Lawyer Danish Sheikh, 30, was present in the Supreme Court last year when petitions against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code were being heard. During a break, he received a call from his father. Their relationship had been uncomfortable since Sheikh came out as gay in 2012. His father said, “I just wanted to ask if you wanted support, if your mother and I should come to the court to be with you.” Delhi-based Sheikh, also a playwright, theatre director and actor, documented the episode in his new work, Pride, in which the protagonist tells his therapist, “It took me a while to find my voice”.
Pride follows Contempt (2017), Sheikh’s play on a trial that failed to convince the apex court in 2013 that Section 377 was unconstitutional. It was nominated for the Hindu Metro Plus Playwright of the Year award in 2017. “After the 2018 verdict reading down Section 377, I was interested in imagining a theatrical response to the limits and possibilities of legal reform and social transformation,” says Sheikh, who teaches at the Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.
Excerpts from an interview:
Many plays (e.g. Court Martial, written by Swadesh Deepak, and 12 Angry Men, by Reginald Rose) have for long employed the courtroom drama. What privileges do you enjoy as a lawyer and a playwright?
In the classic courtroom drama, there is a sense that law is a neutral entity, with the court being a space where one finds certitude and truth. As a lawyer, you understand how much of this is fiction. Law is a way to make meaning, which depends on the people constructing it, not just what happens in the courtroom. The classic legal drama takes place in that space, but much of law is being generated and lived in other spaces, for instance, in the space of activists sitting together to plan and enact protests. What they are doing is actively dissenting against the law, thereby creating an alternative universe. Law is essentially how you live your life. When you say, ‘I refuse to live my life by these diktats’, you are creating your own legal universe. I enjoy showing in my work that law is not a stable entity, it permeates our lives outside the formal domain.
Contempt was about dissenting with the judgment, Suresh Kumar Koushal and another vs Naz Foundation and others, recriminalising homosexuality in 2013. Pride takes place in a world in which the LGBTQ+ community has won a huge victory. Does victory create its own set of problems?
The fundamental idea in Pride was to understand how to make sense of life after Section 377 was read down. One of the tracks is a pride meeting being organised after decriminalisation. People are trying to understand what the story of the movement was.
The other track is more personal. A man in a room with a therapist, trying to find a narrative about love that makes sense in the wake of decriminalisation. As the play progresses, the two tracks start coming together and we see how stories about both law and love are overwhelmingly informed by the construction of certain narratives — and the difficulties that come in creating those stories.
What is the significance of the title, Pride?
In the play’s world, it carries multiple meanings. On the one hand, the pride march and the meetings that go into putting it together. On the other, it’s something more internal, the opposite of shame, which is what a lot of us as queer kids dealt with when we were in school or later, grappling with the sense of being different and feeling inferior. That shame seeps into other aspects of how you live your life. In my play, the central character finds that the shame he had while growing up has leached into his romantic relationships and that shame is reinforced by the law.
So, how do your characters negotiate this conflict of emotions?
Pride is an attempt for me to make sense of different kinds of experiences of falling in love, out of love and trying to understand how much of love also draws from tropes in popular culture and cues one picks up from the law itself. There is a part in the play when the protagonist meets a person and the relationship takes off. The boyfriend, who does introduce the protagonist to people and friends, says, ‘I am not a public person so I don’t want to talk about this relationship publicly’. This triggers the protagonist, bringing back feelings of shame. That’s something we explore in the play — how does it feel to negotiate different kinds of closets continually, and what violence can do to you if you’re in that kind of space.
Does the play touch upon the factions within the community following the judgment?
There is a part in the play where different lawyers argue about the legal strategies which actually won the case. Then, the activists come in and say, regardless of the legal strategies, what actually won the case was all the activism on the ground. What I’m trying to preserve is that the victory was the victory of a movement. Some people say same-sex marriage is the next step, others say it’s about equality and non-discrimination in institutional spaces. There will necessarily be ruptures, but at the same time we have come off a massive victory that came off the work of decades, and I’m trying to honour that.
Do the rights of marriage and adoption play hostage to bigger aims such as the right to buy property and inheritance?
We have one character who is gay and is dating a lawyer. At the meeting, he says: “When the verdict happened, I told my boyfriend, ‘Great, now we can get married because the Constitution has been changed.’” And the boyfriend looked at him incredulously and says, “No, no, that’s not what has happened”. He represents a kind of figure that does not care what’s happening at the grassroots: his concerns are about assimilating into a mainstream paradigm — can they buy a house together, get married, adopt children? Which is all fine but I think it ignores the potential that we still have to reframe the way in which partnerships, intimate or otherwise, are conducted, how to think about the law as creating different possibilities for relationships, instead of sliding directly into the marriage and property paradigm.
How has your understanding of playwriting grown since Contempt?
I wrote Contempt like a piece of documentary theatre, interspersed with monologues. I had the (original 2012 hearing) transcripts as the backbone. Those moments in the courtroom had generally been underreported in contrast to the actual judgment so it made dramatic sense for them to anchor the play. In 2018, the media scrutiny on the actual hearings was much more intense: a lot more people knew what was happening in the courtroom. I had to move away from the courtroom, into the realm of conversations, personal and political. This meant I had to think much more about how to frame conversation in a way that sounded natural but also conveyed a loaded set of ideas. Two very different works by British playwrights strongly influenced me — Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (2012) and Nina Raine’s powerful Consent (2017). Raine’s play helped me to think about how much of our “regular” parlance has legalistic undertones.