Vol. 2 No. 1 (2022)

Colour’ing the Rainbow: Exploring the Intersectionality of Caste and Class in Geeli Pucchi

Neethu Das K.

This article briefly explores the caste politics visible in the queer relationship represented in the movie Geeli Pucchi (Sloppy Kisses), the third film in the Netflix anthology film Ajeeb Daastaans (Untold Stories, Hindi, 2021). The article attempts to discuss how the plurality of queer identities is generally erased and appropriated as a global ‘gay’ identity which is rich, cis, male and savarna in Indian representations on same sex love. The two active trajectories of Queer Movement which are assimilational and oppositional in certain Indian queer representations as the case studies are examined, focusing on Geeli Pucchi. It can be argued that Indian Queer Movement, which is necessarily against the right wing, Hindutva politics can be seen upholding the same value system by reflecting the Brahmanic and patriarchal propaganda in Literature. By presenting certain examples from Indian representations of same sex love, the paper would substantiate the above arguments. The paper would study Geeli Pucchi as a movie which explored the everyday banality of same sex relationships in India, at the same time critiquing in a political perspective.

Keywords: Caste, Cinema, Identity, Representation, Sexuality

This article will briefly explore the caste politics visible in the Queer relationship represented in the film Geeli Pucchi (Sloppy Kisses), the third film in the Netflix anthology film Ajeeb Daastaans (Untold Stories, Hindi, 2021). Geeli Pucchi is directed by Neeraj Ghaywan and stars Konkona Sen Sharma and Aditi Rao Hydari in lead roles. The article attempts to discuss how the plurality of queer identities is generally erased and appropriated as a global ‘gay’ identity which is rich, cis, male and savarna in Indian representations of same-sex love. It can be argued that the Indian Queer Movement, which is necessarily against right-wing, Hindutva politics, is sometimes seen to uphold the same value system by reflecting the Brahminic and patriarchal propaganda in literary and cultural representations. The article  briefly describes the caste politics existing in Indian queer representations and points out Geeli Pucchi as a cultural representation of queer life in India which explore the everyday banality of same-sex  relationships in India, at the same time critiquing it from a political perspective. Representations of queer lives and queer relationships are often reduced to fit within generalised frameworks that appropriate and resonate with the reflections of the caste and class-driven mainstream society. The attempts of the queer movement to get assimilated into the mainstream society and the outsider view of the oppressed queer lives often bring out an attempt to project the singular queer identity as cis, rich, savarna, gay male. The paper would give a brief note of the historical background of the counter resistances within Queer movement, and look into the Indian milieu, connecting to the text Geeli Pucchi.

Contextualisation and History

Several counter-movements and counter representations have resisted the power hierarchy and dehistoricisations existing in queer representations. Though the active subcultures like the black queer movement contribute much to the expansion of knowledge in the queer intellectual sphere, there was always an organised attempt to erase or dehistoricise the presence of these movements. The sexuality of the Harlem Renaissance intellectuals is not mentioned in many historiographies as mainstream thinkers consider it to be ‘irrelevant’ while discussing intellectual history. In fact, American same sex literary practices thrived during the period through black queer writers like Alain Leroy Locke, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay. Leonard Harris in Alain. L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher points references to a note Alain Locke wrote in October 1949. In the note, Locke laments how his race, sexuality, and physical stature minoritised him by his fellow intellectual society and mentions how he was discriminated than an average gay man because he was also black (18-19). These active subcultures are forcefully sidelined by negating the plurality of identities in history.

