Groundviews

To be or not to be gay – Frangipani and the travails of homosexuals in Sri Lanka

Photo courtesy Galaxy Mag

Years ago, when only heterosexuality was legal in Australia men or women having sex with members of their own gender was a serious offence. Underpinning the law was a gamut of attitudes that cast homosexuals in the guise of abnormal, unnatural and depraved predators who deserved contempt at best and death at worst. Today there is no law against two consenting adults of the same sex doing whatever they like with each other. Increasing commercialisation of sexuality has seen to that. Growing urbanisation has also created fragmented communities which make it easier for gay people to survive, and thrive. You do not know and care whether your neighbour is gay, bi or not and if your neighbour doesn’t care it is easier for you to bear the news of your son’s or daughter’s sexuality.  And if your parents are too fussed you can move out live with your partner or by yourself and nobody will bother. It is even cool to be gay in some parts of the city and indeed a whole sub-culture and sub economy has been created around homosexuality. But the stigma still remains in some circles. Many gay men and women still feel compelled to seek their pleasures in the closet for personal and social reasons. In country towns, where neighbours still care and it is hard to move very far, young men still kill themselves, unable to be themselves. And everywhere, gays still cannot marry other gays. But progress has been made. In mainstream Australia fag hating is not cool anymore. And you can go to jail for bashing them.

Contemporary Sri Lanka is a world removed from this, in many ways. Like everywhere else, there are homosexuals in Sri Lanka because Sri Lankans too are human.  But it is a very private affair at best and an agonising secret at worst, not necessarily because there is a law against it but also because the stigma borne by homosexuality is so great that it requires extraordinary courage to go against it. If a man or woman can’t get out of his or her ‘bad habits,’ society expects them to do their business in private without invoking the wrath of the law and the ‘normal’ people. Even doing the business in private is often denied to those who live in rural communities, were the public glare is intense and the private and public spaces often mesh imperceptibly.

Visakesa Chandrasekaram’s movie Frangipani which I had the pleasure of watching in Melbourne recently, tells the story of two young homosexual men in Sri Lanka who struggle to deal with the stigma attached to their sexuality. Chamath, a young man who dreams of becoming a fashion designer is beginning to feel that he has different desires from other men, a conflict that is cleverly depicted by Chamath’s hesitant hand with red fingernails on his friend Sarasi’s heaving breast. When Nalin, a young welder visits his hometown for work, the two find themselves attracted to each other. But like any other affair unsanctioned by society, they find it necessary to show their affections for each other in the confines of their limited private space. Chamath envisages a life together for the two but Nalin is prepared to suppress his desires to further his career as a businessman while maintaining contact with Chamath. Heartbroken, Chamath moves to the city where he is able to follow his dream but not his love while Nalin is struck in a mechanical and unfulfilling marriage, seeking satisfaction in fleeting encounters on the beach or in a dark alley. Circumstances finally bring them together several years later but one feels the tension between them has not been fully resolved.

Through Frangipani, a Sri Lankan movie maker has dared to deal with the issue of homosexuality in Sri Lanka for the first time. Homosexual characters have appeared in Sinhala movies before but to the best of my knowledge this is the first time that the issue itself has been tackled, boldly, using some confronting scenes. Through the challenges faced by Nalin and Chamath, Chandrasekaran demonstrates the complexity of the struggle of homosexuals in Sri Lanka. It is too taboo a subject for anybody to discuss the ‘love that dares not speak its name’ but the unspoken disapproval is palpableIt is conveyed in the innuendo and the knowing glances. We are given a glimpse of what is expected of a male – to get married, have a family and take the family line forward. If you do not get married, no one takes you seriously, Chamath’s mother admonishes him, an oblique reference to the aura of masculinity that surrounds the married man with children.  Chamath’s older brother’s stark glares burn with the contempt for someone who is perceived as less than a man and in a fit of rage he brands him a ‘ponnaya’ or a faggot, perhaps the ultimate insult to a Sri Lankan male and reflective of the perceptions associated with homosexuality. The family’s attempt to drive away the evil spirits that haunt him through a ‘thovilaya’ is also revealing. Not conforming means social ostracism and perhaps economic ruin.  As his monk-brother tells Chamath, staying in the village is out of the question once his sexuality is revealed. At the end there is a glimmer of acceptance of the inevitable but not approval. The priest responds with a half smile to a picture of Chamath in drag and asks cheekily if it is the lady who visited the hospital the previous night, with the air of someone who concedes without condoning. One feels that Chamath may have gained the highest concession possible from a society that struggles to come to terms with behaviour that militates against long-held beliefs and perceptions.

