NOTE: This essay was submitted as university coursework toward Coventry University’s BA (Hons) programme of Media and Communications on 28th March 2017, to which I was recently awarded a 2:1. This version incorporates material excised from the final submitted version.
In this essay, I explore queerness within diasporas in the Indian film Kal Ho Naa Ho (Advani 2003), and the American film Saving Face (Wu 2004). I discuss how they situate their narratives within New York City as a shared cultural space, drawing in part upon research into Chinese and Indian communities within New York City and the United States (Bhattacharya 2008, Strug and Mason 2007, Li and Skop 2010).
Approaching minority and global cinemas, both in production and release, is difficult. How we understand international films is important, as they are often taken as “ethnographic documents” as representative of other cultures (Desnai 2004 cited in Ezra and Rowden 2006:2). Bollywood, producing an average of 400 films a year to weekly domestic audiences of 35 million (Nayar 1997:73), has expanded towards diasporas, partly through deregulation an exemption on tax exports and a greater investment in film finance, seeing an international “mainstreaming of Bollywood” (Thussu 2008:104), utilising a new, global aesthetic (Prasad 2008 cited in O’Neill 2013:256). Kal Ho Na Ho (Advani 2003), focusing on the Indian diaspora in New York City, was the first mainstream Indian film set entirely in the United States, opened in 52 theaters and grossed $1.78 million, one of the highest Bollywood box offices in the US between 1999 and 2005 (Thussu 2008:108).
However, the reach for Bollywood cinema outside of the diaspora is questionable, often ridiculed by Western spectators for “plot twists, unpredictable deviations and deus-ex machina endings” (Nayar 1997:73) that draw attention to its artificiality (Mishra 2002). Within film criticism, focus shifts towards directors within “Third Cinema” like Satyajit Ray, more closely aligned with neorealist movements (Thussu 2008:98). Filmmakers bridging Western and Indian film compromise their intentions, instead largely catering towards Western audiences (Thussu 2008:106), with the release of Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle 2008) met with nationalist concerns over representing India as a “Third World” (O’Neill 2013:255).
Asian American representation remains a battleground, presented in deeply problematic, Otherized and Oriental roles, often read as “premodern” and “irrevocably opposed to the West” (Rajgopal 2010:141). Rarely does an Asian protagonist have a sense of humanity (Rajgopal 2010:150). Yellowface practices extended beyond Luise Rainer and Katherine Hepburn’s portrayals of Asian woman in the 1930s and 40s (Rajgopal 2010:147) that emerged in part from miscegenation laws, through to modern online debates around the appropriation of an “essentialized” Asia and “whitewashing” in The Last Airbender (Shyamalan 2010) (Lopez 2011:435). Asian American filmmaking emerged out of grassroots student movements in the 1960s and 1970s (Okado 2016:1), but is defined today by “the legacy of enduring Orientalist stereotypes” within action films by Jet Li, Beat Takeshi and Jackie Chan (Mimura 2009:xiv). As Joan Chen commented in an interview surrounding the release of the film, the mainstream now “welcomes” other exotic elements, within martial arts and kung fu films (Canavese 2005).
Produced on a budget of $2.5 million, Saving Face (Wu 2004), Wu’s only feature, became marginalised through all stages of production: initially considered as a direct-to-video release (Leibowitz 2005), it received an R rating in the US and 15 rating in the UK. Distributed under the Sony Pictures Classics subsidiary, this label acts as “a euphemism for a small-studio production” that only offers “mirror images of what the studio does” (Tzioumakis 2006:264). For women within the industry, they are often relegated to an “Otherised” position or presented as “erotic spectacle”, and need to be utilised as new social subjects to tell female narratives outside “patriarchal hegemony” (McDonald 2016).
I use these films as a counter-reading to discuss queer representation and ideology; my reading of the heteronormativity and homophobic attitudes of Kal Ho Naa Ho is not necessarily as the director intended. As Higson argues, audience interpretation of international films depends largely upon their “cultural context”. (Higson 2008:19) Similarly, in analysing Saving Face, this reading goes beyond simple notions of “world cinema”. As Nagib argues, “world cinema is simply the cinema of the world. It has no centre.” (Nagib 2006:35 cited in Dudrah 2012:114) Instead, we should understand diaspora cinema as having no fixed or bounded notion of nation (Dennison and Lim 2006 cited in Dudrah 2012:114).
