Through love’s great power to be made whole …
~ From Through Love’s Great Power, poem by Vikram Seth quoted by Justice DY Chandrachud.
Five of India’s finest Supreme Court judges ushered in the winds of change on September 6, 2018, when they read down Section 377 and decriminalised consensual sex between adults regardless of sexual orientation once and for all. The judgements link sexuality to privacy, self-expression and freedom. Sexuality is “the fundamental experience through which individuals define the meaning of their lives,” reads Justice Chandrachud’s judgement. The language of momentous change is often poetic and that of the judgements is resonating across the country. “When judges speak with such beauty you want to fall at their feet and say thanks. Why is it raining in my eyes dammit?” tweeted Siddharth, a Telugu actor.
Official Trailer | Breaking Free
To appreciate the import of the Supreme Court verdict, it is useful to look back in time, to the beginnings of the LGBTQ struggle and see how the community kept faith despite the odds. Sridhar Rangayan’s Breaking Free (2015) is a 90-minute documentary, which traces the evolution of the movement and is a revelation in this regard. Rangayan is one of India’s leading gay activists and filmmakers. Breaking Free has a personal dimension too. It recapitulates Rangayan’s own journey as a gay person in India. He invites us into his consciousness and, as he tries to make sense of his situation, we find ourselves identifying with LGBTQ issues and grasping their import for our own lives.
Rangayan begins his film with a frontal shot of himself informing us that he has been abused and beaten because he is gay. “Why are people like me victimised, what is the reason, what is the root cause?” he asks. He poignantly brings up the issue of self-stigmatisation when he says “we were not sure our desires were normal”. He reiterates time and again the fear associated with coming out. It is a fight against “one’s demons”, “the biggest battle of our lives”. His self-doubt is centred around one question. What is the connection between sexual identity and one’s identity as a human being? The judgments articulate the issue in these very terms and define sexuality not in terms of gender roles but as a form of individual self-expression guaranteed by the Constitution. “The Constitution protects the fluidities of sexual experience …,” reads Justice Chandrachud’s judgement.
Still from the trailer of Breaking Free
Breaking Free, as well as the four-part SC judgments, touch briefly on an issue that is of burning importance for LGBTQs – the link between sexuality and love. Arvind Narain, lawyer and activist from Bengaluru points out in Rangayan’s film that while heterosexual sex is associated with love and intimacy, gay sex is considered “carnal”. Gay love, says Rangayan, is “a love that dare not speak its name.”
Breaking Free, paints a very brutal picture of life when prejudice takes away the right to love. The pressure of secrecy and fear of ostracism alienates gays from their parents and they are often banished to the insecurity, indignity and sheer danger of “twilight zones”. The film recounts Kokila’s ordeal in a park in Bengaluru. She is a transgender and was dragged like a dog by her dupatta around her neck and gang raped by eight goons. A young man in Bengaluru was robbed and left stranded in Cubbon Park by a stranger posing as a lover. The concept of love is not associated with LGBTQs in the popular imagination which is probably why only a single judge, Justice Chandrachud, made mention of the right of gays to marry and adopt. Reactions on social media, however, are heartening. They suggest that sections of India already imagine love differently. Bollywood, in particular, takes the lead. For Alia Bhatt, “love is love,” and Amitabh Bachchan quotes from a poem: “Sirf ehsaas hai, yeh rooh se mehsoos karo, pyaar ko pyaar hi rehne do, koi naam na do.”
But amidst the joy and celebration, there is sorrow for those for whom it is too late. Breaking Free gives the victims of Section 377 a place in history by recording their testimonies. These are the soul of the film. They are so honest and unflinching that the indignity suffered by the victims only augments their humanity, and the stark physical violence inflicted on them leads us to a greater appreciation of the sanctity of the human body. The word gandu for example resonates through the film but all it does is bring the horror of the word alive. Victims describe without ado how their physical integrity was destroyed, their body parts isolated, appropriated and grievously harmed. Kokila was stripped at the police station and burning wires were repeatedly applied to her breasts as if they were some kind of flesh-and-blood curiosity the police could amuse themselves with.
The film dwells at length on the situation of kothis or effeminate men. Kothis strike at the heart of patriarchal mythology making them victims of choice. The film recounts the case of the kothi who rendered himself vulnerable simply by waiting for a bus in Delhi at 10.30 at night. The police picked him up and took him to a police station where he was raped all night by 11 people. They converted a living human into an asshole with impunity because the law allowed them to do so. A testimony that the film brands into our memory concerns Pandian, a 21-year old sweeper in Chennai. His sister recounts that he was orally gang raped night after night at a police station. The police used the law to appropriate and tear into the mouth of this boy. If he protested, they would ram their batons into its soft tissue so that he’d return home every night with a bleeding mouth. He never recovered from the rapes. He committed suicide leaving his two sisters to fend for themselves. The horror in Breaking Free is very real and when Justice Indu Malhotra writes that “members of the LGBT community and their family members are owed an apology from society” – she’s echoing a sentiment has resonance far and wide. Apart from this remark, however, the judgments are resolutely forward looking.
There is another discourse in Breaking Free, a happier discourse, about the movement and its successes both big and small. How many of us know the Bharosa Trust incident that triggered the filing of the original suit against Section 377 in the Delhi High Court? The Bharosa Trust is a Lucknow-based NGO. It was conducting an HIV prevention drive in 2001 when there was a raid on the Trust’s premises. Staff members were hauled off to jail under Section 377. They were made to crouch for days in an open courtyard and were repeatedly kicked from behind. They were also forced to drink filthy water. In protest, LGBTQ activists held their first public rally, in Mumbai, which kicked off the movement. In what constituted another landmark, Kokila filed and won a case against the Karnataka High Court in 2004. Another major rallying point was the protest against a Bengaluru police drive to evict hijras from the city. And then came the landmark Delhi High Court judgment in 2009 which decriminalised consensual sex between gay persons in private.
The best part of Breaking Free, however, are the testimonies of the generation which came out after the 2009 Delhi High Court judgment. You wonder at how much the movement managed to achieve in just eight years. Balu is a handsome young gay man and he recounts how amused he was at his parents’ perplexity when he came out to them. Sonu is a young and bright-eyed transsexual who is waiting to have SRS (Sex Reassignment Surgery) after which he will marry his girlfriend. The movement also encouraged parents to come out. One of the most inspiring images in the film is that of Chitra Palekar, film and theatre personality, in a pride parade wearing a placard that says “Mother With Pride”.
Breaking Free ends with the reversal of the Delhi High Court judgment by the Supreme Court in 2013. But the sense one gets, despite the anger, is that the time for Section 377 is truly over, that the fight is against an irrational judgment and not the force of social prejudice in all its intensity. This feeling has been validated by the unanimity of the current judgements and the explosion of joy all over the country. “Your perseverance has made India a freer place for everyone,” reads a tweet by Swara Bhaskar, Bollywood actor and social activist, paying homage to the LGBTQ movement. Indians identify with the idea that sexuality is an individual matter and sense that the winds of freedom have started to blow for them too.