This is only a small part of the movie, but it is a big part of my reaction to the movie, if that makes sense. I didn’t want to have it overwhelm the review and be unfair to the film as a whole, so I am isolating the discussion all by itself over here.
In real life, Shakuntala Devi wrote a book called “The World of Homosexuals” in 1977. This is when the gay rights movement was only 8 years old in the West, and unheard of in India. In her book, she interviewed members of the global Indian community, from doctors to priests to openly gay men. She ended with a conclusion that the answer was “full and complete acceptance—not tolerance and sympathy”.
Shakuntala wrote a lot of books, on a lot of topics, from math puzzles and memory training (these were her most popular), to a murder mystery. I assume she kept getting publisher contracts and shooting out whatever interested her at the moment to fulfill them. The homosexuality book though, that was different. It was a strange topic for her to choose, an unpopular topic. And it was an unpopular book, slipped out without much notice. It only became noticeable in later years, when scholars attempted to trace the history of Indian attitudes to homosexuality and stumbled on this anomaly, a book by a woman known for math tricks that was decade ahead of its time.
When Shakuntala was interviewed about this book, at the time of its release and decades later when scholars tracked her down, she was consistent that the inspiration was her gay husband. That makes logical sense, it explains why her interest would turn to this unusual topic at an unusual time, and why she would be so loving and understanding about it. Intimacy can breed acceptance.
And now we come to the movie version. In the movie, Shakuntala’s husband Jisshu and she share explicitly sexual moments, both before and after marriage, in which they both display desire for each other. Later, Shakuntala chooses to leave him because she wants to travel again and do her math shows. Eventually they separate completely and he makes no attempt for custody of their child. The film shows this, that Shakuntala somehow is able to keep him complete separated from his daughter without him objecting, and that their marriage falls apart and they live separately for no real reason. It even shows that he is approaching 40 and unmarried when they meet!
After all of this, the movie drops into Shakuntala at a book launch for her new book casually mentioning that her husband is gay. Her daughter is horrified and confronts her, how could she tell such a lie? Shakuntala agrees that it is a lie and says she made it up for book sales. Later in the film, her daughter asks her father about it, and he says that he doesn’t mind, Shakuntala only says it because she thinks it sounds good.
The movie is based on the daughter’s perspective, so I am left with a few possibilities:
- Shakuntala really did make it all up, her husband was not gay
- Her husband was gay, but she and her husband lied to their daughter to spare her feelings
- Her husband was gay and their daughter knows it, but thinks it is shameful and forced the movie to create this fiction
I just cannot believe version 1. It is such a strange lie to tell. And if it was a lie, then why did she write this book on this unusual topic?
I can believe version 2 I suppose, but that is a shocking amount of self-delusion on the part of the daughter. The film itself shows that her father let her go without a battle and didn’t seem to feel he had the right to battle for her. It only makes sense if Shakuntala had the threat of outing him to hold over him, or if he himself felt guilt that he would be an unfit father. Or even had a live-in partner and was worried that his daughter would not accept their relationship and so kept her at arms length.
Version 3 seems most likely, that the daughter thinks her father’s homosexuality is a shameful thing, as is her mother’s acceptance of it and using it as an inspiration for a sympathetic book.
What do you think? Are you able to believe version 1 at all as even possible?
Do you think version 2 is possible? And if so, should the filmmakers have presented the delusion just because it is what they were given or did they have a moral obligation to present the obvious truth?
And if version 3 is true, does a child have the right to tell her parents’ story as she wishes it to be told? Or is there a larger duty to a greater truth?
Oh, and the hardest question:
If version 1 actually is true, is it right for the film to show it? Both for the damage it does to gay rights by implying shame, and by destroying Shakuntala’s legacy of activism by removing a legend she wanted in place?