Challenging heterosexuality: queerness within liminal space
Central to the narratives of Kal Ho Naa Ho and Saving Face are questions of racial and sexual identity. As Hall argues, there is no stable core of self, but one produced within the “discursive formations” of the “modalities of power” that is constituted within representation (Hall 1996), and is an “ongoing” project, creating “open dialogue” between the subject and the external world (Hall 1992 cited in Dudrah 2013).
However, both Indian and Chinese cinema explore identity within the constraints of censorship. All Indian films keep to strict guidelines imposed by the Central Board of Film Classification, with the Supreme Court stating that film “is able to “instil or cultivate violent or bad behaviour.” (Jaggi and Thirumurthy 2015) Censorship acts as a “nationalist discourse” to exclude “oppositional discourses” (Bose 2009 cited in Jaggi and Thirumurthy 2015), and, in turn, many directors self-impose censorship. Within Mainland China, homosexuality is institutionally marginalised, with no literary or theoretical publications allowed in official distribution channels and films censored, not discussed within the public sphere (Liang 2012:130). Films with queer themes are unable to receive funds from the state, largely shown underground through unofficial gatherings and film festivals (Liang 2012:135). Though Kal Ho Naa Ho appeals across the diaspora, Saving Face is unable to reach Chinese audiences. Beyond queer sexuality, Bollywood restricts all sexuality, discouraging elements as mild as kissing (Nayar 1997:88), whilst denying the female body, marked as a sexual body, with nudity and sexuality often banned by censors. Instead, women are presented either as victims of sexual harassment or upholding moral principles (Mehta 2001 cited in Jaggi and Thirumurthy 2015), with nudity and sexuality often banned and a “hierarchical coding” against western cultural behaviour of sexuality and relationships (Jaggi and Thirumurthy 2015).
Kal Ho Naa Ho’s sexuality exists below surface, using innuendo as a “substitute for the unpermitted sexual display” (Nayar 1997:88). Our protagonists spend a night out at Club Nirvana, as we see female bodies on display. Jazz tries to use her sexuality to her advantage at her restaurant, attracting a group of white blue-collar truck drivers, symbols of masculine America, and pouring her coffee in a suggestive way. But this quickly shifts towards her disadvantage as she is forced to remove the patrons.
Male homosexuality is established through implication and innuendo with Rohit and Aman, embodying a ‘buddy’ or dosti role of “barely disguised same-sex desire” (Gopinath 2000) with greater intensity and devotion than Western understandings of friendship (Holtzman 2010:111), between homosociality and homosexuality.] (Sedgwick cited in Holtzman 2010:113). Neither character is explicitly queer, yet homosexuality is framed as a disjuncture to heterosexuality. Rohit is established as aggressively heterosexual, harassing a woman in an elevator before being confronted by a black security guard. However, the woman defends his actions.
Rohit is also often presented desexualised, although not necessarily asexual; in one scene, he speaks longingly of spending all day in bed with Laila; the frame cuts, suggestively, to him wrapped up in bed with his dog. Later, in a case of mistaken identity during a blind date, Rohit rejects a woman who seeks to initiate sexual contact, moving over to the bathroom as he suffers anxiety around his sexuality. Later, when Rohit wakes up in bed after a night out with Aman, their contact is non-intimate. In order to be represented as queer, Rohit must first lose his sexuality.
These tropes bear an uneasy resemblance to the early Hollywood trope of “the sissy” as mentioned in The Celluloid Closet, reinforcing masculinity and femininity whilst lacking a sexuality of their own. As screenwriter Arthur Laurents reflects, “they were disgusting […] I never understood why people laughed.” (Epstein and Friedman 1995)
These implied relationships suggest an “idealized state” for gay viewership (Prasad 1988 cited in Bhugra, Kalra, and Ventriglio 2015), achieving an “iconic status” amongst gay and lesbian subcultures. (Ghosh 2002:209) Whereas within its native context these elements are “nontransgressive”, they acquire “subversive value”, reclaimed through a “queer lens” (Gopinath 2000).
