It's the traditional Bollywood romance: extravagant costumes, dancing and singing. Except for the lovers’ genders.
This year, Northwestern’s Hindi Film Dance team Anubhav is telling the tale of a man’s struggle with his sexuality. With student choreography led by graduate student and Anubhav captain Yuri Doolan, the team incorporates everything from hip hop to bhangra to craft its groundbreaking storyline. At the root of the story is a struggle that resonates with all audiences: the struggle for parental acceptance.
“This is an issue that a lot of second generation Americans face, not wanting to come out because they don’t want to disappoint their parents,” Doolan said. Doolan himself is the son of a first generation American and single mother. He has experienced firsthand the disconnection between his generation and his mother’s, and the pressure that comes with it.
“Parents are exposed to a completely different set of cultural norms and completely different worlds,” Doolan said.
Indian culture is at the root of Bollywood films and performances, and has been slow to adapt to the gay rights movement. In December of 2013, the highest court in India upheld the country’s sodomy law, known as Section 377, which re-criminalized consensual same-sex intercourse. LGBTQ activists are fighting the decision, which will eventually be brought up in parliament. But in the meantime, gay men and women can be prosecuted for “unnatural offenses.”
Within India, Bollywood stars have mostly stayed out of this political issue. Kareem Khubchandani, a former Anubhav member and current performance studies PhD student, specializes in queer nightlife in India and the South Asian diaspora. He sees the risks for these stars as too great.
“When you have a fan base and when your money depends on people liking you, there’s a lot to lose,” Khubchandani said. This leaves a crucial gap in support for LGBTQ individuals, a gap that Anubhav is using its performance to fill.
“I’m really happy [Anubhav] is doing it because I think that the cheers they get are really validating to any LGBT South Asian sitting in the audience,” Khubchandani said.
By straddling both American and Indian culture, Anubhav has a unique viewpoint on LGBTQ rights, as well as the ability to express that view.
“While there might be certain political things going on in India as well, that might just make our story that much more meaningful. We are here in a place where we can sort of express more openly, without as many social repercussions, our opinions on this kind of issue,” Doolan said.
But this doesn’t mean that there are no social repercussions from Anbuhav’s radically different theme. As the first team to perform a gay love story, it has received a wide range of feedback, especially from judges. The team won a bid competition earlier this year, qualifying it for the national Bollywood America competition for the first time. But in a later competition in February, its theme met resistance.
“Some of the first generation adults or parents are still not very sure about whether this is an acceptable theme, and we actually did kind of get into that issue at a competition,” Doolan said. He and McCormick junior Aalap Herur-Raman recounted that the panel of judges at their second bid competition in Berkeley, Calif., disagreed over which team should take home the winning award of best storyline.
The judging panel, comprised of a mix of younger and older judges, was split along generational lines.
“There were three judges really rooting for us and three judges really against it, because they were worried what message this would send,” Doolan said. “And we did get marked down by a couple of those judges.” Anubhav finished the competition in second place.
“It just added a whole new dimension to what we’re doing this year. It’s like, ‘Wow, people aren’t ready to accept the notion that love isn’t always between a guy and a girl,” Herur-Raman said. “It was really powerful.”
In the face of this negativity, the members of Anubhav strengthened their resolve in performing Doolan’s choreography.
“We’re all Northwestern kids, so I think everyone kind of comes together around it,” Herur-Raman said with a smile. The team has been putting in long hours practicing every week, determined to be a frontrunner at nationals on April 19. But their desire to win stems from much more than a competitive spirit.
“Love has a lot of different faces, and we need to start accepting that,” Herur-Raman said.