Magazine 2017
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
*Akshata Pai  
The paper critically engages with the Abhishek Chaubey directed film DedhIshqiya (2014)in an attempt  
to analyse its representation of queer female desire. My contention is that the filmexhibits an awareness  
of Hindi cinema’s gendered hierarchy of gaze and address, and that it draws our attention to that  
hierarchy and to our implication in it as spectators. I also argue that the film defamiliarisesthe strategy of  
misreading’which films like KalHoNaaHo(2003) and Dostana(2008) made popular as a ‘safe’ way of  
representing the queer, by employing thesame strategy to critique inflexible heteronormative reading  
practices instead. I argue that the film pointedly aligns itself with the male gaze and then evacuates that  
gaze of power by constantly scuttling and subverting it, suggesting that queer female sexuality cannot  
be represented through the heteronormative male gaze.  
Unseeing Eyes: Gaze and Address in DedhIshqiya  
In an interview anticipatingthe release of the Hindi film DedhIshqiya(2014), its director Abhishek Chaubey says,  
The film is about male gaze. It is the story about women but from the point of view of these two males  
sic]’(Deccan Chronicle 2013). Representing women through the ‘male gaze’ is hardly novel, and makes one  
wonder why it need be mentioned at all as a salient characteristic of a film about to release. Considering that  
the film represents queer female sexuality (though it was never marketed as such), this focus on the male gaze  
would seem even more problematic. And it is indeed important to ask how the film addresses its queer, female  
viewers.But nevertheless, I find this naked assertion of the male gaze most interesting and extremely fruitful  
when it comes to reading the film.  
The film received many positive reviews celebrating its subtle and ingenious depiction of queer female sexuality  
especially as it released barely a month after the Supreme Court judgment reinstating Section 377 of the Indian  
Penal Code. It was also celebrated for bringing to the mainstream IsmatChugtai’s iconoclastic short story  
Lihaf” (often translated as ‘quilt’) which is the film’s most significant intertext. Written in Urdu in 1941, “Lihaf”  
thematises a homoerotic relationship between Begum Jan, an aristocratic Muslim woman, and her maidservant  
and masseuse, Rabbu – a relationship that materialises only underneath the quilt, hidden from male eyes.  
GayatriGopinath, in speaking about “Lihaf”, says that its narrative is propelled by a scopic desire and that it  
also repeatedly thwarts and defers the scopic satisfaction which it promises, thus eluding and exceeding ‘a  
colonial legal apparatus that functions squarely within the logic of categorization, visibility, and  
enumeration’(Gopinath 2005: 150-151). It is my contention that the film uses this aspect of “Lihaf” as a springboard  
for exploring the relations between cinematic address and gaze in Hindi cinema, and the ways in which these  
are structured around gender and sexuality.  
Challenging the authority of the heteronormative, male gaze  
It has long been established in feminist film theory that the ‘ideal’ spectator of most popular cinema is the  
heterosexual male viewer who reads from within patriarchal discourses and shares its imaginaries and fantasies.  
It is his gaze which is played to as well as constructed through the film’s strategies. Even in those Hindi films  
that do venture to represent queer sexuality and provide queer viewing positions in tangible ways, several  
strategies are employed in order to do so without threatening or antagonising heteronormative viewing habits.  
Shohini Ghosh points out that popular Hindi cinema in the 2000s used ambivalent narrative strategies to  
represent homosexuality, framing it within a ‘simultaneous address to the erotic and the phobic’ (Ghosh 2007:  
27). A commonly used stratagem was the trope of ‘misreading’, wherein the audience is at all times aware of  
the ‘unambiguous straightness’ of the characters that are masqueraded as gay, or are mistaken to be so  
usually by a homophobic viewer (Ghosh 2010: 63).This trope is popularly used in the Karan Johar directed film  
Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003); also, was developed into a full-fledged narrative in the TarunMansukhani directed  
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Dostana(2008).Films that opened up queer possibilities would often be resolved heterosexually, disavowing  
and neatly closing off any threatening possibilities by restoring or reproducing the heterosexual coupleat the  
end. Thus, even as Hindi cinema has begun to imagine queer desires and address the queer gaze, it has done  
so largely without departing from the heteronormative paradigm. Even in films that consciously represent queer  
desires and try to offer a viewing position for the queer gaze, the authority of the heteronormative viewer is kept  
intact. The queer gaze is still subordinate to the needs and desires of the heteronormative gaze.  
