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Pride and prejudice: A play on Indian law and the queer experience

Lawyer and activist Danish Sheikh on his new play 'Contempt' and the Section 377 verdict

Danish Sheikh (centre) in a still from the play, ‘Contempt’. Photo: Prateeq Kumar
Danish Sheikh (centre) in a still from the play, ‘Contempt’. Photo: Prateeq Kumar

In 2016, Danish Sheikh, a Delhi-based lawyer and queer activist, began work on a play called Contempt. The Suresh Kumar Koushal & Anr vs Naz Foundation hearings, that recriminalized homosexuality in India, formed the main setting of the play, interspersed with real-life anecdotes from the LGBTQ+ community and references to the story of Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium. As the recent verdict overturned the 2013 judgement, Sheikh spoke to Lounge about combining law with literature and the judgement’s impact on the play. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

How did you create the multilayered narrative of the play?

Initially, I approached the play as a lawyer, exploring the legal arguments and the manner in which they failed to move the judges. I also felt I had to bring in individual voices that the court hadn’t deemed worthy of attention. Some were my experiences, others were accounts I had come across and these became the “affidavits", as we call them in the play.

What were some of the finer nuances you aimed to showcase?

Predominantly, I wanted to clarify the blatant prejudice of judges as far as LGBTQ+ individuals were concerned—it came through more strongly in the actual hearings than in the text of the judgement. I also wanted to interrogate possible deficits in the legal strategy, particularly the way we present the affidavit before the court.

Did you find ‘Contempt’ changed the audience’s perceptions?

The play challenged the perception of the judiciary approaching issues from a space of neutrality. Many of us in the legal profession know how far this is from the truth and the prejudices that run rife in the courtroom. A lot of questions came up about the veracity of the courtroom scenes, and people were stunned to realize the extent to which pretty much everything that was said in the play actually occurred in the courtroom in 2012.

Does the verdict affect the play?

The role of the play becomes a bit different now. While I am jubilant about the Navtej Johar decision, it’s important to remember how wrong the courts can be, and the damage they can inflict. The play continues to be a reminder to that. It also remains a testament to the struggles and lived experiences of queer persons, that will likely continue even as we enter this new age of legalization.

You are considering a follow-up to ‘Contempt’. What would you like to focus on?

Besides the hearings in July 2018, I’d like to explore what de-criminalization means for the community. I also want to draw a literary parallel, and it’s likely to be a celebratory comedy in the nature of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s a line in the play, “reason and love keep little company together nowadays"—I imagine that would form the heart of the follow-up, as we foreground a decision where reason and love did indeed come together.

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