An icon circulates outside the biographical person as a cultural referent around which our desires are mobilised or brought to arrest. The icon then becomes a phantasmic object, the attachment to which could be studied to elaborate our desires-in-identity, or to recognise something solid where there was only liquid. In less than a week after Sridevi’s untimely death, let us ask what her evocation as a queer icon means for the desires of the queer movement.
However, it is irrelevant to this inquiry what Sridevi’s personal relationship was to queerness. Such an approach would only be frustrated by the distance between our lives. A conscious focus on the intentionality of actors — whether she liked queers or not, was supportive of the movement or not — takes away from the many effects any speech or act may have. It robs the many other meanings we may give to the same action, depending on contexts and locations.
For example, Pinjra Tod, a feminist movement in university campuses in Delhi, on Valentine’s Day collected for a meeting around the politics of love and the love for politics. They carried a poster with a still of Madhubala as Anarkali in “Jab pyaar kiya toh darna kya” from Mughal-e-Azam, except now, she became a figure in defiance of the patriarchy that regulates women in the university and outside. The women at the gathering cheered, “Anarkali tere sapno ko hum manzil tak le jayeinge/ Tum jitni baar chunwaoge, hum utni deewar giraeinge!,” (Anarkali, we will carry your dreams to its destination/ Everytime you bury us, we’ll tear down that wall) — thus mobilising the image to do the work that it was perhaps never intended for, but always held the possibility of.
The death of Sridevi has brought many queer lives to a mournful halt. Many posts, notes, essays, and editorials were written on what Sridevi meant for queer children, not yet LGBTQ and other alphabets but grappling for semblance in a world that leaves them terribly alone. Queer groups sought an identification with her ability to be various kinds of authentic and still ace the game. Here was a person who pushed at the seams of designer dresses and looked glamorous, who did crazy antics but was undoubtedly desired as woman, who could share screen space with Rajinikanth — and actually share screen space. This was someone who was different and who owned it. She was the legitimate subject around which our otherwise illegitimate desires and transgressions could attach. And when the cis/hetero audiences gave up on her, gave her flak for ironing out her skin and trying to fit in her saris better, we understood. In fact, she revealed herself to be more like us than we had imagined. Who knows better than queers what it means to sit uncomfortably in our own skin? In her plasticity, she was our icon — the face of queerness trapped, modified, enhanced; to match the version of ourselves that the world could approve.
In so far as the icon can be separated from the person to whom that status is granted, it is precisely her iconicity that made the queers not reach out to her, stand outside her house and hospital and encourage her against harsh judgments. What did we owe our fantasy? What happens to those women whom we continue to validate as beautiful?
When we saw in that earlier Dostana (made by Yash Johar) the tension between two men as our own, we put aside how Zeenat Aman was being made an object of exchange. In our desire to find homo-versions (pun intended) of ourselves, women have often been marginalised. The only women we, queers, are interested in, are women who transgress, defy, break their mould. We are not interested in women who identify with the femininity assigned to them. Not interested in the ordinary, is what gets us by day-to-day. Perhaps, if we do not want to lose another icon, we should start to care for those who resist our queerness too. Perhaps we must start to account for the toll of our fabulous transgressions in the ordinary. Perhaps, iconicity is precisely what will not let the best of us live.