Films that represent queer female sexuality have even more precarious balances to maintain – not only must  
homophobic anxieties be managed, but even the scopophilic male gaze must not be deprived of its erotic  
pleasures. In fact, the representation of queer female sexuality is always in danger of becoming just another  
excuse to objectify female characters and add variety to the erotic fare on offer to the heterosexual male viewer.  
Linda Williams while talking of the paradoxes and complexities of lesbian scenes in the genre of the Hollywood  
erotic thriller says that while these scenes seem to be closed networks of lesbian desire, these scenes are often  
framed by male heterosexual desire who are the main ‘choreographers of desire’ (Williams 2005: 207). While no  
representations are entirely impermeable to resistant readings and can be appropriated by the female, queer  
gaze for its own pleasures, the heterosexual male gaze remains the one privileged by the text itself. The queer  
female characters then continue to be represented through the same aesthetic codes developed for subjecting  
women to the scopophilic male gaze – objectification and fetishisation.  
I contend that DedhIshqiyamanifests an awareness of this gendered hierarchy of the addresses of Hindi cinema,  
especially of its queer representations, and attempts to destabilise that hierarchy, prompting us to reflect on  
the ways in which address, gaze and pleasure are linked to one another and how they define and shape our  
cinematic experience.  
Unsettling the Scopophilic Gaze  
Alongside the two main characters, the footloose uncle-nephew pair Khalu and Babban from the prequel  
Ishqiya(2010), we have two women in DedhIshqiya,Begum Para and her companion Munia. Most of the story  
takes place inMajidabad, where the rich widowed Begum is holding a poetry contest wherein the winner will  
marry the Begum. We, along with Babban, have our first glimpse of Majidabadthrough a television screen. This  
entry through a screen alerts us to our role as spectators. We are first presented with a montage of images of  
the haveli where the Begum lives. The space is overtly aestheticised. We pass room after ornately decorated  
room, the spaces of which we are invited to fetishise, until we arrive at the room where the Begum stands by the  
window, looking out. So far, these elements have served to generate expectations for a highly fetishised visual  
introduction of the Begum on the screen. But the film undermines the expectations it builds and defers this  
image. While the Begum occupies a part of the aestheticised space of the haveli, we only see her vaguely from  
the back. This figure refuses to acquiesce to our probing gaze while engaging in her own act of looking. This  
initial refusal to give us a direct frontal image of the Begum disrupts the course of fetishisation that the camera  
had begun on entry into Majidabad.  
Even if we attempt to see her as an aestheticised object, the camera moves closer, collapsing the distance  
necessary for voyeurism and we find our gaze aligned with hers instead. From the window, we see, along with  
the Begum, a car arrive and stop. The camera then moves outside; we see Khalu step out of his car and look  
towards the window. As we look from his point of view, we cannot see the Begum, only the hazy glass of the  
window panes behind which she stands. This exchange of looks is thus, severed from one end. This moment  
signifies a transfer from the woman’s gaze to the man’s, and immediately, our vision seems to hit certain blind  
spots. Khalu’s dark sunglasses also suggest the same – not everything is laid open to his gaze. Their looking  
positions situated across the private/ public separation also suggest that the private sphere can be a space  
exempt from patriarchal surveillance, thus, a space that presents a possibility of resistance. This initial scene is  
not only an early intimation of the film’s intertextuality with “Lihaf”, but is also an indication as to how male gaze  
can be read in the rest of the film. As soon as the camera assumes the male gaze, the queer female subject  
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disappears from view. As this gaze does not have total visual access to women’s lives, it cannot have total  
knowledge of/ power over the women. The following scene makes this even clearer.  
At the soiree where the Begum is to be introduced to the poets who have gathered to vie for her hand, she is  
the much anticipated object of their collective desiring gaze. But before the Begum presents herself to the  
men, Muniacomes on the scene to announce that the men are not to make any physical contact with the  
Begum and toavoid staring at her, thus stipulating the terms on which the Begum may be gazed at. The men’s  
gaze is mediated through Munia who functions as a gate-keeper. No longer passive objects of the desiring  
gaze, the women anticipate the gaze and also specify and determine its scope. Already, the male characters  
and the viewers are unsettled from the position of the ‘controlling voyeur’. We might be the bearers of the look  
but we are not the ones in control. In the remainder of the scene, the deferred visual introduction to the Begum  
is finally completed, but it is now framed by the knowledge that the viewing has been enabled by the women.  