This ‘dehistoricising’ effort is also seen in the narratives on the Stonewall riots, which is a milestone in the queer liberation movement worldwide. The Stonewall riots was an uprising in 1969 against the state violence by the inmates of Stonewall Inn, Greenwich, a low-key bar. The regular inmates included people from transgender, transvestite, gay, lesbian communities, sex workers and non-queer black people. But the mainstream narratives on the event erased the presence of people of colour and trans people  in the riots, which is evident in the film Stonewall (2015). Marsha. P. Johnson, a black trans women and drag queen, reportedly threw the brick at a police officer, which resulted in the uprising. Most of the protesters were people of colour as they were the regular inmates who patronised the Stonewall Inn. But in the film Stonewall, the character of Marsha is appropriated by Danny Winters, a white gay man. The director of the film Roland Emmerich considers the uprising a ‘white event’ (Reynolds). Myles. E. Johnson writes in  Medium that “The Stonewall Riots could only be started by someone who was tired and black”. Myles notes how the gay movement has become white, rich, cis, male, and places like the Stonewall Inn have become inaccessible to people like Marsha, who played vital roles in the liberation.

Indian Milieu

 In Indian public sphere also,  caste is often presented as a matter which is hushed in the queer movements. Dalit queer life is marginalised, misrepresented, or not represented in the ‘progressive,’ queer-friendly circles. There is a notable silence about caste intersectionality, especially the discrimination faced by the Dalit queer individuals. The privileges enjoyed by a ‘savarna’/upper caste queer subject are generally projected as the Indian queer experience while the discrimination faced by a Dalit queer subject gets neglected. Raj Rao portrays the intersectionality of caste and sexuality in his novel The Boyfriend (2003), which is the first gay novel in Indian English literature. In the novel, the Brahmin protagonist Yudi declares to his Dalit boyfriend, Milind:

‘Homos are no different from Bhangis. Both are Untouchables. So why should I have a problem eating your jootha?’

‘But you are a Brahman, aren’t you?’

‘No, I am a homosexual. Gay by caste. Gay by religion.’ (RP 35%)

Such generalised statements on an imagined collective identity of the queer people by Yudi homogenises queer identities neglecting the caste and class privileges enjoyed by a minor section of queer people in India. The exposure available to an occidentalized Indian gay man which includes gay magazines, gay matrimonial advertisements, gay pubs, and other gay gatherings remains alien to gay men like Milind who belongs to a working-class and Dalit background.

Documentary filmmaker Rajesh James comments that “Vidya who is the author of I am Vidya, the story writer of the award-winning film, Naanu Avanalla Avalu (I Am Not He, But She) is not much a figure in the public sphere because of her Dalit background. Trans activists who hail from a dominant caste background are more invited to public functions.” Gee Imaan Semmalar, a queer activist who hails from the Nair community, remarks in his article “Between Victimising and Patronising” about the caste politics in queer representations:

The media always focuses on the stories of those with privileges of caste, language and class. Even as I write against the depictions of us in media, I am complicit because I know my voice will be heard and my words will be published because of my privileges which translate into access”.

While discussing the discrimination and upper caste politics existing in the queer representations, the politics backed by the queer movements and circles in ostracising the members of the queer community who do not belong to savarna identities should also be examined. Vijayarajamallika, a Dalit transactivist, says,

Being from the Dalit category is a boon as well as a curse in my experience and observation. For once, we do not have anything much to lose unlike the others (queers from the dominant castes)… it is a curse as our caste and colour make us less welcome even inside our community although they never say it. (qtd. in Aryat 108)

Indian researchers like Dhiren Borisa and Dhrubo Jyoti note that visibility as a queer in Indian queer spaces is a privilege enjoyed only by a specific group of people who belong to the upper caste and class sections in Indian society. They further elaborate,

If space is heterosexual and one needs to continuously resist it, one needs to realise that it is also casteist especially when talking in an Indian context. . . . What we intend to spell out is that visibility itself is a privilege, which a certain class with accessibility enjoys. What we also intend to add is that how this privilege guided by other privileges that accompany visibility that of caste, of being a man, of belonging to a certain race and having a language defines whose voice will be heard and what will be the nature of the demands of the queer discourse in a glocal space. For us, in India this has resulted in voices of certain class-caste bodies as representative of queerness, making many other voices silent. (30)