The pressures on the two young men, whilst revealing deeply rooted prejudices, also point to a network of social and economic relationships and their underlying values that set limits to what individuals can desire. Getting married, having children, inheriting, acquiring and looking after property is the way society functions and moves forward. Those who turn their back on this are deviants. One can only inhabit that world by conforming. Chamath escapes the restrictions only because an alternative is available in the city where homosexuality can be fashionable and even marketable in some circles. But that comes at a price, as, despite the tacit acceptance of the priest, we feel that Chamath has lost something of his former life forever. For the orphaned Nalin, the temptations of conformity are great. He succumbs to them, choosing financial stability and social acceptance over love. But that too comes at a price, the loss of sexual freedom and happiness.

The vast majority of homosexuals in Sri Lanka, one feels, are like Nalin: conformists, as they do not have the alternative lifestyle and community networks to support them. They live their lives like heterosexuals, locking away their desires somewhere deep and perhaps even live successful lives with careers and families. Perhaps they become victims of prejudice to the extent that they even embrace them. It is interesting that Nalin himself harbours prejudices against men who wear glitter and dress like women. Unlike Chamath who appears remarkably liberated from the prejudices of his old world he is still a victim of its norms of masculinity.

The movie also reminds us that the expectations that circumscribes the independence of homosexual men also traps women within their tentacles. Chamath’s childhood friend Sarasi is expected to get married and raise a family, like every good Sri Lankan girl. Her hopes of being saved from an arranged marriage by Chamath are dashed when Chamath falls in love with Nalin and she reacts with the venom of a jilted lover. One feels that her advances to Nalin are an expression of helplessness as well as her desire to get back at Chamath rather than genuine affection. Her fate is that of countless women who are forced by social expectations into loveless marriages, waiting up for her husband to return from his true love that he can only meet fleetingly in a boarding house.

Chandrasekaran also draws attention to the legal aspects of attitudes to homosexuality in Sri Lanka. At the end of the movie we are reminded that homosexuality is illegal in Sri Lanka, punishable by imprisonment up to eight years, a fact that is brought home in the movie by the police crackdown on gay men at the beach. However, I wonder if the removal of the legal barriers alone will help gay men and women live a more secure and fulfilled life in Sri Lanka. Gay people of relatively affluent families have been living their lives as gays and lesbians free from legal interventions for years. Legality has never been an issue for them even though they have not been able to live and love openly as gay people. Despite the law, the movie shows the thriving gay subculture in places like Salon Frangipani in what appears to be the heart of Colombo. The law seems to come down heavily on only those who seek their pleasures in less ‘respectable’ ways, in alleys and on the beach, the haunts of gay men who mostly come from social backgrounds where their sexuality is shunned. As long as the perceptions and attitudes that drive them to seek fulfilment in this way remain, changing the law is not likely to help much apart from making the beaches and the alleys more crowded. And as long as those attitudes remain so will the law.

In most Western and some more permissible non-western societies gay men and women are able to live their lives the way they want because they are largely free from the social and economic relationships that support a certain view of masculinity and femininity.  Especially in urban settings one does not need the approval of one’s neighbours or even one’s family to be gay and survive socially and economically. With the expansion of urban communities and the growing marketability of homosexuality, homosexuals are becoming more visible and homosexuality more permissible, and brothers, sisters, mums, dads, friends and even husbands and wives are coming out of the closet. It makes for a more vibrant and comfortable society to live in. Such privileges are currently available only to a small minority in countries like Sri Lanka where often one has to hide from oneself for fear of being branded a ‘ponnaya.’ Brave efforts like Chandrasekaram’s will, hopefully, make people in Sri Lanka sit up and think of the torture some of their brothers and sisters have to endure simply because they are different. That is if the movie is ever released in that country.