Unlike Western buddy films, it does not seek to “deflect queerness through comic acknowledgement and disavowal of homoeroticism by the main characters” (Holtzman 2010:113); instead, by disavowing their intimacy to his servant Kantaben, who reads their relationship as queer, it is amplified through “slapstick encounters” simulating oral and anal sex, becoming more acceptable to the viewer than heterosexual intimacy. (Holtzman 2010:115) In their typification of gay stereotypes in Bollywood cinema, Bhugra, Kalra and Ventriglio refer to this trope as “the laughing stock”, where queerness is used as comic relief to titillate the audience (Bhugra, Kalra and Ventriglio 2015). Kantaben’s exaggerated reaction to the mere implication of homosexuality gives a visual image of “visceral homophobia” (Holtzman 2010:123), spilling a tray of orange juice; fainting; screaming. Largely silent, she is denied a voice in which to vocalise her objections.
Although Holtzman argues that the love triangle between Rohit, Aman and Naida creates a “sublimated desire for one another displayed onto the female body” (Holtzman 2010:114), these theatrical character types become increasingly problematic, orienting the viewer towards a heterosexual discourse. Their conflict must be resolved through Aman’s death to allow “normative monogamous heterosexuality to thrive”. (Holtzman 2010:112)
Heterosexuality forms as a “renunciation of the possibility of homosexuality” (Butler 1997, cited in Ahmed 2006:85), creating a “field of heterosexual objects” that indicate “values, capital, aspirations, projects and styles”. (Ahmed 2006:85) In a series of vox pops, an imaginary narrator asks a handful of characters what love means and reflecting on first loves: amongst the subjects, Naina’s younger brother, and Rohit’s dog, Laila. In an early scene, Kammo, Vimmo and Lago pray towards Saraswati to earn the romantic affection of their neighbour. The film’s abundance of heterosexuality becomes almost farcical. Sexuality becomes universal amongst age, race and religion – except gender.
In Saving Face, queer sexuality exists both in opposition and accepted within Chinese American society. Wil’s lesbian identity is “incidental” to the film’s dominant plotline (Metzger 2009:225). The film follows a “mutual exploration” of “illicit” inter-generational sexuality and lesbianism, through Ma’s identity as a pregnant divorced woman. (Wong 2012:315) Both Ma and Wil exist within reverse roles that create a “queer temporality” (Freeman cited in Metzger 2009:232) and an “asynchronous configuration of time”, facilitating a rethinking of the normative (Metzger 2009:232): Ma experiences a “belated adolescence” of blind dates as Wil fields her suitors with idle conversation.
As reviewer Elbert Ventura emphasises, Wil’s relationship with Vivian is immediately politicised, as “the offhanded depiction of a genuinely sexy lesbian love affair between two Asian-Americans seems a defiant statement against the neutering of minorities on American screens” (Mitsuda and Ventura 2005), whilst avoiding the (cisgender, heterosexual male) psychosexuality of mainstream lesbian desire bracketing the “first decade of the twenty-first century” within Mulholland Drive (Lynch 2001) and Black Swan (Aronofsky 2010) (Bradbury-Rance 2015). In the audio commentary, Wu defends the sex scene, making clear it would be “disingenuous” to present lesbian sexuality as “shameful” (Wu 2004).
Wil inhabits a “queer diaspora” and “hybrid identity” (Hall cited in Wong 2012:315), rendered invisible through questions of race, colonialism, migration and globalization. As Ahmed writes on intersectionality, “I am not a lesbian one moment and a person of color the next and a feminist at another. I am all of these at every moment.” (Ahmed 2017:230) Wil’s identity becomes liminal, eluding the “network of classifications” and the “positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial”, creating a space of encounter and conflict. (Turner 1969) Wil’s physical appearance immediately contests cultural values, wearing a v-neck and dark pants that recall the ‘new woman’ of the Cultural Revolution. (Metzger 2009:232) Like Chiron in Moonlight (Jenkins 2016), Wil must seek to resolve identity contradictions where no identity can be more dominant than the other.