History of Hindi queer cinema

Hindi cinema, like any other cultural platform, has portrayed homophobic and transphobic plots through the portrayal of stereotyped one-dimensional queer characters for comic reliefs. The audience deciphered the identity of queer characters through their feminine-presenting, flashy dressing, misogyny, foppishness, isolation, etc.; and the characters were mostly presented from the perspectives of the cisheteronormative majority. Pushpinder Kaur opines about this queerphobic history of Indian cinema,

LGBT characters in Queer Hindi cinema bear the burden of crude jokes and are generally shown as objects of ridicule. During the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of Hindi Cinema, i.e. the period from mid 50s to mid 60s, LGBT characters were generally shown as companions to heroines or hero. Some of the actors, would cross dress deliberately in an attempt to evoke laughter. Commercial Hindi Cinema has a long tradition of having comic sequences or songs featuring cross-dressing male stars. ‘Mere Angane mein’ number from the 1981 super hit Lawaaris, where Amitabh Bachchan crossdressed as woman to be mistaken as a eunuch; Rishi Kapoor crossdressed in 1975’s Rafoo Chakkar. It was the late comedian Mehmood who, for the first time, represented eunuchs in a respectable manner in his blockbuster Kunwara Baap. (27)

Ruth Vanita remarks that popular films enjoy an iconic status among gay and lesbian subcultures in India even though explicit references to homosexuality have been largely absent from mainstream commercial films (qtd. in Ramesh 67). Portrayals of drag queen culture, homosociality, and same-sex female friendships gradually represented queer culture in Indian cinema.  The portrayal of the queer in the Indian film narratives is categorised into five by Sachin Ramesh. The five stages/categories include a) portrayal of transvestite and camp characters b) portrayal of Bromance/ Dostana, which did not explicitly discuss same-sex love, but apparently portrayed homosociality c) out of the closet films which presented the crisis is queer relationships d) Indian queer cinema of the diaspora e) explicit queer cinema. Deepa Mehta’s film Fire (1998) which portrayed the relationship between two women in an Indian household, created calamities in the Indian public sphere and probably marked the formation of the first public queer collective against Indian moral panic, that tried to moralise and misrepresent queer lives.

Public representation of the queer was viewed  against Indian culture and as a ‘Western import.’ The religious fundamentalists protested against Fire, remarking it as an attack on the original value system of Indian culture and society by invading Western culture. The film was instrumental in triggering various debates on the larger questions of gender and same-sex love. Queer activists came forward with the evidence from the sculptures of Khajuraho and the Indian classical book on love, Kama Sutra, to prove that same-sex love was always and already a part of Indian culture. Through the screening of Fire and the controversies, it brought to the public sphere, the discourse on lesbian relationships formed an ally among feminists, free speech protestors and lesbian women. However, the resulting headlines primarily focused on free speech and censorship, while the question of lesbian subjectivity got side-lined. Though it was Fire that openly discussed lesbian relationship in Hindi cinema, female homosociality and the slippage between female homosociality and homoeroticism was always there. Gayatri Gopinath cites the examples of Subhah (1981), Ustav (1984), and points out the popular Hindi films Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and Gehri Chaal as examples of films that portray instances of the erotic interplay between women. She remarks,

Clearly, neither scene is purely transgressive of conventional gender and sexual hierarchies; in Gehri Chaal, the erotic interplay between the women is literally a prelude to the primary narrative of heterosexual courtship and domesticity, while in Hum Aapke the cross-dressed woman seems to merely hold the place of the ‘‘real’’ hero until he can make his entrance, and indeed hold in place the hierarchical gendered relations in the scene. Hum Aapke’s brief interlude of gender reversal and implied female homoeroticism seems to locate the film within Chris Straayer’s definition of the ‘‘temporary transvestite film,’’ those which ‘‘offer spectators a momentary, vicarious trespassing of society’s accepted boundaries for gender and sexual behavior. Yet one can relax confidently in the orderly [heterosexual] demarcations reconstituted by the film’s endings.’’ Indeed, both these films can afford such transparent renderings of female homoerotic desire precisely because they remain so thoroughly convinced of the hegemonic power of their own heterosexuality. However, the fact that gender reversal in Hum Aapke occurs within a space of female homosociality renders the implied homoeroticism of the scene explicit to both the characters and the film’s audience, and as such makes it eminently available for a queer diasporic viewership.

