Queer Cityscapes: exploring mumbai cityscapes through eyes of two queer women (audiovisual)
This is one of the images on a photolog Sheba Tejani has set up.
Abstract: I will attempt to create a ficitional narrative of the city of Mumbai through an audiovisual medium that is structured around the conversations of two queer women. The conversations will work as a voice over on a visual narrative of the cityscape and will explore issues/ experiences such as using public transport in the city, communities and family, housing and rentals, through a queer lens. Four separate conversations will be scripted and shot, though they will form a part of a single visual essay, with the characters
providing a sort of continuity.
The idea is to capture queer “encounters” with the city, or tap into the continuous processes of dialogue and acts of interpretation that enable a multi-layered connection to the urban space, or even produce it in the first place. This allows queer women, for instance, to live in and take the city for their own and in turn be alienated by its
homophobia and inequalities. In either case, a simple victim narrative, one hopes, would be impossible from this position. The attempt would be, rather, to capture moments where it is not only the city “seeing” the queer, but the queer seeing the city.
Bio: Sheba Tejani has an MA in economics from the New School for Social Research, New York. She lives in Bombay and works at the Economic and Political Weekly.
My name is Sheba, I work for a social science journal and I live in Bombay. This is my first posting about my project. I moved to Bombayonly a couple of years ago and since then I’ve had some interestingexperiences and insights about living in this city as a queer person,and with another queer person. My project was/ is being born out ofthis dailiness of living in what many people call, somewhatironically, the ‘queer capital of India’.
The project will involving creating an audio-visual of conversationsbetween two women that centre around the experience of living and”translating” Bombay, as well being seen and being translated. Of course, the work will be pure fiction and I plan to script four different conversations and shoot appropriate still or moving images for each. For instance, the conversations could be about a particular media event, such as an advertisement, a television show, a movie or poster/s; about public transport, street fights, or social divisions; bout finding/ creating/ imagining homes and families, coping with prejudice, or interacting with the gay community. Each of the conversations might have disjointed and individual trajectories but they would be united together in a larger narrative framework. I am interested in the ‘queer encounter’ with the city and would like to tap into the continuous processes of dialogue that enable a multi-layered connection to the urban space, or even produce it in the first place. So it is not only the city ‘seeing’ the queer, but the queer seeing the city, by cognising, assimilating, rejecting but all the while engaging with the space.
As a part of my background work I plan to interview other queer women living in the city about their experiences and hope that somewhere these will inform my work. This will also form part of my archival material for Sarai.
I’m excited about the work and look forward to any comments, suggestions, feedback, questions etc through the entire process.
For all of you who have been waiting eagerly for further postings from me, here it is! Hope you will forgive this touch of humour on my part-it is meant to act as a foil for my tardiness. This posting would only count as my second, though I hope to be sending other updates soon. My project is a visual essay of the city of Bombay structured around the conversations of two queer women. I’ve been trying to work on different parts of my project simultaneously. Since I am writing a (fictional) script of conversations between two queer women about living in the city, I am also conducting interviews with queer women who live in Bombay. The idea is not only to document those experiences but to inform the creative process itself. I will recount here one of the interviews I conducted.
Suraiya (name changed) is in her early twenties and works in the media. She has been living in Bombay for the past three years, first in a college hostel where she studied for two years and now independently, as a working person. The contexts in which she lived have been definitive in terms of her own consciousness of being queer and slowly coming overground, as well as in leading her life in the way she chooses. Though she obviously loves her college and the friends she made there, it was not really a queer friendly campus. She told me of the time when some student groups protested about a lecture that a gay activist was to give on campus. How could they have a talk on a topic like this, the students averred? Now living on her own, she feels a sense of freedom, she can go out with whoever she wants, bring her girlfriends home and there is no problem as she is earning her own bread and butter.
Suraiya’s interview was full of the mixed and ambivalent experiences of living in Bombay, as a queer person, invisible for most part to the public eye, but yet with access to spaces where one could be out. There are some things that might be easier, for instance, her landlord told her specifically that no boyfriends should come over to her place- of course, she instantly agreed (!) but the irony of the situation is not lost on her. It is not possible to be out at work either, where it is assumed that everyone is heterosexual. When she was having some difficulty finding an apartment, one of her colleagues suggested that she should get married and take care of her housing problems permanently. But, for her, probably the most attractive thing about being in Bombay was that she was away from family. It was like starting life all over again, she could even invent her past. Though Suraiya has a close and warm relationship with her family being at some distance gives her the opportunity to “just be”. Finding queer groups was a major thing for her, which she did in Bombay. In Delhi it was different- though there were some groups they seemed to have a niche crowd and were quite exclusive. I asked her if there was something about the city of Bombay itself that lent itself to these different possibilities. She had an interesting reply: she felt that in Bombay you are thrown together with so many people- travelling on the train, for instance, forces you to get close to people in the literal sense- that there tends to be more tolerance. In Delhi, many people travel in their own private vehicles and seem to lead more private lives, where they interact mostly with people that they know. Even when universities have lectures or events around homosexuality people are afraid to attend and be identified as such. When she took part at a demonstration against Section 377 in Bombay she was surprised at how willing people were to stop and talk, discuss or even read the fliers. Maybe it has to do with the fact that people in this city are mostly migrants.
Of course that comes with its own dangers- Bombay, in a sense, is also a city that forces you to be more “out”. For instance, if a woman dresses in a more “masculine” fashion or looks obviously queer in some other way, the interaction with people and thus the possibilities for harassment increase. At the same time, the chances of making connections with people are also greater- she noticed a fellow commuter looking at her rainbow badge once and then they ended up meeting at a party some time later. The other aspect of Bombay that she finds liberating is that it is relatively more safe for women. Travelling alone or with other women late at night was unthinkable in Delhi whereas Bombay affords that space.
Suraiya felt that the invisibility that allows her so much freedom is also the most debilitating thing about living in the city as a queer person. Being queer is still such a remote possibility in people’s minds that one has to perforce conceal one’s difference. But still she ended by saying that her experience has been positive and that Bombay, in her opinion, is the queer capital of India!
This is my next posting for my project- Queer conversations about the city. I’ve created an album of working stills that I took while working on the visuals for one of the four scripts planned for the piece.
This particular script deals with the experience of travelling on trains, from a queer lens, and has the two protaganists discussing their experiences and points of view, their observations and fears. We shot these stills at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Bombay, still known commonly as VT (short for Victoria Terminus). VT can be overwhelming because of the sheer number of people that pass through it every single day and travelling on the train most times feels like a battle. But when the train pulls in here, there is suddenly a feeling of release because of the sheer breadth and scale of its interiors, quite unlike most other stations in Bombay. If you keep your head tilted upwards, especially, the sights are rewarding… It was difficult to shoot here because of the constant surveillance by the railway police and of course curious passengers. The last we heard they had installed cameras to keep an eye on “miscreants”! But we’re hoping to return there and shoot some more…