Published on 24th November, 2013, in Mid-Day.
Recently I saw a Marathi play at Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh, Girgaon, called Dushyant-priya, beloved of Dushyant, based on Kalidasa’s famous Sanskrit play, Shakuntalayam. But this was a play with a difference. It is a play about a play, and here Shakuntala was a man.
The female lead playing Shakuntala is unable to continue just two weeks before the main show, and so one of the male actors is asked to substitute, like the female impersonators of yore. And then something happens.
The lead actor playing Dushyant falls in love with the male actor playing Shakuntala. Like the mythological tale, they consummate their relationship and he gives her a ring of his undying love. But then, society intervenes, and the male lead, like Dushyanta, refuses to recognise Shakuntala or admit his love for her/him. The play thus forms a framework to comment on homosexuality in contemporary times.
The mythic mingles with the modern. The male Shakuntala wonders whether her father, the sage Kanva, will accept his sexual orientation. And under social pressure, Dushyanta publicly humiliates and rejects this male Shakuntala, leading to great pain and suffering. But finally, as in the original play, Dushyanta is unable to control his feelings. He stands up to society, accepts the male Shakuntala, and the two get married blessed by all. Everyone in the audience is invited to bless this marriage between two men.
I am no theatre critic but it was interesting to see how the same mythic framework of falling in love, separation, anticipation, rejection and finally reconciliation can be applied to a romantic story between a man and a woman as well as between a man and a man. Maybe in a later version, someone will cast a woman to play the role of Dushyanta and the audience will be invited to bless the union of two women.
Is this possible? Is this subversion? Is this an insult to ancient storytelling? Currently, the Supreme Court of India is still wondering whether homosexuality is constitutionally valid. Same-sex marriage is not even under consideration. Doctors pass off their moral judgments as medical diagnosis, neighbours chuckle, police arrest and extort, priests refer selectively to archaic passages in unread texts, and families emotionally blackmail their sons and daughters to adjust to unions that go against their desires and orientation. So much for India being a tolerant country.
But it is a relief to see such creative storytelling, even if it takes place in an extremely small scale with barely any budget, driven solely by passion. We don’t need Broadway or Hollywood to show us the way. Conceptually, it was miles ahead intellectually, emotionally and politically from films made by very successful Bollywood directors who are keen to acknowledge homosexuality but can only do so by portraying them either as comical caricatures, or as mean, bitter, cruel sadists who prowl for sex. The same holds true for television. How do you ‘show’ homosexuality if not through the sexual act, is the question for many?
I recently met a renowned historian and asked him why his history of India makes no mention of homosexuality. He laughed nervously. At another conference, I met a former diplomat and wondered why his manifesto for new India had no mention of ‘inconvenient sexual minorities’. He looked surprised. It had not even crossed his mind. Thus, both in the past and in the future, are such communities invisibilised by the simple common man who otherwise stands for justice and fairness for all.