social stigma for asserting their right to love in a society that is obsessed about the institution of marriage. Her interest in “the South Asian closet” was motivated by the coming out story of her brother Dr Navarun Gupta, a gay man who is now an assistant professor at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
In her film, Gupta-Smith mentions that The World of Homosexuals was written after Devi’s marriage to her gay husband ended in a divorce. When Devi appears in the film, she says, “It created havoc in my life, in my child’s life, and then I needed to look into it, study it more thoroughly. And then I realized that if this is accepted by society, so many victims would not be there suffering the way they are suffering now. That’s what prompted me to write that book.” How does Gupta-Smith feel after hearing that Devi’s story about her gay husband was possibly fabricated, as depicted in Menon’s film?
She says, “The fact that Shakuntala Devi was an ally for the LGBT community is indisputable. Whether she made up the story about her husband being gay, only she and her husband would have known. But writing a book about homosexuality back then was a pretty courageous thing to do. Imagine a straight woman advocating for understanding, inclusion and recognition of the gay community back then when it was so stigmatized.”
In Menon’s film, Anupama tells Paritosh that she is upset with her mother for calling him a homosexual. He responds rather calmly. “So? Nothing wrong with being homosexual, right?” This is a powerful statement because, in one quick moment, he challenges the perception that being gay is a matter of disgrace. Anupama despises the thought of her father leading his entire life as a lie. However, he pacifies her by saying, “If there’s one thing I have learnt from your mother, it’s that life is too short to care about what others think.”
Such a mature conversation around queerness is rare in Bollywood, especially because it points out the futility in ideological warfare that does not care for context or feeling but quickly cancels anyone who is deemed a threat. Gupta-Smith says, “Coming out is a very complex process. People test the waters a hundred times before they come out to someone. Everyone is a victim in such a situation; the gay person forced to hide their identity as well as families that also face stigma.” She hopes that Menon’s film will “empower our LGBTQ family members rather than push them deeper into the closet.”
L Ramakrishnan, who has watched Devi’s interview in For Straights Only, says, “Her matter-of-factness in acknowledging the effect of her husband’s homosexuality on her family life, and the sincerity evident in her interview, make me highly sceptical that it was a rumour she created in order to sell her book, as the new movie suggests. Besides, the interview took place more than 20 years after publication of her book, and could not have been geared to promote sales of the book.”
Menon’s film Shakuntala Devi raises some crucial questions for the queer community in India. While memoirs of gay men are being published more than ever before, what often gets neglected is the stories of heterosexual women who get married to gay men, without any knowledge of their sexual orientation, and continue in these marriages. What are their reasons? Can staying back be an act of volition rather than a space of victimhood? Is going away necessarily an expression of homophobia?
Jayaprakash Mishra, a doctoral scholar at the Department of Liberal Arts, Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad, cautions against overusing Western queer theories to understand Indian realities. In an article about narratives of gay men in Odisha, published earlier this year in Journal of Family Issues, he writes, “The Western ‘emancipated’ queer people who sometimes disengage from natal family and forge ‘chosen family’ are projected as the ideal queer. Any deviation from such markers of queerhood becomes a subject of quick scrutiny.” If queerness resides in unsettling norms, why are queer people enforcing new norms?