The men look and seek to objectify, but power flows from elsewhere.  
Another scene in the film foregrounds the act of looking. The Begum after an emotional breakthrough recovers  
her repressed passion for dancing. This soon turns into a completely aesthetic exercise. As she pirouettes and  
swirls around, the chandelier and the lamps behind her suddenly light up. She looks directly at the camera, and  
at a mirror, seeming to solicit our gaze. Even as it is established that she dances for her own pleasure, the  
camera now invites us to contemplate her as an aesthetic object. Khalu, whom she had pushed out of the  
room, watches her from outside the window, allowing us to read the scene as a classic voyeuristic one. She  
becomes aware of his gaze only halfway through, and continues dancing, perhaps addressing her performance  
to him.  
Only when she is joined by Munia, does Babban also look in. This symmetry between the gazers and those  
gazed at suggests that the men are looking specifically at those they desire romantically. Their visual pleasure,  
in that sense, comes from their sense of inclusion in and significance to the scene. When Munia walks up to the  
door, the Begum lets her in and entreats her to dance too. Munia initially seems apprehensive as she spots  
Khalu looking in, but as she begins to spin around with the Begum, she relaxes into a smile and seems to take  
pleasure in the Begum’s excitement. Once her attention is engaged by the Begum, she dismisses Khalu’s  
presence and seems to give it no more thought – hinting at the unimportance of the voyeur to the scene. As  
they dance, the women look at each other, neither returning nor engaging with the men’s gaze. Moreover, the  
perfect circle that the women draw around themselves as they dance (an image that lingers on for a while)  
suggests a self-sufficient, closed network of desires, in which the men play no part. Thus, this scene which  
seems at first glance to be one framed by heterosexual male desire becomes one where it is literally excluded,  
ignored, and rendered irrelevant. While the scene might allow the heterosexual male gaze to access visual  
pleasure, it does not allow for a sense of power or control to be built on that pleasure.  
Gaze, of course, is central to the film’s most spoken about scene, the scene that recreates the swaying shadows  
of “Lihaf”. DedhIshqiya  
2014. Dir. Abhishek Chaubey. Shemaroo and Vishal Bhardwaj Pictures.  
Chugtai, Ismat. 1993. “Lihaf”. Eds. Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha.  
Women Writing in India  
Vol. II. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.  
Secondary Sources  
Ghosh, Shohini. 2007. “False Appearances and Mistaken Identities: The Phobic and the Erotic inBombay  
Cinema’s Queer Vision”. Ed. Brinda Bose.  
The Phobic and the Erotic.  
London/ New York: Seagull.  
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
010. “Bollywood Cinema and Queer Sexualities”. Eds. Kim Brooks andRobert Leckey.  
Queer Theory: Law, Culture, Empire  
New York: Routledge.  
Gopinath, Gayatri. 2005.  
Impossible Desires.  
Durham: Duke University Press.  
The four protagonists are taking shelter in an old, desolate warehouse. Khalu’s and Babban’s hands have been  
tied behind their backs by the women after a skirmish, when suddenly the light comes on, and we are given a  
glimpse of the two women drunkenly laughing and frolicking with each other. Khalu, suddenly immersed in  
light, looks on. After two brief shots, we are given no direct access to the image of the women. In the final shot  
of the sequence, we only see Khalu look at them, and their moving and merging shadows on the wall behind  
him. Paired with this image of swaying shadows, reminiscent of the opening of Chugtai’s story , is the word  
lihaf” uttered knowingly by Khalu– the two coming together in an intertextual gesture towards queerness.  
Asha Kasbekar observes that in Hindi cinema, erotic voyeurism is often made possible by presenting diegetic  
spectators onto whom the act of voyeurism could be displaced. The diegetic spectator is then determined as  
the true owner of the voyeuristic gaze’; the audience is simply ‘looking at looking’ (Kasbekar 2001: 296).  
Absolved of the guilt of illicit watching, the spectacle of the woman can then be fully enjoyed. DedhIshqiya,in  
this scene of same-sex intimacy, mediates those images through a diegetic audience. But the route of this  
gaze is severed before it can be completed, and we are literally left looking at an act of looking.  
