An Ode to Law, Desire, and Popular Culture

Dhruv Shekar, Jindal Global University, India – This is a reflection on the confluence of the trifocal entities of law, desire and popular culture. In addition, it will assess how Popular Culture serves as an important source of iconography reflective of the myriad of socio-cultural- political realities and the equally and ardently important ever evolving legalities concerning it.

To begin with, the term ‘desire’ connotes a love for oneself or another. An ancillary term with which it has an axiomatic association is sexuality. An aspect, expression of which across the milieu often finds appreciation solely in the private sphere and is castigated for the same in the public sphere. Unlike other evolutionary matters, we have regressed in the intersection of desire and sexuality, for if one examines the Greco-Romanic Era or closer to `home the exponents of sexuality are deeply riddled in the stone mural of the Ajanta – Ellora Caves. It is clear that we move from a time of exploring and celebrating sexuality to a time that is a tad more restrictive in its approach. It is this confinement of sexuality, in all its various emanations, that only puts forwardthe question as to whether our societal framework has become more conservative or whether there is w another reason at play.

Michel Foucault, referring to the western esoteric containment of sexuality, elucidates this by conferring the blame on the 18th Century phenomenon of industrialization. Whereby the argument appears, in order to ensure maximum productivity of the workforce, aspects such as an exposition of one’s sexuality may very well be contained. A cultural reverberation thus emerges in terms of a heteronormative relationship (i.e. relationship between a man and a woman) being the only kind of socially accepted relationship.

The erstwhile position of fluidity in sexuality (in the West) gets tossed in favor of this  categorization of so called deviant or unchartered sexual identities of the other. Thus one can surmise this by stating that terminologies such as Gay, Lesbian, Queer or Inter Sex were all product of the Industrial Age, thereby providing for a very instrumentalist understanding of the entire phenomenon of Sexuality which hitherto exhibited itself in an essentially different matter. India, in its then-iteration as a colonized state, also finds itself on the receiving end of this phenomenon of codification and categorization of identities. The uniqueness of the Indian landscape ensured that the aforementioned phenomenon manifested itself in multiplicit forms, be it codification of caste identities (via the 1901 Census during the British Raj) or of one’;s sexual identity via codification of SECTION 377 of the IPC, 1860. Many of said changes have persisted till the present day and age.

However, the categorization and subsequent discrimination on the basis of identities found a perfect riposte in the form of emergence of counter discourses in the Unites States and UK in the 20th century. A discourse not solely confined to sexuality, but one focusing on race and fight for equal rights (the trailblazing Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s). More specifically, in the United States (particularly towards the end of the millennium), one sees an improved representation of individuals with varied concepts surrounding sexuality. Films, TV shows and comics such as Philadelphia, Melrose Place, Batgirl, andThe Ellen Show all provide a space for their titular or other supporting characters to engage in an exposition of their desires and sexuality. It is this space which allowed for Hollywood celebrities (many of whom were closeted for most of their lives) to come out and declare their sexual orientation.

One could argue that this newfound interpretation was partly due to the AIDS scare in the United States in the late 1980s and 1990s, which provided an impetus for people to look at the orientation of an individual in a clinical fashion, as well as the potential hazards surrounding non-heterosexual sexual behavior. However, while this can be cited as one partial cause of society’s liberalization, merely stating it as the sole reason would be a gross simplification of the situation.

In India, however, our pattern of change for large parts of the 20th Century did not allow for sexuality to be expressed in any iteration whatsoever (even in terms of a heteronormative understanding). The trailblazing actresses of the 1960s-1970s, such as Parveen Babi, Zeenat Aman and Sharmila Tagore, to name a few, wore outfits which were ahead of their time; (by that I simply mean a swimming attire such as a bikini) for Indian sensibilities. Largely, one sees that coercive control of the Censor Board would never allow for content which was transgressive of the values of the time.

Furthermore, many films even survived on the stereotypical depiction of gays and hijras (often even portraying them to be in one and the same, rife with clichéd depictions of all of them being effeminate). However, there was the odd exception which would portray them in an important role. Largely, they were confined to a realm where their presence was purely for eliciting humor (case in point Pyar Kiya to Darna Kya (1998) which starred Salman Khan in the lead role ). In the noughties and 2010s, one has witnessed a stark change – a change which relies on the desire of people coming out against   Section. 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The section, which criminalizes engagement of sexual intercourse which is not contrived towards reproduction and thus has put homosexuality firmly under the scanner as unnatural and thus illegal modicum of intercourse or sexual engagement.

There is also a great degree of organization regarding the discourse pertaining to sex workers, for now they no longer serve as a random agglomeration of individuals but instead a bulwark with an organizational structure expressing their agency such as the Sonargachi Project in Kolkata, West Bengal. Acknowledged as one of the largest red light districts in all of India, this project is a joint initiative between a myriad of NGO’s that was set up in 1992 and aimed at preventing the spread of STD’s amongst sex workers of the Sonargachi district. In the two decades henceforth it has been largely successful in achieving its goals and is now run by the sex workers themselves.    

The synergy of all these events finds representation in the realm of films, where we have progressed to an era of filmmaking where even independent studios are taking on the bold step of making films of the ilk of Shabhnam Mausi, who in 1998 became the first Hijra (a subset of the umbrella term of transgender)  to win the Madhya Pradesh State Legislative Assembly elections. To more recent events which entail even mainstream actors such as Fawad Khan in films like Kapoor  Sons portraying homosexual characters that are not mere caricatures of homosexuals is an interesting development.

Thus, to conclude, popular culture serves as an interesting historical tool to map, ascertain and even initiate changes which take place in the societal fold. The fluidity of media is one of its greatest strengths and its applicability to all sections of the society making it an even more dynamic tool of assessment.

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