Sonal Sehgal On Lesbian Love Stories In Bollywood And Ismat Chugtai’s ‘Lihaaf’

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Sonal Sehgal On Lesbian Love Stories In Bollywood And Ismat Chugtai’s ‘Lihaaf’

When Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf was published in 1942, India was far from being on board with the idea of homosexuality. It is 2018, and we still aren’t. Homosexuality is still illegal in India. So, it’s pertinent that a feature film is finally being made on one of Chugtai’s most seminal works. The Rahat Kazmi directorial will parallelly follow the obscenity trial Chugtai faced after the short story got published almost six decades ago.

The first poster of the film was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival last week. Marc Baschet – the man behind The Lunchbox’s hype – is also co-producing the film that will feature Tannishtha Chatterjee in Chugtai’s role. Sonal Sehgal will essay Lihaaf’s protagonist, the lonely Begum Jaan who found companionship in the arms of her masseuse Rabbo, once it was apparent that she was trapped in a loveless marriage and a victim of a sexually repressed patriarchal world.

We delved into a conversation with Sehgal, who has also co-written the script of the film, about the tremendous relevance and importance of a story like Lihaaf in current times. Here’s what we found out from the actress who was in the news last year for her short film, Dancing In The Dark, an observation on the grievous impact the billion-dollar beauty and fairness industry has on our society.

Chugtai’s life, as well as Lihaaf’s story, is still considered a controversial topic in most of India. Are you prepared for the backlash that might come your way once the film releases here?


The Begum was a real person. She was her (Chugtai’s) mother’s cousin. This was a true story that happened in 1920, and Chugtai wrote about it in 1942. There was a furore and she was slapped with a case of obscenity. We’re in 2018 and we’re still grappling with the same problem. It’s about time society woke up. 1940 to 2018, it’s almost 80 years!”

There is a dearth of lesbian love stories (that aren’t eroticised) in Bollywood… How is that pivotal scene in the story dealt with in the film where Chugtai comes to know of the relationship between the Begum and Rabbo?

“The idea of Lihaaf is not to titillate or to sexualise. Then you’re missing the point and going into the whole mainstream narrative of things. They don’t do justice to gay characters in mainstream films. The metaphor of that quilt is so important. In fact, the quilt is also a character in the film.”


How did you prepare for your role?

“I have co-written the screenplay with the director (Kazmi). I researched the story. I met with Chugtai’s grandson to understand closely where she was coming from, what kind of a person she was.”

She further spoke about her understanding of the Begum.

“The Begum can come across as a completely dark character also. As a child Chugtai got scared of what she was witnessing, but she put the entire incident in perspective once she grew up and realised that the Begum was actually a tragic character. She was insecure… imprisoned. For us who belong in the 21st century, it is very hard to understand these characters, and they become difficult to play.”


Even now, if you belong to the LGBTQ community, there’s a certain amount of fear that comes along with coming out. So, that way not much has changed…

“It hasn’t. But there are many layers to it. If the Begum had an affair with a man, she would have been persecuted. But because she was having an affair with a woman, everyone was laughing at her. So, it wasn’t even taken seriously.”

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