In 2012, the Supreme Court was preparing to hear a landmark case regarding the constitutional validity of Section 377, titled Suresh Kumar Koushal and another v NAZ Foundation and others. The respondents led by Naz Foundation were represented by a large litigation team, among whom was a recent graduate of Hyderabad’s Nalsar University of Law, Danish Sheikh. But before the hearing could begin, Sheikh had something else to do. He called up his parents in Indore and came out as gay. They asked him to come home for a bit. When he reached Indore airport, Sheikh was driven directly to the office of a psychiatrist.
“He told me homosexuality was a mental disorder, and could be cured by changing my hormonal imbalance. He said, ‘It could be the result of a tumour in your hypothalamus causing you to think you are gay’,” says Sheikh. He remembers whipping out his phone and saying, “I have recorded all of this. Your statement has directly contradicted the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases and I will be suing you for medical malpractice.” The psychiatrist backed off and Sheikh walked out of the room. That real-life incident is now the direct inspiration for a scene led by a female character in the play, Contempt, which Sheikh has written using “97 per cent original transcripts from the case”. It has now been selected by the Arcola Theatre in London to open their festival of Queer Plays Across the World in March, 2018.
In 2013, after two months of hearings, the Supreme Court had overturned a 2009 Delhi High Court verdict and re-established Section 377 — making homosexuality a carnal act against the order of nature. In Contempt, the judge asks an emphatic young lawyer on stage, “What is carnal intercourse against the order of nature? What list of sex acts is covered under this term?”
“You are right, we don’t have a specific list of these acts…” comes the answer but the judge cuts through it: “What if a boy were to insert his tongue into another boy’s mouth? What if a father is kissing his child and he inserts his tongue? What about a breastfeeding mother and child? Is that carnal intercourse?”
Contempt is designed as a set of four courtroom scenes between the lawyer and the judge, each informing the audience how a different kind of argument was placed before the Supreme Court, and how all those arguments failed to convince the judges. The monologues that segment the courtroom scenes are based on affidavits presented in the courtroom and actual experiences of queer people, including Sheikh’s. First staged as a public reading in Colombo in 2017, the script for Contempt was longlisted for the Hindu Metro Plus Playwright of the Year Award the same year.
It was in law school in 2006, that Sheikh discovered Mahesh Dattani’s plays through the dramatics society and began exploring his own sexuality. He found himself at the intersection of theatre and law again when he graduated and joined the Alternative Law Forum in Bengaluru in 2011, a collective of human rights lawyers for whom litigation went beyond courtrooms, to asking larger questions through art and aesthetics. Sheikh’s breakthrough work in theatre came as part of a project by Alliance Francaise to adapt five French plays in the Indian context in 2012. “They had taken Jean Genet’s Deathwatch and done an Indian version called Rajdhani. I went for its audition and it turned out to be a queer character who I connected with,” he says.
In January 2015, he set up a theatre group, called the Bardolators in Bengaluru, with an intent to offer contemporary echoes of Shakespearean plays. Later that year at Cubbon Park, the Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet was played out — with a male Juliet and a male Romeo, even as the Bardolators presented six extracts from the play with their own subversion. But the big moment, says Sheikh, came in February 2016 when they staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream in February 2016. In Sheikh’s version of the play, there are two pairs of queer lovers instead. The opposition to their marriage, then becomes symbolic of the state, whch criminalises homosexuality. “When the love juice is put in the characters (just as in the play), they go into an irrational crazy state which, in the logic of our play, became heterosexuality,” says Sheikh.
But the situation off stage isn’t as great. “If you listen to the hearing from 2012, it becomes clear how deep homophobia and transphobia runs, and the lack of empathy towards queer citizens. As for Contempt, there is a part of me, which thinks activism is one of the most optimistic things one can do. To be an activist is to be deeply critical of the present because you are holding on to a vision of utopia,” says Sheikh.