When I studied at drama school, students were asked to present a theatrical piece bringing the energy of a space and embody it, as part of our Theatre Making Lab activity. Understanding the space and squeezing into a tiny performance space felt like a restrictive activity. But, in addition to this, I wondered about how does one conflate the opinions of individuals working in a group and yet present a unified and creative piece, perfect for presentation to an audience, who might have preconceived notions about the performers as individuals and a group?
Speaking about queerness is never easy. It is an expansive shared experience that is always asked to be computed into words, binaries, and descriptions. As Vidur Sethi, an actor, educator, and interdisciplinary artist based in New Delhi described, “My queerness is not just about my gender, and sexuality; it’s about life. For me, it becomes important to look at norms that entail society, and constantly challenge them through my queerness.”
For Jyotsna Siddharth, an actor, artist, and writer based in Delhi, the intersectionality of her caste and being queer is deeply bound. Jyotsna mentioned, “My queer identity is as important as my caste identity. In most theatre groups, the process is led by straight people who also happen to be upper caste. And there is obvious domination of upper-class people within theatre groups also. Since the process is led largely by people who have cisgender and caste privilege, my presence often becomes a site of dialogue, discussion, and also debate, because the ideas that I may put forward, or the issues I may have, are coming from my own experiences of navigating spaces.”
Express Yourself, Conditionally
Often, we look at the entertainment industry, which includes film and theatre spaces, as a beacon of liberal spaces, where people irrespective of diverse backgrounds, can express themselves and their ideas openly. In the course of this article, two people categorically mentioned that they were not comfortable with sharing their real names. Is it a fear of retribution from their peers? A general sense of discomfort they faced sharing their thoughts regarding instances of safe practices in the industry? Or, is it the barricading frameworks, set within the institutions and the industry, that have silenced the voices of queer people to speak out openly?
Arts organizations, and other institutions, should be spaces where discussions on gender and sexuality can and must freely take place. However, Arjun Iyer, a drama teacher in a Mumbai-based school, had a different experience. He shared that during Drama School Mumbai’s (DSM) 2018 annual student production of Maati, almost no discourse or discussion regarding gender and sexuality sensitization took place with students. He felt that even though the production required actors to perform “drag” and play other genders, “The attempts to portray gender expressions were quite rigid and superficial.” Arjun, who was also a cast member, said, “A student, who was performing a male-identifying role, had an issue with the possibility of the character being gay but no conversation took place to discuss the character’s sexuality or to sensitize students about it after that.” Such instances highlight the need for spaces and institutions to take responsibility in educating students and other stakeholders about gender and sex, instead of presuming that people are sensitive enough to know what inclusive and safe practices to follow. “Especially when the work and space is intimate and personal, wouldn’t this be in sync with the value of upholding and creating a safe space?” Arjun wondered.
On a set that is supposedly queer-affirming, films and brands want queer visibility but not too much ‘queerness’. The common excuse brands tend to have is that they don’t want to put “stereotypical queer characters” on screen, tossing aside the validity of people with those identities and expressions that stem from those stereotypes.
Working on the set of an ad that featured a gay man, one lesbian and a trans person, Lauren Robinson, an actor-writer based out of Mumbai, shared that they were called on set and asked to portray themselves authentically. “While they put me in a costume that wasn’t something I’d wear, I, like how I do with most of my roles, donned an expression through what that costume made me feel. But while we were shooting they had comments like, “Can you say it more like yourself” or ‘Why don’t you be you?’ And I thought, ‘Well, then dress me as me and then I can be me.”
To this, the brand responded that they didn’t want to stereotype the characters and, say, show a lesbian with a bowtie and a suspender. “Finally, my response was, if you want me to play this character as myself, ask what Lauren would wear, and then, you will not be stereotyping,” she shared. “I also told them that the so-called ‘stereotyping’ is also based on facts. Lesbians with bowtie and suspenders, and gay men with coloured nail polish, exist as well. I was quite uncomfortable that day because they wanted me to be my queer self, but hadn’t sensitized themselves with the right approach to portray such identities.”
Likewise, speaking about a casting experience for an OTT which had queer characters in it, Arjun said, “The audition brief given to me asked me not to portray the character as ‘gay-gay’ but ‘straight-gay’, which basically meant don’t play the character as an effeminate gay person.” He mentioned how he has faced that experience twice in casting calls.
Questioning & Queering The Process
Building an inclusive space from one’s practice could be an answer. Vidur Sethi described their artistic practice as ‘processing deviance’. “Whether it is performance, or writing or curation, I tend to deviate from the norms. When I process deviance in my art, or in my work, I find a sense of belonging in life where I don’t have to necessarily do a perfect job and imagine an actor’s body to be fully realized. When it comes to performance, in the context of processing deviance, I’m talking about the differences that are being perceived as mistakes. For me, those are my lived experiences through which I tend to extend a future imaginary rather than a static reference to the past for developing my practice. Slowly, stepping into a truth that is more honest than my previous days.”
