The Rigveda, one of the four canonical sacred texts of Hinduism, says –Vikriti Evam Prakriti, meaning what seems unnatural is also natural. Ancient India was quite open-hearted towards homosexuality in society, with detailed chapters dedicated to it in the Kama Sutra. Homosexuality continued to be accepted and approved of in India right till the middle of the nineteenth century. The advent of the British, however, put paid to the free-thinking era of Indian society. The colonial government criminalised homosexuality in 1861, under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.
Henceforward, homosexuality gained entry into the vilified category of ‘abnormal’.
Until September 2018 that is, when a landmark Supreme Court ruling decriminalised homosexuality and reinstated the fundamental rights of the LGBTQ community saying thus – “Majoritarian views and popular morality cannot dictate constitutional rights. We have to vanquish prejudice, embrace inclusion and ensure equal rights.
New Zee5 Original film, 377 Ab Normal, dramatizes this landmark ruling of the Supreme Court of India in 2018 that struck down Section 377 of the IPC that criminalised gay sex. Produced by Aditya Narain Singh and Ajit Arora, and directed by Faruk Kabir, the film documents the traumatizing past of the LGBT community in India, and the far-from-tasteful treatment meted out by Indian society to this small but significant population. Because, let’s face it; we, as a country, hardly take too kindly to anyone or anything that is different from our parameters or perception of what constitutes ‘normal’.
The film chronicles actual events as they occurred in India’s LGBT history, along with authentic characters. Keshav Suri, son of renowned hotelier, Lalit Suri, and scion of the Lalit Group of Hotels, is one of the characters plucked from real life and shown as he is – gay, and proud of it. The growing number of homophobic attacks on gay outfits, including the one on the Colorado gay club, drives Suri to take the legal recourse to fight homophobia and its repercussions in society, most noticeably, Section 377. Sid Makkar depicts Keshav Suri in the film.
His lawyer, played by Mohan Kapur, takes up his case with gusto. A case is filed in the Supreme Court by Suri and five others. The case is called Navtej Singh Johar &Ors. versus Union of India. While the actual petitioners were dancer Navtej Singh Johar, journalist Sunil Mehra, chef Ritu Dalmia, hoteliers Aman Nath and Keshav Suri, and businesswoman Ayesha Kapur, the film only features Keshav Suri from the bunch. The rest of the petitioners in the film are fictionalized characters, totally unconnected to the actual petitioners. All except Arif Jafar – more about him in just a bit.
The Union of India is represented by lawyer, Narendra Kaushal (Kumud Mishra), who is again modelled after a real-life player in the entire drama – Sunil Kaushal, lawyer and die-hard detractor of legalising gay sex.
While the film is made with a lot of heart, it barely skims the surface of the long and arduous route to this significant victory in the battle for LGBT rights in India. The actual battle was the one fought out in court, which the story touches in a very brief and utterly vague manner
The film goes into flashback mode, recounting the back stories of the other petitioners. Prime among these is Arif Jafar (Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub), the first man to be arrested under Section 377, way back in 2001, in Lucknow, UP. Jafar is an AIDS, HIV and gay rights activist, besides being a homosexual himself. That is reason enough for the UP cops to declare him a scourge to society and whisk him away to jail. Courtesy Narendra Kaushal’s wily and persuasive arguments, Jafar is charged with engaging in sexual activities against the order of nature, and incarcerated for several years. The rest of the segment focuses on the hardships and torture he faces in jail.
We are then, very quickly, introduced to tales of several other gay and lesbian characters, mostly fictional. Fictional they may be, but look closely, and it could be the story of every LGBT person around. There’s Pallav (Shashank Arora), a homosexual teenager, who turns to famous gay activist, Ashok Row Kavi, portrayed by Kaizad Kotwal in the film, to help him deal with his family’s non-acceptance of his homosexuality. Maanvi Gagroo plays the lesbian Shalmali, who comes out to her mother (Tanvi Azmi), who is shocked initially, but then accepts her daughter’s lesbianism whole-heartedly.
After this brief interlude, the film returns to the present, and the Supreme Court pronounces its verdict, striking down the colonial-era, controversial IPC section and legalising same sex intercourse. The five judges who pronounce their judgement are again modelled after the actual judges who passed the historic judgement, namely, CJI Dipak Misra, Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, Justice A. M. Khanwilkar, Justice D. Y. Chandrachud, and Justice Indu Malhotra.
While the film is made with a lot of heart, it barely skims the surface of the long and arduous route to this significant victory in the battle for LGBT rights in India. The actual battle was the one fought out in court, which the story touches in a very brief and utterly vague manner. A concept known as ‘Pink Economy’ is mentioned in passing by Suri and his lawyer friend (played by Preetika Rao), which is purportedly the primary theme of argument in the petitioners’ repertoire. But the writers don’t bother to give us even an inkling of what this Pink Economy is about, and we end up Googling the term to get understand its nitty-gritties.
A major portion of the film is eaten up by the back stories of the sundry LGBT characters. Net result- the film doesn’t amount to any substantial learning for the viewer regarding how the case came to be and how it was won. The chief petitioner, Navtej Singh Johar, along with the other petitioners, who played an equally significant role in the filing of the case, and the subsequent hard-fought victory, are royally ignored – the spotlight is only on Keshav Suri, and that too, very briefly.
If there is one segment that leaves an impact in the entire 1 ½ hour runtime, it is Arif Jafar’s. It is a poignant tale, brimming with moving sensitivity and subtle intensity. Zeeshan Ayyub is truly spectacular in his rendering of Jafar. His acting is brilliant and leaves a lasting impression. It is a portrayal that stays with you for days after.
The other back stories suffer from a lack of proper characterization, and seem to be written in hurried half-heartedness.
Maanvi Gagroo has done better work elsewhere. Hers is a mundane characterization of a lesbian woman seeking her place in society – nothing to write home about. As for Shashank Arora, pardon us for stating the obvious – as Pallav, he comes across as the poor man’s Shah Rukh Khan, complete with floppy hair, throbbing voice and bobbing Adam’s Apple. He simply hams his way through his role, getting on our nerves as he does so. And the less said about Sid Makkar, the better. His acting appears contrived and forced, with nary an iota of spark or verve.
Tanvi Azmi is wasted in a minuscule role as Shalmali’s mother. An actress of her calibre surely deserves better. Likewise with Aditi Govitrikar – the brainy actress makes a blink-and-miss appearance as Pallav’s mother, in a role that doesn’t even attempt to test her acting abilities.
All said and done, 377 Ab Normal is a sketchy attempt, albeit a brave one. The movie could have done with a stronger storyline and a more powerful script. Both are eminently uninspired and insipid, if we may.
The best thing we liked about the movie was its inclusion of the actual dialogues articulated by the five judges when they delivered their verdict, especially this one by, quoted by Chief Justice of India, DipakMisra –
“I am what I am, so take me as I am”.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It sharply brings into focus the gazillion diversities prevalent in society and a pressing need for humankind to accept them with empathy and compassion.
In the meanwhile, we’ll go with a rating of 2 /5 for 377 Ab Normal.
(Written By Rashmi Paharia)