Ma and Wil shift from being Otherised by the community to finding a newly restored embrace by the community; in a sense, Ma’s atypical, socially shunned relationship is ‘queer’, disrupting the multiple boundaries of mythic and essentialised understanding of the ‘homeland’, patriarch and monogamy. (Wong 2012:315)
New York City as identity space
New York City acts a space of a “diasporic homeland”, with a high number of Chinese (1.6 million) and Indian migrants (1.6 million) (Li and Skop 2010). More than a city, New York City becomes a symbol. Kal Ho Naa Ho, presenting New York to international diasporas, relies heavily upon symbolic imagery. Kal Ho Naa Ho’s New York, from its opening aerial shot of the “business capital of the world”, is contained by Times Square, the Empire State Building, street vendors, Starbucks cups, American flags, Pretty Woman, Gap t-shirts and multi-ethnic basketball played upon suburban streets. This representation of New York contains a version of the diaspora as a desired space of wealth and luxury (Mishra 2002), but as assimilated and integrated.
Though the Bollywood of 1950s independent India presented Western materialism as a “foe” corrupting morally upright Indians through the promiscuity of modern city life, Western popular culture and ideals have become increasingly subsumed into Indian life, with images of ‘Vamps’ fading in favour of “(Utopian) cosmopolitan India.” (Nayar 1997:77) Queerness becomes presented as Western ideology. Rather than appeal to domestic audiences, Kal Ho Naa Ho is “calculated to appeal to NRI [non-resident Indian] audiences”, invoking the hipness of queerness within the Western diaspora (Holtzman 2010:122), which in turn reinforces the right-wing “nativist idea” that “homosexuality is catalysed by time spent in the licentious West”. (Holtman 2010:124) Homosexuality becomes Otherised, as acceptable to white Westerners and South Asians, but unacceptable within Indian communities. (Holtman 2010:123)
Rohit’s father’s confrontation with Rohit in a strip club, attempting to reinforce his heteronormativity following his friendship with Aman, follows this idea. Rohit’s father says:
This is America. Everything is possible. Oh, the horror. I asked for a daughter-in-law. Instead, I’m blessed with a son-in-law.
In Saving Face, much of its action takes place in Flushing, Queens, a multicultural borough that still has a greater Chinese-American residency than either Chinatown in Manhattan or Brooklyn, presented as a “Chinese enclave” (Metzger 2009:228); Chinatowns have seen increasingly substandard living through new movement towards suburban areas (Li and Skop 2010:303) and the impact of 9/11 (Strug and Mason 2007:26).
Wil’s apartment in Park Slope, an area in Brooklyn that carries “spatial attachment” to the lesbian community but is at risk of gentrification (Giesking 2016:267), also acts as the space of conflict central to Shirin’s Persian and bisexual identity in Appropriate Behaviour (Akhavan 2014). Where districts like Christopher Street in Greenwich Village cater towards the “economic strength” of gay men (Giesking 2016:264), lesbians are often subject to both homophobia within queer spaces, and a sense of recreating territories and borders within heteronormative spaces (Giesking 2016:267). Rather than an “assimilation” of dominant national and local culture, there is a “convergence.” (Li and Skop 2010:303)
Wil’s sexuality with Vivian create an act of defiance within a temporal space (the dance hall) encoded as heterosexual as they dare each other to kiss, creating an “eruptive erotic possibility that might challenge the assertion of norms.” (Metzger 2009:232) As their sexuality is revealed, Wu tries to show a “spectrum” of reactions (Legel 2005), from implicit approval, ambivalence to disapproval, to yells of “revolting!” In the final (pre-credits) shot, Wil and Vivian become miniature, subsumed by the crowd as the camera pans above them, distinct yet accepted within the larger crowd.
Both films work within their genre: Kal Ho Naa Ho, as a globalised Bollywood musical appealing to diasporic communities, is not a film about displacement and discrimination by white America (O’Neill 2013:260), or the intensified post-9/11 hostility where many Indians feel a need to disassociate with their community (Bhattacharya 2008). Saving Face, as a queer “melodrama” about the “reconstitution of family” (Metzger 2009), or, as Wu describes in the audio commentary, an “old fashioned, screwball romantic comedy” (Wu 2004), is “not trying to push the boundaries; I’m just trying to tell a good story.” (Legel 2005) But entertainment, whether innovative or deploying “sentimental sitcom conventions” (Holden 2005), carry impacts. Though representation should not always be the central discourse of film theory, both films implicate political questions around tradition, assimilation, the diaspora and sexual identity, whether intentional or not.
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