The queer relationship was portrayed as something that needs to be deciphered by the audience or something which was often hushed up behind the curtains. Geeli Pucchi, the third film in the recent Netflix anthology film Ajeeb Daastaans (2021), opens to the Indian public sphere an opportunity to explore the intersectionality between caste and sexuality through the lead protagonists and the relationship between them. Geeli Pucchi is not the first Indian film or Bollywood film which depicts queer relationships. My Brother Nikhil (2005), Bombay Talkies (2013), Aligarh (2015), Kapoor and Sons (2016), Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (How I felt when I saw that girl, 2019), Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (Be extra careful of marriage, 2020), Badhaai Do (Felicitations Due, 2022) are some of the recent Bollywood films which portrayed queer relationships. All these films focus on presenting the identity crisis faced by the queer individuals, portraying the issues of self-acceptance, family acceptance and societal acceptance. Rather than exploring the queer relationship and its different layers, these films portray the relationship between the queer individual and the society or family. The Supreme Court of India’s 2018 verdict which decriminalised same-sex relationships gave more political visibility and cultural solidarity to queer relationships in the Indian public sphere.

The film Ek Ladki ko dekha to aisa laga (2019), starring Sonam Kapoor and Anil Kapoor and directed by Shelly Chopra Dhar,  resisted several social norms through the outright and precise representation of a lesbian relationship. The film portrays the relationship between two women, which is unacceptable for their families and unveils  crises thereafter. The film’s scriptwriter is Ghazal Dhaliwal, a queer activist who is active in vocalising the issues faced by queer community in the Indian public sphere. The title of the film Ek Ladki ko dekha to aisa laga meaning “How I felt when I saw that girl” is a line from the popular Hindi song from the film 1942: A Love Story (1994). The song is a very popular romance song familiar to the Indian audience and is remembered as the nostalgic collective memorial of Bollywood romance. The film, by using this popular Bollywood love song in its title, retells and subverts the familiar popular Bollywood romance equation. The film also connects same-sex love to the matrix of marriage which is predominantly marked by its heteronormative nature in India. The majoritarian nature of marriage and highlighting it as the key issue of queer politics have always been contested by queer academicians and theorists. The social issue of gay and lesbian marriage always diverts the queer cause to the equations of caste, class, and power within the community, which are not often inclusive. The trend of caste tropes masquerading into same-sex relationships and performing a mimicry of the stereotyped cisheteronormative, loveless, unequal relationships need to be interrogated in the questions related to inclusivity in queer spaces.

Queer Politics in Geeli Pucchi

While Ek Ladki Ko Dekha to Aisa Laga presented the one-dimensional acceptance crisis faced by a queer person in an Indian household, Geeli Pucchi digs deep further to find the other social undercurrents that play crucial roles in deciding the future of queer relationships in India. Along with breaking the heteronormative structures of Indian cinema and subverting the ideal woman myth through the portrayal of two flawed women who are expressive about their identity, the film also investigates the reality of caste politics in India, which is decisive in a queer relationship, hushed up behind the curtains. The relationship between Bharti and Priya traverses the heteronormative cinema consumer within the politics of caste, sexuality, power, privilege and visibility.

