The editor of a publication I regularly write for recently rejected a piece of mine calling it “too niche”. The piece was about Looking, a gay drama television series set in San Francisco. “It won’t do very well,” the editor explained, and I was left wondering what he meant exactly.
Of course, eyeballs mean everything in the attention-deficit media world we inhabit today. What my editor was getting at, on the surface, was the potentially low Indian readership for an article that looks into the lives of modern, gay San Franciscans.
True, the likeability of a piece – how much it will be shared; whether it will incite debate –cannot be underestimated. Even for a writer who does not bother with page views as long as the cheque arrives, there is no denying that you can only survive long-term in the age of Facebook and Twitter if you build a loyal following.
But likeability is a slippery terrain. What is likeable to me may not be likeable to you. I may love anime, say, while you may not have a taste for it. I might be interested in a piece on wines, while you may consider it a waste of your time. But these are rather posh topics that exercise features editors while what I am trying to do here is hit more fundamental terrain.
Let me stress that I am not talking about the media’s responsibility to, in fact, give space to “niche” topics, since that is what journalism is about. The media in India has generally been up to the task. I am rather trying to arrive at what constitutes “niche”. Anything that falls beyond the pale of the “mainstream”, itself not the easiest term to define, can be branded “niche”. Anything that does not measure up to this democratic ethos can be rejected.
Look at some recent events. The statements made by Mukesh Singh in the documentary India’s Daughter launched a firestorm of debate online and offline. The rapist’s despicable comments were attacked by many and from multiple viewpoints. Anyone then hypothetically coming in and saying we were bothering with a “niche” problem would have been royally kicked out of the media sphere.
When Dalit writer Perumal Murugan’s book One Part Woman was attacked by outfits aligned to the Sangh parivar, the entire media space was up in arms. We had plenty of commentary supporting Murugan, and for someone to have called the problems of a Dalit writer “niche” would have been both insensitive and imprudent.
But when transgender Pravallika was murdered brutally in Hyderabad earlier this year, we had the media devote only cursory space to the event. Details of her death and the subsequent mistreatment of her friend by the Hyderabad police were reported nearly not as much as the space given to Murugan and Mukesh. Truly “niche”, eh?
Women constitute 50 per cent of India’s population, Dalits 25 per cent, and gays about 10 per cent (anecdotally). (The Supreme Court at any rate deems us a “minuscule minority”.) By this yardstick, do atrocities on women deserve more attention than those on Dalits than those on LGBTs?
Is reportage a function of numbers?
But a broader point pertains to the nature of the reportage. While Pravallika who lived and worked as a transgender was pushed to the sidelines of reportage, consider another recent report that made it to the front page of The Indian Express, as well as reports in a number of other dailies such as Telegraph and The Hindu. The report was about a suicide pact between five girls, all in their teens, in the West Midnapore district of West Bengal. The incident dates to end-February. The reports hint at how close the girls were and that they may have taken the extreme step to escape marriage, which their parents were keen on.
In itself, the story is tragic but one was forced to wonder why it made to the first page of the Express. There was no clarity on the reason for the suicide pact—various theories including something having happened at the village fair are floating around—yet the story received rather diverse reportage. There was little to inspire an interest in the story except the villagers’ assertion about the girls’ friendship. Was it then the purported lesbian angle and the resulting tragedy that made it worthy of reportage?
The truth is the media is interested in “our” stories only when they play to a stereotype. I have had requests to write on any number of atrocities visiting members of the LGBT community, including as it happens, suicide. According to this view, our struggles are deserving of mindshare, however little, only when they have an element—violence, brutality, state suppression— that can no longer be ignored.
As a middle class gay man in India, I inhabit a double “niche”. I am expected to write only about issues concerning my community when they have the potential to raise the banner of revolt, as it were. But what if my personal story brings me closer to a Looking character than a Dalit transgender? Am I not allowed to speak up because I may sound inauthentic?
The question of authenticity can be understood more clearly if discussed in light of the ruckus surrounding Leslee Udwin’s documentary. One critique of the film lambastes the director for assuming the role of “white saviour” in shining a light on the depredations that savages get up to. While this point is broadly dubious given the truth of what happened on December 16, 2012, whether the film is an authentic representation of that diabolical crime is a worthy question. Even if one overlooked the shoddy details of how Udwin brought the documentary to fruition, the question of the tone-deafness of a film that purports to castigate an entire country based on the comments of one egregious man refuses to go away.
So, does an Indian gay writer risk sounding tone-deaf too if he does not restrict himself to the struggles of the third-world homosexual? Why is he not permitted to speak, solely, of the crazy, joyous, bittersweet process of finding and keeping love as a gay man? Why does his simple life story, intense as it is, not merit the same attention as that of a brutalised victim of homophobia? Nobody calls straight romance “niche”. Heck, even Fifty Shades of Grey, that tawdry sanctuary of unconventional erotica, was discussed threadbare in the Indian media.
I repeat I am not trying to draw an analogy between the real struggles that lie ahead for gay men in this country and my situation. But I wonder if I can choose to define my authenticity or if the choice is already made for me based on my social and cultural background.