As far as the diegetic spectators are considered, though they have visual access to the women, their gaze is  
not a ‘controlling’ one. Both Babban and Khalu have just been rejected in love, their sense of entitlement to the  
women’s affections ruptured. Moreover, their hands are tied behind their backs as they look. Literally divested  
of agency, their gaze is also evacuated of power. The shadows of the women loom large over the wall, making  
Khalu’s looking figure framed in the lower half of the screen, seem miniscule in comparison, suggesting that  
female sexuality far exceeds the male gaze and cannot be represented through it.  
Defamiliarising the trope of ‘misreading’  
I believe that DedhIshqiyadefamiliarisesHindi cinema’s staple strategy of queer representations, the trope of  
misreading’, and repurposes it to perform a critique of inflexible heteronormative reading practices. This in-  
built critique alerts us to our own blinkered reading practices and nudges us to open up our ways of reading  
popular cinema.Throughout the film, the men constantly impose heterosexual expectations on the story, as the  
film’s spectators also might do.  
One such instance is when the Begum is dancing behind closed doors, and Munia worriedly hurries towards  
the room. Babban obstructs her way and in response, she collars him and shoves him off. Misreading her act  
as proof that she has accepted him as a lover (who is often treated coldly by the woman he desires), he gives  
himself a delighted thumbs-up. A similar thing ensues in another scene where Munia, arriving at the warehouse  
where the other three are in hiding, seems to run in Babban’s direction but runs past him to embrace the  
Begum – her desire clearly in excess of and overshooting its ‘proper object’. Babban first misreads her intention,  
believing that she is hurrying towards him. Later, when she has run past him to the Begum, he turns to look at  
them embracing. Unable to read any eroticism into this image, he now misreads their embrace as platonic.  
Soon after, he professes his love to her, continuing in his heteronormative reading despite signs to the contrary.  
Instead of a heterosexual pair being misread as homosexual, here we have queer women being misread as  
heterosexual. Instead of using the trope of misreading to allay the anxiety raised by queer sexualities, the film  
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employs it to unsettle the very assumption of heteronormativitysuggesting that nothing might be as straight as  
we assume it to be. While in the above instances, it is possible that the audience still expects an eventual  
heterosexual resolution, in the final scenes, the heteronormative reading is clearly invalidated for the audience.  
We hear the women address the men in voiceovers saying in no uncertain terms that though they owe much to  
the men, they do not desire them romantically. After this voiceover is completed, we watch Babban and Khalu  
still naively assume that the women bailed them out of prison. Babban excitedly remarks ‘Didn’t I say? They  
love us’ and begins to fantasise about him marrying Munia and Khalu marrying the Begum. At this point, we  
already know that the women do not desire the men and even as this moment generates humour, it makes us  
to see this heteronormative reading as inadequate. Itsatirises not only Hindi cinema’s abrupt heterosexual  
foreclosures which habitually follow the opening up of queer possibilities butalso the audience’s easy acceptance  
of such abrupt and absurd resolutions.  
Speaking of erotic voyeurism in Hindi cinema, Asha Kasbekar writes about strategies of ‘distancing’ and  
disavowing’ that are used to legitimise the act of voyeurism and to absolve viewers of any ‘prurient’ intent  
Kasbekar 2001: 298). Instead of concealing the mechanisms of the male gaze in this way or naturalising them,  
DedhIshqiyaconsistently leaves them visible. Instead of disavowing the male gaze, the film deliberately and  
pointedly aligns itself with it, constantly reminding us of our own act of watching. This male gaze is then paired  
with uncertainties, gaps and excesseswhichmark the film’s narrative when it comes to its female characters. The  
diegetic male gaze never achieves a complete knowledge of female sexuality and misreads again and again  
both the image that it looks upon and its own location vis-à-vis that image. Thus, whilethe film constantly  
renders male gaze visible, it refuses to allot much power to it.Instead the scopophilic male gaze is manipulated,  
scuttled and evaded throughout the film, and in the process, is evacuated of power. By constructing us, the  
viewers, in the position of these diegetic male readers – or rather, constructing the male characters as heterosexual  
spectators of cinema – the inadequacies of our own viewing and reading habits are made visible to us.  
Web Sources  
Author Unknown. 2013, December 13. “DedhIshqiya is flight of fancy: director Abhishek Chaubey”.  
Deccan Chronicle.  
Accessed January 26, 2015.  
*Assistant Professor, Department of English, SNDT University, Mumbai.