The film Geeli Pucchi explores the relationship between two women, Bharti Mandal and Priya Sharma, who represent two cross-sections in society. The film breaks the norms of queer coding practised in Bollywood films by directly revealing the sexuality of Bharti.  The prescribed structure of Bollywood films is seemingly resonated in Geeli Pucchi when Bharti meets Priya in a totally conflicting position, and soon the anger turns to love. The film is from the perspective of Bharti, who understands the privileged caste identity of Priya, and the difference between the women is evident to the spectator. Bharti Mandal, a factory employee, is devoid of all the stereotyped attributes of femininity. Bharti, who works with men, and does tedious tasks is always surrounded by men. Some of her male colleagues make fun of her because of the visible absence of ‘feminine traits’ in her. Priya, the new employee in the factory, meets Bharti when she picks up a fight with her male co-worker. Priya enters the troupe as a visibly feminine person. The saree-clad Priya tends to Bharti’s wounds. It is revealed that Bharti was denied a higher position in the factory, despite her qualifications because of her caste. Priya swoops into the position because she belongs to a privileged caste, though she is not technically qualified or skilled enough. Priya, who follows the norms of a well-mannered and well behaved ‘eternal feminine’ befriends Bharti, who tells Priya that she is Bharti Banerjee. They share a private moment, and Bharti understands that Priya is a closeted lesbian. Priya hints at her interest in Bharti here and there and shares her memories of her best friend Kavita, who parted ways after she got married. It is also revealed that Bharti had a past affair, whose memories are still close to her. On her birthday, Priya confesses to Bharti that she cannot love her husband though he is a good man. Bharti advises Priya to accept the truth, and she confesses to Priya that she belongs to the Mandal community.

In the ambience of a romantic relationship, the film suddenly gets problematised with the discourse of caste. The multiple layers of caste and sexuality present the relationship as complex and problematic in the film. The film posits two significant ‘coming outs’ in a queer relationship in India, that of the queer identity and caste identity. Though Bharti’s queer identity, which is suppressed by the heteronormative society, is accepted by Priya; she cannot accept her partner to be from Mandal community. Here, Priya is mimicking the heteronormative standards of relationship in her same-sex relationship as well. Priya is conscious of her caste privilege, and she slowly expresses discrimination towards Bharti after Bharti confesses her caste identity. The first responsible secret of Priya’s sexuality that Bharti asked to embrace is overthrown by the larger secret, the caste difference. The film tries to depict the fact that in the conjunction of multiple realities, the social reality of caste is the primary trajectory. The film director, Neeraj Ghaywan opines that the film expresses the duality of patriarchy and caste hegemony (qtd. in Roy). The average Indian queer who experiences the everyday patriarchy housed in a heterosexual relationship through the monarchy of caste in their intimacy moves out of the relationship. Thus, the film emphasises that caste is equally significant in a queer relationship. As the closeted, multi-layered sexuality and queer identity are explored in the heteronormative, morally panicked society, the expression is hindered by the peripheral superstructure of the caste system in India. “Bharti and Priya both explore their mutual admiration for each other, but the way they experience their sexuality is different. That reflects how one’s queerness is shaped by their caste and caste is influenced by their queerness” (Das).

Bharti’s masculinity is equally problematic as the relationship follows the pattern of a heterosexual relationship where masculinity and femininity are compartmentalised. The masculine presenting gender expression of Bharti Mandal is shown as a justification used by the film to authenticate the queer relationship between Bharti and Priya. Here, Bharti is seen to wear the performative mask of the masculine gender, which can be framed as an attempt to mainstream the marginalised queer relationship. This is a stereotype that is often repeated in cultural, literary representations of queer relationships in the Indian public sphere, which is to be problematised. The masculine performativity of Bharti is used as a substitute to replace the absence of the heterosexual male in the queer equation. The reinforcement of the ‘butch-femme’ stereotype through the performative masculinity of Bharti as well as the casting of Konkana Sharma to play the role of Bharti is called out by feminist critics. Sudipta Das reviews it:

The comprehension of messy feelings seems more complex when someone sees the story from inside the caste-sexuality marginalisation. Being a Dalit-Queer person myself, it’s difficult to let go of the oblivious representation of the people which it promises to empathise with. It fails to meet the mark as it again casts an upper-class cis-het actor for a queer-Dalit role, reinforces the ‘butch lesbian’ stereotypes, it constantly perpetuates the trope to the audience that the Dalit protagonist is meritorious and hence deserves dignity.