But, as an actor working on filmmaker Onir’s latest venture Pine Cone, how does their philosophy of accepting perceived mistakes as part of the learning and lived experience align with the strict scheduling of the film? “It’s very internal right now. Camera is a very different language and that’s a part of the learning process but I’m not scared of presenting the anxieties, uncertainties, and conflicts of my body in order to process an entity that can keep on making newer fault lines and pluralities. I am still trying to create time for reflection and introspection and in that, I hope to come closer to exposing my privilege as an upper caste person and keep puncturing spaces in order to contribute to the word ‘nuance’.”
Varun* (name changed), a drama student who has written and performed queer pieces, said, “I am still figuring out a structure to my process. For me, a line from a poem or film might evoke me to write a piece. That line might be different from the world of the piece I might be creating, but it helps me build that piece.”
‘Be Here Now’ is a concept touted by theatre practitioners, which asks performers to leave whatever personal issues they are facing outside the rehearsal room and enter the space with a fresh, neutral energy. Jyotsna Siddharth disagrees with this concept. “It doesn’t work that way,” she asserted, “You cannot shut your cells completely when you’re coming to the rehearsal space. All your worries, anxieties, and what you’re going through, are material for making a play as much as the script and the process of making that play. One cannot separate and segregate some of those things,” she said, adding that this also brings in questions of representation.
“Questions around personal, financial, and social problems, all of these things will impact actors and the way they are able to perform in a rehearsal room. It thus becomes important how a theatre director and fellow actors, including production itself, is able to hold that space and work in an organic way, rather than pushing down the deadlines.”
Speaking about her ongoing production Clay, she mentioned that she does not want to impose timeline restrictions on her actors. She added, “We’re doing casting where we’re not inviting all the actors together but in phases, as and when the work is developing. The director and I want to be able to work with the actor personally, but also in a collaborative manner as in when people join in and become part of the process. In the rehearsal room, the play and the ensuing process will happen. But if there are days where you’re not able to make it to the rehearsals, or there is something else that comes up, which is more urgent, all of that has a space in our rehearsal room because we’re working with humans. Keeping compassion at the center of the theatre-making process is crucial. ”
We’re Here, We’re Queer. Now, How Does One Portray It?
So how do you make a space comfortable for queer voices to be amplified? How does one tell queer stories without appropriating them? Nava, made in collaboration with the cast of transgender women from the Bengaluru chapter of the Aravani Arts Project, director Sharanya Ramprakash mentioned that it might start with friendships. She elaborated, “Purnima, who is the founder of the Aravani Arts Project, has been a dear friend of mine. I’ve been sort of witnessing her journey from when she started the project, from when the first person joined her to do murals, to the Project becoming a movement in that sense. For me, all the women who worked with Purnima were my friends and colleagues. I would meet them in a bar, we would go out, I would go to their homes. And then Purnima got a grant to do a project which involves trans stories, and she said that I should direct this. So, because I already knew all of them as people and as individuals, I think that looking back, it is extremely important for these things to start from friendship; from a space of no agenda.”
Nitin* (name changed), an upcoming screenwriter based out of Mumbai, spoke about how an action film he is working on, supported the introduction of a transgender character from the writing stage itself. He added, “Right now, as an industry, we are in a very mixed space. We encourage it, because we think it’s cool, but that’s where it stops, it’s not beyond that. I feel film production houses or theatre companies need to lead by example. So, people who are in positions of power need to sort of normalize creating more queer characters or casting more queer people in queer roles.”
He further pointed out, “The film industry loves following trends, success stories, and well-branded phenomena, whether it’s through sports biopics or war films or comedy horror films. If one does well, then everyone else just wants to follow through. I think we should also try and use this practice to encourage the way we introduce and portray the diversity and queer people on screen.”
As for the latest generation, a gentle push by educators might all be needed to create an inclusive space.
While a training manual by NCERT to make schools more inclusive for transgender and gender-nonconforming kids had to be pulled down because of outrage by right wing groups, Arjun Iyer is taking small steps to create space for an inclusive environment for his students. He mentioned, “I remember in an organized session with Grade 8 students with a child psychologist, students spoke about witnessing bullying regarding a young boy with gender-nonconforming traits. That became a starting point in my class to speak more about gender and sexuality. The young generation is easier to speak to regarding gender and sexuality education, thanks to the exposure to pop culture. They have a sensitive outlook and a curiosity to learn. It’s the parents, some of whom might be extremely sweet, that come from orthodox mindsets and object to any further education on these issues. Thus, dealing with the small battles and explaining the normalcy of different genders and sexuality is one way to create that space for school students.”
*Names have been changed at the discretion of the individual.