Respectability and irreverence: the two sides of attention

Both want to achieve the same thing—the dignity of attention, either by bending to the system, or bending the system.

Published : Apr 18, 2024 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

At a pride parade in Chennai on June 24, 2018.

At a pride parade in Chennai on June 24, 2018. | Photo Credit: P. RAVIKUMAR/REUTERS

In the summer of 1996, the 27-year-old Riyad Wadia, a filmmaker dubbed “The Young Turk” in a newspaper profile and the scion of Wadia Movietone Studios, which produced the “Fearless Nadia” Hunterwali films of the 1930s, was drifting. Having directed the acclaimed documentary Fearless: The Hunterwali Story (1993), he was flailing for stories to tell, while also grappling with how to articulate his sexuality. Soon, the closet crumbled, and as he hopscotched from film festival to film festival—LA, SF, Cannes, Toronto, Hong Kong, Tokyo—he “found and lost love, became a fixture at gay bars and discovered Lycra”.

Spurred by the “gay mafia” that ran the film festivals, he decided he wanted to make a gay film. Back in Mumbai, he devoured R. Raj Rao’s recently published One Day I Locked My Flat In Soul City and reached out to him to acquire the rights to adapt it. That project did not pan out, but Rao came back with poetry he had written, which Wadia found “so explosive, so in-your-face gay, and so incisive of the urban gay milieu” that he urgently wanted to make a film of it. That became BomGAY, India’s first explicit and explicitly gay film.

Last year, alongside screening the short vignette-like film, Rao and Jangu Sethna, who worked on BomGAY, joined me for a conversation trying to remember the foolhardy bravado of youth with which that film was made. There is a scene in the film where Rahul Bose and Kushal Punjabi are having sex in a library. This was a stressful shoot because the librarian, who had no idea what film was being shot, kept buzzing around the film crew suspiciously. Eventually, he caught on and screamed: “You are making a perverted porno!” Sethna used Wadia’s family name and reputation to calm him down, telling him that they were making a film on ragging in college. Besides, there was the law, too. A looming Section 377 that criminalised non-procreative sex was very much in the books then, even if it was not being actively used to cart off sodomites into prison. Wadia did not even bother sending the film for certification.

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BomGAY is a sandpapered and randy film, whose language of abrasive irreverence can feel both alienating and alienated. Why would someone want to express themselves with such a spiky coat of armour? What drives someone to porcupine their flesh?

Crisis of respectability

In the current crisis of respectability, where queer people demand the kind of representation that sees them as virtuous figures at best, victims at worst, this film winks at the audience. When I asked Sethna and Rao about whether they thought of this film from the perspective of responsibility and respectability, they both said no. They saw queerness as an identity to be playful with, not to wallow in it; their vision did not make any demands on the viewer to see queer people as moral citizens of the country. They did not care to turn their identity, their predispositions, into a podium.

It is this thread of not-caring that Raj Rao tugs at again in his latest novel Mahmud and Ayaz, where his protagonist Mahmud falls in love with Pandurang, a homeless man and the illegitimate son of a tamasha dancer, brings him home, makes him his lover, his partner, renames him Ayaz—after the legendary love between Mahmud of Ghazni and his slave lover, Ayaz—has him circumcised, and drags him into his plans of initially thievery and later militancy.

What sort of story is this, you must be thinking? Set in contemporary Mumbai, the book flips through the various provocations of our politics and responds to these provocations in a similar manner, with the same blunt force. In fact, it begins with Mahmud believing that Kasab is innocent, a belief that pushes him to assist the D Company, and eventually, the militancy in Kashmir.

To be “irreverent”—as the blurb describes Rao’s prose—about queerness, however, and to be irreverent about Muslimness are two different things; the existential stakes are lopsided. For one, few, if any, in the political realm care enough about queers to demonise them.

“I’d rather be an outlaw than be co-opted by false notions of respectability, for the queer can never aspire to true respectability; we will forever be stigmatised, seen as deviant; our orientation will always be regarded as taboo. We will forever be and need to be resisting subjects.”R. Raj Raowriter

To be unencumbered by the desires and duties of respectability is to be free in one sense, but in another, it is to be open to misrepresentation. The character of Mahmud can be read as both a response to the Islamophobic state, but also, as a reason for the Islamophobic state—that we need laws to keep depraved ideas and people like Mahmud at bay; his rapacious appetite, his stealing chappals and gold from Somnath; his coming close to committing an act of terrorism.

Does irreverence serve a purpose?

Does irreverence serve a purpose—literary or ethical? In trying to co-opt a narrative of hate, is Rao opening himself up to be co-opted? I reached out via email to Rao, and he responded to my worries: “I’d rather be an outlaw than be co-opted by false notions of respectability, for the queer can never aspire to true respectability; we will forever be stigmatised, seen as deviant; our orientation will always be regarded as taboo. We will forever be and need to be resisting subjects.”

Also Read | The queerness I crave

Unapologetic about the increasing radicalisation of Mahmud, Rao insists that “all minorities, be they Muslims or Dalits or gays, need to use ‘radicalisation’ as a weapon to avenge marginalisation”. He calls this vengeful ideology “minoritism”, which sees the minorities’ capacity to upend the current structures only by becoming “infiltrators, disruptors, militants, radicals, rebels, and the whole gamut of ‘abusive’ words used to describe us”.

Both respectability and irreverence, while seeming like they are seated on opposite sides of the podium, are standing on the same stage. They both see identity as central to character, seeing the character through their identity, and not allowing the character to simmer alongside their identity. They can both feel limited in the ways they want to achieve the very same thing: the dignity of attention, either by bending to the system or bending the system. Both come from an anxiety of being perished in the attention economy. They mark themselves so singularly, it is impossible to retrieve them from the very structures of thought, which can seem, if turned around, like just strictures instead. 

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.

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