Pomona College professor explores sexuality in India in documentary film

It’s never easy for a young person to come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. When you live in India, however, a country marked by adherence to traditional values and obedience to the family, it’s even tougher.

Nevertheless, a unique theater group took a very visible stand for LGBT rights this past February, debuting a play called To, Ti, Tey (He/She/It) in the Indian city of Pune. Pomona College theater professor Betty Bernhard spent her sabbatical chronicling the making of the play, which was co-directed by famed actress and writer Sushma Deshpande.

The resulting documentary, Out!Loud!, features scenes from the play, footage of theater exercises and interviews with the cast, most of whom are aged 18 to 24. The 48-minute film, which is in English and Marathi, is an exploration of the 14 amateur actors’ experiences of sexual discovery and struggle for acceptance.

The way the actors were recruited, via Facebook blast, is indicative of how India has embraced the technological trappings of modernity in recent years. Open talk about sexuality is still rare, however. To, Ti, Tey and Out!Loud! are exceptionally frank, thanks to the efforts of Ms. Deshpande, Ms. Bernhard said.

 “Sushma is a genius at getting people to talk freely,” Ms. Berhhard said. “The actors were relaxed enough that they said things they never had before.”

There is a man whose father burned his lips with a cigarette when he was a child because his voice was too girlish; a lesbian whose parents admitted her to a hospital after she came out to them and a hijra who risked it all to become a post-operative transsexual. There’s a “mixed-flavor” engineer who, despite his parents’ aversion to flamboyance, just has to dance, and a “ladyboy” who has found a place as a prettily painted sex worker but has yet to find love.

Though every story is different, each of the actors has had feelings of isolation, rejection and depression, often to the point of becoming suicidal. A shocking number have also endured the traumatic experiences of kidnapping and rape. The play’s debut performance was invitation-only, because the play hadn’t yet passed the approval of India’s zealous censors. The reception, though, was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, Ms. Bernhard said.

“Many men in the audience were sobbing, admiring the actors for being so brave,” she said.

One actor came out to his father via the performance, and was glowing afterward, according to Ms. Bernhard: “He said, my father said to me, ‘I always thought that might be the case, though we never talked about it.’” 

Ms. Bernhard, who has taught at Pomona College since 1984, is a firm believer in the therapeutic strength of theater.

“Once you start to speak your mind, it’s difficult,” she said. “But it might help someone else to hear what you’re going through and to know that you’ve come out on the other side.”

She also sees theater as a powerful tool for political transformation. Ms. Bernhard—who is teaching a class this semester called Theater for Social Change—aims for the film to strike a blow against deeply engrained anti-queer sentiments in India, a country whose Penal Code #377 renders homosexual activity punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

“One of the most important cultural differences between the United States and India is that marriage is extremely important to the social structure there; it’s the scaffolding,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure to get married, which makes it more difficult to come out.”

Many Indians insist that homosexual, bisexual or trans tendencies are the result of pernicious Western influences. The sacred literature and the folklore of Hinduism, however, abound with what Ms. Bernhard characterizes as “gender slippage.” The god Shiva castrated himself, the god Vishnu took on the form of the enchantress Mohini and the deity Arjuna was cursed to become a member of the third gender or a kliba. Such stories are woven throughout To, Ti, ,Tey in an effort to remind audiences that tales of LGBT behavior are woven deep into the fabric of India.

Previously, Ms. Bernhard made a documentary about a play Ms. Deshpande directed focusing on the experiences of sex workers in India. She has also made films about Bhavai folk theater, Sanskrit theater, the Indian People’s Theatre Association and women theater activists, among other subjects. Thanks to an extremely professional team—which included legendary BBC and National Geographic cameraman Navroze Contractor— however, Ms. Bernhard is particularly proud of Out!Loud!

The documentary was funded in part by grants from Pomona College and the Claremont School of Theology. It has been well-received by audiences in the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala in June, at the Reel Desires International Queer Film Festival in Chennai and at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune.

Ms. Bernard hopes Out!Loud!—which made its southern California debut on Wednesday at the Claremont School of Theology’s Mudd Theater—will likewise strike a chord with American audiences. She is currently submitting it to a number of US film festivals and next will look into distribution for the film.

Ms. Bernhard traveled to India in 1988 and fell in love. She has since directed 2 classical Sanksrit plays at Pomona College, traveled to India twice as a Fulbright Fellow and directed several theater productions there.

“They are a beautiful people and the culture is so old,” she said. “They’ve been doing theater in various forms for 3,000 years.”

Ms. Bernhard said she misses the cast of Out!Loud!, who were fun, talented and more than a bit naughty, humorously referring to India’s putative anti-gay law as “Penis Code #377.”

While much of Ms. Bernhard’s focus is on integrating Indian literature and theater more fully into the American university system, she is also open to the Western theater tradition. In fact, her next Pomona College play will be a production of Medieval mystery plays, centuries-old works that are loosely based on Bible stories and which are both “sacred and profane.” In one, Noah’s wife resists getting on the Ark because she wants to stay behind with her girlfriends. Another play focuses on Satan’s fall.

“When Lucifer is kicked out of heaven, he says, ‘Now, I do depart. And as I go, I crack a fart,’” Ms. Bernhard laughed. “They had me there. It’s good, broad stuff.”

Between classes and plays, promoting her current film project and looking to her next, Ms. Bernhard is busier than ever.

“I’ve always said I’ll keep doing this until it wasn’t fun anymore,” she said. “And it’s still fun. It’s hard work but it’s fun and fulfilling.”

—Sarah Torribio




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