Activist and filmmaker Pramada Menon talks about her debut film “And You Thought You Knew Me”, and the queer experience in relation to Delhi

At its screening recently in the Capital, it came as a surprise to some that Pramada Menon, a prominent queer feminist activist, stand-up comedian and co-founder of CREA, does not appear in her debut film And You Thought You Knew Me.

The film features five women living in Delhi who identify themselves outside of the heterosexual framework and have little in common apart from that. Through the poignant and humorous stories of their lives, their struggles personal and private, it brings out the diversity of the queer experience in the city. Pramada’s absence, in a sense, is the point of the film. “A lot of what the five women tell you is much more than I’ve ever done, and that was really powerful for me. So the next time we are thinking of queer women, we can start thinking outside the three or four of us who you are all familiar with,” she had explained. In excerpts from this e-mail interview, she speaks about the film, and her love-hate relationship with Delhi.

How did the film come to be? What were the immediate reasons and motivations?

Let me start with a selfish reason. I always wanted to see my name in lights and had often wondered whether I would ever get to make a film.

On a more serious note, I had been toying with the idea of collecting oral histories of People Assigned Female Gender at Birth (PAFGB), because over the years, I had come to realise that LGBTI histories were few in the public arena. For a large number of people, the Delhi High Court judgment year 2009, seems to have been the beginning of LGBTI history in Delhi.

I also wanted to engage with a number of issues:

There is an assumption that if you identify outside of the heterosexual framework then one has to lead actively public and political lives.

That the personal is political, just as much as the political is personal (borrowed from Paromita Vohra, a filmmaker, who used this when talking about women and media advocacy).

How public space is constantly used by LGBTI and yet, people have pre-conceived notions of who the LGBTI are, and therefore often do not realise that we are everywhere and very much a part of the everydayness of people’s lives.

And the best way to do this was through film for me. I was lucky to have the Public Service Broadcasting Trust back the idea, and fortunate to have five PAFGB agree to make my idea of the documentary a reality.

I was struck by your choice of having just the voices of two women. Why was this important to you?

It was more the choice of the two women interviewed. They did not wish to appear before the camera but were fine with their stories being told. I was perfectly happy with that, because I felt that their stories were important and needed to be heard. And I was clear that I would not use a silhouette or a pixelated image and therefore the shots of Delhi. I think we as viewers, often want a face to connect to and I wanted to see whether it would be possible to listen to someone’s story without that.

Can you talk about what drove the selection of the venues in these shots?

I love Delhi and this city has seen queer spaces cropping up over the years. Most of the places have queer history associated with them – Central Park as a place where gay men hung out and cruised; India Coffee House as a venue for many meetings of citizen’s movements and the place where many queer meetings and planning for protests and Pride Marches have happened; Lodhi Garden as a venue for meetings and picnics; Delhi Metro as the mode of transport for many queer people to go to events away from the areas they live in. As one character in the film says that all events happen in South Delhi or Connaught Place and the Delhi Metro has ended up being the Blue Line for her gay existence; Jantar Mantar for the celebrations on the victory in the Delhi High Court and the protests against violence, social injustice.

The parks and monuments have often been seen as cruising spots for gay men and I wanted to position those very spaces against People Assigned Female Gender at Birth. I wanted to reclaim public space and see it as a place where PAFGB can “loiter”.

Some of the conversations in the film revolve around what it means to be an activist. What does activism mean to you? Do you consider this film an extension of your activism?

I think we have constructed a particular image of “the activist” as someone who is out on the streets, who shouts slogans, who waves placards with subversive messages and essentially is a disruptive element fighting for justice. Yet activism plays out at many levels. Not all people who are LBT activists are “out” and yet they are instrumental in making changes in their own lives and the lives they touch. No one talks about that activism. We almost expect every LBT activist to be public about their life, relationships and their choices.

I wanted to present multiple versions of activism because it is critical that we engage with all forms of sexual diversity. There is no one picture or image of the lesbian or gay man or bisexual or transgendered or intersex or genderqueer person is. There is no one coming out story, or story of survival. People find their own ways to live their lives and we have to acknowledge that and understand it. Somehow we ignore the intersections of the multiple identities in the lives of those who fall outside the heteronormative framework, or those who do not identify as any one gender.

Activism is all this and more for me. I did not make the film as part of my activism, I made the film because there were multiple stories to be told.

You called the film a love-letter to Delhi. Can you talk about the queer experience in relation to Delhi? Is there much to love about it?

For me the film is a love letter to Delhi – a city I love and a city I love to hate. My queer experience in this city has been good and that is not the truth for many, many others. This city has been hostile, non-inclusive, threatening and sometimes all us queers have been made into caricatures or reduced to being the “other”. The city has changed as is evident from the fact the Pride Marches are held in the city, queer film festivals and events are organised and colleges are increasingly having conversations around gender and sexuality. But that does not mean that Delhi is in any way a tolerant city. If you pass as a woman or man, then you are tolerated to some extent, but step out of line – even a little bit – and watch the backlash.