In this interview, Muhammed Unais, a queer rights activist, speaks about how portrayals in cinema influence society's ideas about the gay community.

From Deshadanakili Karayarilla to Aami The gay identity in Malayalam films
Flix Mollywood Wednesday, July 11, 2018 - 15:46

Muhammed Unais was 12 when Chanthupottu released. The film was about a boy who was dressed up as a girl by his grandmom who always yearned for a girl. He eventually grows up as a straight man with exaggerated effeminate mannerisms.

Dileep played Radha aka Radhakrishnan who giggled, danced, dressed and walked like a woman. Till this day, it’s baffling as to what the director and scriptwriter were attempting to convey—because Radha wasn’t gay. Neither was he a trans person, he was just a man who was conditioned to behave and dress "like a girl". It’s only when his lover gets pregnant with him that he is officially granted the title of a man.

But unfortunately, the film struck a chord with the audience. At a time when society views people who are gay with contempt, they quickly gave them another label—Chanthupottu.

For Unais who, at that age, hadn’t yet come out with their sexuality, it opened a mortifying chapter in life. Unais was openly called ‘chanthupottu’ for their bearing, first by their tuition teacher and later by their schoolmates. The name, Unais admits never disappeared. Today Muhammed Unais is a known queer rights activist, and recently took to Facebook to express the agony the film gave them.

We got Unais to talk about gay representations in Malayalam cinema and the result was unsurprisingly bleak.

Chanthupottu left a deep scar in your life. Have you ever tried to talk to the writer and director regarding this?

Lal Jose is aware of this but from what I heard, he was unapologetic. After the post, my Facebook was flooded with messages from the queer community who had the same experience and even from heterosexuals who have feminine mannerisms and are not gay or trans persons. Sexual minorities have never been shown in an accurate manner in Malayalam cinema.

Is there any Malayalam film that you thought did justice to the gay community? 

Mumbai Police is a nicely made film, but it comes with its own set of problems. After Prithviraj’s accident, his sexuality gets no importance. Recently the scriptwriters Bobby and Sanjay explained that Moses is still gay but that after the accident, his sexuality isn’t in focus. According to them, after the accident his sexuality too receives a shock. He doesn’t feel anything sexually but after many years he will regain his sexuality.

In fact, that was my primary concern with that film too. It gave the impression that Moses becomes straight after the accident which seemed far-fetched.

That way it created a lot of misunderstanding among the audience. As it is homosexuality is wrongly construed by the public and filmmakers mostly never get it. Yes, a lot of them thought he became straight. The shock of murdering his friend is misunderstood as the guilt of being gay. It continues to be interpreted in both ways.

What worked for you in the film?

Despite everything, I would say it was still one of the better representations in Malayalam cinema. And most importantly, for the first time in India, in a mainstream cinema, a leading actor had the gumption to take on such a role and that was a huge deal. And Prithviraj keeps it masculine unlike the usual stereotypes and it was effective. As for the partner who was effeminate, it was also nicely done.

What do you attribute our filmmakers' distortions to? Ignorance or just taking the easy way out?

Even society has no idea still. As for filmmakers, they are more concerned about catering to these public rigid notions and delusions than do proper homework or even view us with sensitivity. Look at Action Hero Biju, which was racist, homophobic and misogynist and it was widely accepted.

There is a scene which shows a gay man who is questioned by Nivin Pauly and he immediately gropes him. Not to forget his exaggeratedly feminine stride. Even Rockstar is regressive - a gay man is seen approaching the hero salaciously, pinching his butt as a hint.

Promiscuous, melodramatically feminine and collectively ridiculed by society. This seems to be the general norm in our cinema.

True, they highlight that aspect alone—libidinous, eagerly waiting for men to touch and wink. In Two Countries, this typecast gets repeated—Riyaz Khan’s gay character gropes Dileep suggestively.

What about the award-winning My Life Partner?

I haven’t yet seen it. But yes, from what I know its director MB Padmakumar is against queer rights and gay marriages. And my friends who watched it said it was problematic and judgemental. Understandable considering the director himself is homophobic.

Surprisingly off beat cinema has provided better space, right?

Yes, KA Bodyscapes, directed and written by Jayan Cherian, the film assisted by Jijo Kuriakose who spearhead the Queerela and others is a fine film and it discusses a lot of issues apart from homosexuality. There is Sancharam that has a great lesbian story but didn't get a theatre release.

Padmarajan’s Deshadanakili Karayarilla is today talked about from it lesbian angle. Have you felt it?

In fact, it’s a personal favourite. Not just the lesbian angle, there are a lot of factors that can be linked to the queer community. It’s surprising the film depicted that considering it was only after 1990s that homosexuality was considered natural in our country. There is a lot of reading in that film. Shari is lesbian, she has cropped hair, loves her friend to the point of forsaking anything for her and is insanely jealous of Mohanlal’s bond with her. While Karthika is unaware of this.

Suicide rate is highest among queer people due to the lack of acceptance and here they both commit suicide. Shari keeps talking about taking her to a “safe heaven.” Like most queer people they also face neglect from their family at a young age and they keep running away from the world. And like them they keep moving to another place once their identity is revealed.

Aami too got it wrong I thought…

It was one film I was looking forward to as Madhavikutty has always been a gay icon. In the 50s, 60s and 70s she would write about homosexuality with clarity and sensitivity. She even coined the word, ‘Swawargapremi’, romanticising it beautifully. But then I was also sceptical about Kamal as his earlier films were toxically misogynistic. Usually when the filmmaker is a feminist, automatically queer folks will be sensitively portrayed. That’s why I have faith in Aashiq Abu.

But in Aami her husband’s gay partner is show in a denigrating manner, as someone belonging to a lower class. But in the story, he is sketched in high regard. So, I guess he just wanted to please the mainstream audience.

How would you want to be represented in cinema?

As normally as heterosexual people. Thanks to cinema we have received a lot of scorn though between then and now there is some change. In cinema, they only show the privileged ones, rest are avoided or misrepresented. That’s why I don’t think cinema reflects the society. 

Note: This article was first published on The News Minute has syndicated the content. You can read the original article here.

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