Bollywood Screen Queens

Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla's Ode to Lata is a deceptive book. When I first stumbled across it, almost four years ago, I did not realize that I had found that rare breed of fiction that so subtly works its emotional resonances on the reader. Although I found the book likable on first read, it was only on subsequent rereadings that I was able to recognize the depth and wit of Dhalla's narrative voice.

Ode to Lata is the story of Ali, a desi queer man living in Los Angeles, whose quest for love is leading him down a self-destructive path of loneliness, cynicism, and anger. In writing Ali's struggle for self-acceptance, Dhalla addresses issues of cultural displacement, racialization, intergenerational conflict, coming out, queer activism, and the search for community. It's a lot to take in, but well worth the effort.

Perhaps the most charming--and most provocative--aspect of the novel is Dhalla's reliance on Bollywood cinema and filmi songs to characterize Ali's sense of identity (the 'Lata' of the title is Lata Mangeshkar):

I've known, much to my dismay, that in situations both turbulent and trivial, I've always played the role of the victim, the heroine in plight...I've avidly watched the melodrama unfold in Hindi cinema through my youth...And now my life has become just that.

Images from those Hindi films often flashed through my mind. As a waited for Richard to satisfy himself with yet another trick and return to me, spent but just a little more tender, I became Jaya Bachhan in Silsila, lamenting in song until tall and handsome Amitabh comes back to her from carousing with his mistress...Faces of actresses whose names I knew so well. Scenes from movies, the titles of which are long forgotten...And those songs. Yes, those filmi songs with the poignant lyrics that epitomize the suffering of love and that only Lata can sing.

They are all there in their pomp and melodrama. Directing me. Reminding me. Unfurling within me their systematic chaos. How can I help but heed their systematic direction?
This engagement with Bollywood cinematic tropes is not only a clever narrative device, but more importantly, it suggests a deep seeded connection between pop culture and our queer desi identities.

Highly recommended.

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