Thanks to the Supreme Court of India hearing final arguments to legalise same-sex marriage in the country, we’ve learnt that the Centre had argued in its affidavit that the demand for marriage equality is driven by “mere urban elitist views for the purpose of social acceptance.” Earlier this week, the five-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud countered the government’s stand by pointing out that sexual orientation is innate to a person. “Once something is innate, it cannot have any class bias,” said the CJI while conceding queerness “may be more urban in its manifestations”. Badhaai Do’s (2022) Shardul (Rajkummar Rao) and Sumi (Bhumi Pednekar) would agree with the first part but may beg to differ with the second. While the film is fictional, it tells a story that feels authentic and deeply rooted in the reality of how homosexuality is perceived in small-town India and the prejudices that force many to stay firmly in the closet. Shardul, a police officer, and Sumi, a physical education teacher, are gay. They enter a lavender marriage — behind the facade of a ‘normal’ marriage, the two live like flatmates and pursue romantic relationships with other partners — and live peacefully in Dehradun, a tier-two city that is far from the urban elitist spaces that the Centre would have us know are hotbeds of queerness.
Their home is an apartment in the police quarters and reflected in it is the experience of living in a small town. There’s a sense of community, but finding privacy is a challenge. One is free to be themselves only in very few and carefully restricted spaces. Shardul and Sumi divide their apartment so that each has their own room. Neither one trespasses into the other’s area, respecting that each person’s room is a safe and private place within the frame of the apartment. The personal freedom that’s in the bedroom, where Sumi has heart-t0-heart conversations with her girlfriend, for instance, is lost in the living room and dining area, which are semi-public despite being in the couple’s home. It acts like a buffer zone between the outside world and society, and Shardul and Sumi’s personal lives. In the living area, Shardul and Sumi must continue the appearances of heterosexuality that are deemed normal by society (these façades can only be dropped when they’re in their rooms). Interestingly, the tearjerker scene in which Baby (Sheeba Chadha), his mother, shows her acceptance of Shardul by enveloping him in a hug after he comes out to his family, takes place on a terrace – a space where the private and public coalesce. In the film’s final scene, Shardul and Sumi’s living room is where the freedom of personal expression and the constraints of social convention make space for one another awkwardly. The home is filled with guests and family who are all aware that Shardul and Sumi are queer, but the pretence of them being a standard-issue heterosexual couple is kept (more or less) in place.
While Shardul and Sumi’s home in Badhaai Do reflects how stifling Dehradun feels to the two protagonists, the big city vibe of Mumbai is often embodied in cinematic homes that become safe spaces for the protagonists. In her first magazine column, Aisha (Konkona Sen Sharma) from Wake Up Sid (2009) wonders why she feels so at home in Mumbai despite having moved to the city only two months ago. “What lies at the core of this love? My exciting new job? My little flat? Or my independence? What has this city given me that makes me love her so?” she writes, while Sid (Ranbir Kapoor) sleeps nearby. Sid helped Aisha find a home and along with his friends, cleaned and painted the apartment, helping to make it her space. With posters of Annie Hall and The Beatles, books by Tagore and photographs of her parents, Aisha is able to begin a new life in a new city while also holding on to elements from her old life. The final detail that makes Aisha’s apartment her home is when Sid moves in. “I wonder if it would have been as fun to make a home out of my flat had he not helped me through it,” Aisha writes in her column. This is Mumbai, an impersonal city that at unexpected moments delivers benevolence in the form of near strangers who become familiars — and her home in Wake Up Sid embodies these aspects of the city.
In O Kadhal Kanmani, Tara (Nithya Menen) and her partner Adi (Dulquer Salmaan) also make a world of their own in Mumbai, in the room they rent from an older couple, Ganapathy (Prakash Raj) and Bhavani (Leela Samson). The spacious house is an anomaly in Mumbai — anyone who watches OK Kanmani while househunting in the city will be struck with serious real estate heartburn — and the room in which Adi and Tara live becomes an intimate, private space. The high ceilings and airy curtains are a sharp contrast to Tara’s room in the women’s hostel, which seems to almost imprison the young woman. In the room that she shares with Adi, Ganapathy and Bhavani don’t pop in; when Adi’s sister-in-law comes to look around, it’s seen as a violation of privacy. Space may be hard to find in Mumbai, but the freedom that the city promises despite its cramped circumstances is reflected in Tara and Adi’s living arrangement.
At one point, Ganapathy sees Tara sitting on the balcony — another one of those spaces where the public and private coalesce, like the terrace in Bahdaai Do — lost in thought. He asks her what’s on her mind and she confides that a few months ago, she would have put her career before her relationship with Adi. Now, however, she has become greedy and wants both. Mumbai was supposed to be a pitstop in Adi and Tara’s lives, but the city gives them more than they had anticipated. It allows them to grow and as both of them come into their own, the city becomes home and their home reflects the city.