Priya’s caste privilege is paralleled by her marital status in the patriarchy, which limits her choices. This is contrasted by Bharti’s sense of liberty in her personal choices, paralleled by the caste oppression she faces. This duality resolves the untold, enigmatic choices made by the women in this relationship. While Priya chooses caste as a marker to avoid Bharti from the relationship, Bharti uses motherhood as a weapon to defend Priya. Bharti suggests sarcastically that becoming a mother will fulfil her life. Bharthi repeatedly suggests this to Priya’s mother-in-law, who calls Bharti -‘Bharti Mandal’ and remembers her caste’s vocation of midwifery. Bharti uses this as a potential opportunity to get back her position in the company, which she should have been offered, but denied because of her caste identity. Here, the identity that ostracised Bharti works to problematize Priya’s marginalised position as a married woman. Bharti lectures on the value of motherhood to Priya’s patriarchal family, thus mocking her confined status in society, totally understanding that motherhood and married life are against Priya’s choice. Bharti, who was discriminated by Priya and the fellow society makes use of this point to avenge against the discrimination she has experienced. Bharti’s revenge is also against Priya whose love was conditional. The transformation of Priya’s love to indifference as soon as she understands Bharti’s caste identity and the revenge of Bharti, who is the only one who knows Priya’s queer identity, are the winning screenplay moments from the film.

The film depicts the intricate relationship between caste and queer identity in Indian society. It breaks the usual queer coding present in Hindi cinema; instead, it outrightly vocalises the identity of the queer characters. Also, instead of focusing on the identity crisis of the queer subject and the family’s acceptance, Geeli Pucchi expanded its universe to the discourses of caste, which is peculiar to Indian society. The film confirms that caste plays a decisive role even in inclusive spaces where equality and inclusivity are discussed. Additionally, the film presents the reality of the closeted lesbian who is married to a patriarchal household. In such a way, Geeli Pucchi dismantles the cultural and social ideals in representing queer relationships in the Indian public sphere. But the masculine performativity of Bharti’s character takes away the charm of the politics of the film. Geeli Pucchi will serve as a prototype to Indian queer films by discussing the question of caste and investigating the implicit layers of a relationship in Indian society. In a country like India, where cinema, especially Bollywood cinema, is influential enough to affect the perspectives of a significant majority, films like Geeli Pucchi certainly bring a wave of change. Justifiably, the portrayal of characters like that of Bharti Mandal leaves hope to the queer community in India, who are denied even fundamental human rights.


About the Author: Dr. Neethu Das K. currently works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, St Joseph’s College for Women, Alappuzha, Kerala. Her areas of research interest include Queer Theatre, 21 st century Theatre, Culture and Marginality, Queer representations etc.



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Supplementary Materials:

  1. Johri, Vikram. “What India’s first gay 'groom wanted' ad says about same-sex marriage.” DailyO. N.p., 20 May 2015. Web. 3 Dec. 2017.https://www.dailyo.in/politics/harish-iyer-gay-marriage-groom-wanted-matrimonial-ad-mid-day-sachin-kalbag-section-377-homosexuality/story/1/3819.html
  2. Malakar, Megha. “ ‘Geeli Pucchi’: The joy of finding a Bengali, Dalit, queer woman like me on screen.” The Newsminute. N.p., 29 April 2021. Web. 11 Dec 2021. https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/geeli-pucchi-joy-finding-bengali-dalit-queer-woman-me-screen-148015
  3. Pandey, Vikas. “Harrish Iyer: Indian matrimonial ad seeks 'groom' for gay activist.” BBC. 20 May 2015. Web. 3 Dec. 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-32810434