Shakuntala Devi Homosexuality Discussion Space

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 Devi. A mathematical genius with a Guinness… | by Sci ...

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.

images.thequint.com/thequint%2F2020-07%2F528a7d...

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:

  1. Shakuntala really did make it all up, her husband was not gay
  2. Her husband was gay, but she and her husband lied to their daughter to spare her feelings
  3. 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?

9 thoughts on “Shakuntala Devi Homosexuality Discussion Space

  1. Is it wrong of me to say that the filmmakers should have not given the daughter so much influence in the making of the film? She clearly did not have the best relationship with her mother.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think it is wrong to say, I agree with you. It’s one thing to run everything by the family of a subject, but in this case it seems like they took everything she said and made up the rest. This was a famous person! Who wrote many books herself! They had so many additional sources available to them and the film feels like they stayed completely locked in to the daughter’s version.

      I had similar issues with Mahanati, but in that film it felt like they were using a combination of popular stories, stories they thought they could sell, and stories that the kids agreed for them to sue. Not quite the total child’s perspective as this one.

      I’ll put it this way, it would be wrong to ignore what her daughter wanted, but it is also wrong to ignore what she herself wanted to say about herself.

      On Fri, Jul 31, 2020 at 6:37 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m going for a mixture of version 3 and version 4, which is that conservative influence (producers, censors, who knows) wanted to both blame the loss of the relationship with her daughter and the marriage on a woman choosing her career, and deny homosexuality and the fact that Great Indian Heroes support gay rights at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So the daughter could be deluding herself, but the producers chose not to challenge the delusion because it was easier for them this way?

      On Sat, Aug 1, 2020 at 1:59 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • No, they had their own agenda, and fit the two together, because otherwise, why not go for “she was really into gay rights for no reason/couldn’t accept that the marriage had failed so made up that her husband was gay!”, why make it so horrid and mercenary?

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        • The only thing that puzzles me is, gay rights is now acceptable party line in India. Not saying it’s all fun and games on the ground, but the censor board and so on are very big on “See? We’re progressive! We struck down 377! Marital rape still doesn’t exist, but that’s just women, gay man are totally cool with us now (so long as they are Hindu)!” Just like making up Ayurvedic Math, they could have made up Ayurvedic Indian Culture Homosexuality or something and it would be totally cool.

          So I think it must have come from the daughter to begin with, and they just didn’t care enough to fight it. Not the other way around.

          On Sat, Aug 1, 2020 at 8:47 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Version 1 makes no sense to me. Why would someone research, understand, and write about a then unbelievably taboo and illegal topic of homosexuality, ask the government to change it current law, and push for full and complete acceptance, and then make up a gay husband?! Also, she never said her husband helped her conclude full and complete acceptance. She stated in an interview that he inspired her to look into homosexuality. She did the research, she read books, she interviewed people and then wrote her findings on a subject that was immensely unpopular at the time.

    I think some thing between version 2 and 3 is likely the truth. I started researching and found out that Shakuntala Devi’s ex husband is still alive and in his early 90s. He also worked for the Indian government and therefore, likely never discussed or disclosed his sexuality. Given his current age and his previous occupation, I can imagine a daughter, especially one with the kind of relationship Anupama had with Shakuntla Devi, trying to protect her father.

    Again, to me, on this, I blame the directors for just going with the daughter’s version of events. They could have chosen to not include it at all in the movie. Or even show that there is a disconnect between Shakultala’s version versus her daughter’s perception. But to grossly rely on the daughter’s version and give no credence to what Shakuntala actually said and wanted, and how damaging this is to the progression of gay rights in India, just seems wrong!

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    • Interesting that the husband is still alive, and that Shakuntala made clear he inspired her research but she reached the conclusions on her own. So do you think it is possible that the husband lived his life not just closeted but full of shame and guilt and lack of acceptance of himself? Since he is still alive, that would mean there could be a strong threat of libel to force the filmmakers to show the version of himself that he/his daughter wanted to show. Or at least a threat of bad publicity if he went public with a denial.

      But yes, if the filmmakers were legally unable for whatever reason to include the true version, they should have just left the whole thing out. And secondly, if they were forced to make this movie leaving that whole thing out, they should have abandoned the project. It’s a movie about Shakuntala as a wife and mother, and they removed the most central vital aspect of that part of her life!!!!! It’s no wonder the film feels a bit like nonsense. The only way not to include the real reason for the breakdown of her marriage and her life as a single mother would be to tell a totally different story, about her public life and accomplishments, and clearly they didn’t want to do that.

      On Sat, Aug 1, 2020 at 8:04 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

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