Yaaaaaaaaaay, we watched Dedh Ishqiya this Saturday! Yaaaaaaaaaay, it was really good! Yaaaaay, it dealt with two women who loved each other in an incredibly warm and careful way!
In Dedh Ishqiya, Madhuri plays a middle-aged Begum in a falling down palace, and Huma Qureshi is her devoted companion/servant/everything. Over the course of the film, Madhuri has a very light flirtation with Naseeruddin Shah, and Huma has lusty sex with Arshad Warsi. And yet the moments between the two women are warmer and more intimate and more loving than anything either of them share with the men.
This movie challenges a lot of assumptions just by showing things as they happen. One big assumption is what love and romance look like. Madhuri and Naseerji have a classical poetic love story, perfect meetings, magic lines exchanged, even a flashback to a youthful meeting. And Huma and Arshad have a very lusty love story, fighting, then kissing, then sex. These are the templates we have learned to expect, the gender roles we are supposed to play. Arshad and Naseerji assume, after this, that they are in love with the women and vice versa. Because that is the rule, that is what this sort of behavior means.
But in contrast, we see Huma coming up behind Madhuri and kissing her hair, gently holding hands, reassuring her before she goes into public, revealing to each other a fragility and neediness that they do not show to either man. There are no poetic lines, they say things to each other like “have you eaten?” “did you take your pill?” “you seem happy today.” And there is no lusty sex, just a hand on a shoulder, a hug from behind, physical caring. This is a real love story, not a fantasy practice of how love is supposed to look, but how it flows out naturally.
One reason, I think, so many people gay and straight enjoy same sex love stories is because they have room to invent something new. If it is a man and a man or a woman and a woman, it cannot follow the same familiar template of male-female love stories. It is unexpected love, surprising love, new love. The love between Madhuri and Huma in this film is simply love between these two people, no labels, no rules, no pattern to it.
There isn’t even a “lesbian” pattern to it. Madhuri describes a very unhappy marriage with a gay man, feeling lonely and miserable and unwanted until Huma entered her life. Huma is shown to enjoy and be happy after sex with Arshad, it was a chore to get him on their side, but an enjoyable chore. These are not two women who necessarily were born 100% lesbian, no interest in men at all. These are two women who because of personality and circumstances and all sorts of other things, fell in love with each other instead of with men.
In my personal experience, this kind of story is far more common that pop culture would suggest. Almost all my female friends identify as Bi. Some of them are in long term relationships with women, some with men. It’s about the person, not the gender. Not just the person, but the person and the timing. Do you meet the person when you are ready to settle down, when you have interests in common, when you are open to a relationship? And is that person also someone you fall in love with? Sometimes those circumstances DO involve gender. Just as a bad relationship with, say, a tall person might make you eager to date a short person next, so can a bad relationship with one gender make you a little skittish to trust again someone of that gender, and more open to a relationship with another gender.
So in this film, we have Madhuri who is shown to be terrible fragile in her private moments with Huma, to put on a mask of confidence before going out in public. We can fill in the years of misery and abuse at the hands of her husband, the sort of life that might make her never again feel safe in the company of men. She can flirt with Naseerji, but only from a distance, and only with Huma close at hand to make her feel safe. Huma got through her defenses because of her gender, Huma makes her feel safe and loved the way she does not feel with men.
And then we have Huma. Who has a lusty relationship with Arshad, but a caring loving one with Madhuri. It’s possible she is romantically in love with Madhuri, in such a way that makes her ready to do anything for her, makes her miserable when they are apart, but they have an arrangement that she finds physical satisfaction elsewhere. She is clearly not using Madhuri, she is instead sacrificing for her, loving her, being with her above all else. You can feel that for another woman, while also feeling sexual attraction to a man.
You can feel free to disagree with me, but watching Madhuri and Huma together in this film, I don’t feel it is that the film is censoring itself or avoiding a clear label of their relationship, I feel like the film is simply showing how these two women feel for each other and that feeling does not fit into the kind of tidy little box you can label as “lesbian life partners” or “just friends”.