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Study of Reflection of Cultural Forbiddingness and Fire of Rebel in Illusionist Indian Society as Seen in On a Muggy Night in Mumbai


In On a Muggy Night in Mumbai, Dattani chooses to dwell on same-sex relationships crumbling under the powerful influence of social demands. The play lifts the veil of secrecy which hangs over marginalized sexualities and lifestyles. The play is the first modern Indian effort to openly handle queer themes, raising serious issues that generally remain unaddressed. The paper is aimed at reflecting some of the key sensitive cultural issues which are considered as taboo to be discussed in public.

Key Words: Heterosexual, Homosexual, Humiliation, Psychiatrist, Relationship


On a Muggy Night in Mumbai has been well received in urban India despite its unconventional theme. The play is a celebration of freedom in a sense, but it also points out that the freedom is threatened the moment one steps out of the privacy of home. Kamlesh, the protagonist of the play, has shared an unsuccessful relationship with his male friend Ed. The relationship comes to an end due to the traditional social beliefs on heterosexuality which makes Ed to switch to normal heterosexual mode. With a broken heart Kamlesh starts another relationship with Sharad, a very lively, intelligent and confident person. Kamlesh and Sharad live together for some time. But, unable to forget Ed, Kamlesh breaks up his relationship with Sharad. At the same time, following the advice of his psychiatrist Ed starts courting Kamlesh’s sister Kiran. They have fixed their marriage and plan to meet Kiran’s brother Kamlesh before the wedding. Kamlesh who is still unable to get over his relationship with Ed decides to tell the truth to Kiran.

The play opens with the scene when Kamlesh has invited some of his queer friends including Sharad to his place. Among the people there are Sharad and Deepali; Bunny Singh, a TV actor who secretly enjoys gay relationship while being happily married and presents a macho, heterosexual exterior; Ranjit who thinks that India is not a good place for queer people and so he has gone abroad. All of them have found solutions to the societal oppression and opposition in different ways. In other words, they have employed different survival tactics: Sharad and Deepali by being very upfront and honest about their identities, Bunny by exhibiting a normal married life and Ranjit by escaping to foreign lands. On the other hand Ed consults a psychiatrist who advises him to adopt heterosexuality. Dattani uses this opportunity to criticize mainstream psychoanalysis for being status-conscious. Ed’s relationship with the sister of Kamlesh provokes Kamlesh to think Ed has changed and will keep his sister happy. But the queer friends of Kamlesh force him to reveal Ed’s secret to Kiran. While Kiran is shocked to learn that both Kamlesh and Ed have been deceiving her, Ed reveals another secret to Kamlesh that his real motive behind marrying Kiran is to remain close to Kamlesh and fulfill his homosexual desires secretly. This is how the matrimonial institution of heterosexual society is used for purposes which are entirely opposite to that institution.

But Kamlesh's problem is different. He is not ashamed of being a homosexual and is very honest about it, but Ed is ashamed to own the relationship publicly. Ed sees a psychiatrist who encourages him to adopt heterosexuality. Dattani uses this opportunity to criticize mainstream psychoanalysis for being status-quoits. As Foucault suggests with reference to “the techniques of the self”, psychoanalysis should also open up spaces for allowing a person to be what he/she chooses to be (119).

However after consulting the psychiatrist, Ed starts seeing Kamlesh's sister Kiran who does not know about his relationship with Kamlesh. Kamlesh passively lets things happen as he thinks that Ed has changed and will keep his sister happy. When Kamlesh's friends come to know of the situation, they ask Kamlesh to reveal Ed's secret to Kiran. But since Ed will not tell her and Kamlesh does not want to tell her, they decide that she should learn the secret herself through a photograph of Kamlesh and Ed taken together. While Kiran is shocked to learn that both Kamlesh and Ed have been deceiving her, Ed reveals another secret to Kamlesh that his real motive behind marrying Kiran is to remain close to Kamlesh and fulfill his homosexual desires clandestinely. This is how the matrimonial institution of heterosexual society is used for purposes which are entirely at variance with that institution. This leads to further complications causing psychic injuries to people, extracting a heavy price from them.

Cultural Taboos and Forbiddingness:

The play ends with Kamlesh rediscovering love with Sharad and a humiliated Ed trying to commit suicide. The social pressures are so overwhelming that he just cannot think of living normally. To him living according to the norms of the heterosexual society is a prospect worse than suicide. It needs to be noted that the theme of alternate sexuality has been treated with delicacy in the play. Dattani tries to find out why the queer people seem to be hypocrites, escapists and introverts. Is it simply a strategy for surviving in a hostile environment? The incriminating discourse of the heterosexual world is always present in the play. According to Foucault, the dominant discourse constraints the free development of queer subjectivity and makes these persons a minority, always protecting and defending themselves against the incriminating discourse of the heterosexual majority (119). John McRae, in the introduction to the play, writes:
It is a play about how society creates patterns of behaviour and how easy it is for individuals to fall victim to the expectation society creates. . . . For the fault is not just the characters' - it is everyone's, in a society which not only condones but encourages hypocrisy, which demands deceit and negation, rather than allowing self-expression, responsibility and dignity. (45-46)

This society, in which the queer people have to necessarily live, does not accept them as what they are. It tries to make them what they are not, with often disastrous results. It brings about their self-alienation through a complex web of discourses, as subjectivity is colonized by forces with which they cannot see eye to eye. The typical reaction against the situation is that of Bunny Singh and Ed who get married to prove to the society that they are normal while secretly carrying with their gay relationships. Hypocrisy is, thus, a part of the damaging discourse. It demeans them in their own eyes by undermining their self-worth. Bunny Singh admits this when he says:
Just as the man whom my wife loves does not exist. I have denied a lot of things. The only people who know me - the real me - are present here in this room. And you hate me for being such a hypocrite. . . . I have tried to survive. In both worlds. And it seems I do not exist in either. (102-103)

Bunny Singh continues to perform the role of a straight male to gain acceptance in his professional circle which expects him to be an ideal husband, a family man. Bunny defends his decision vehemently in Act I, but we can feel that he too is tired of this hypocrisy, of not being able to express himself honestly. Ed also, a victim of similar social pressures, decides to marry Kiran to secretly get Kamlesh's love. But he forgets the emotional harm he would be doing to Kiran. Kiran asks him, “What did you want from me? What did you want from me so badly that you could not care how much you hurt me for it?” (107). Bunny and Ed thus translate the oppression they receive at the hands of society into deception and victimization of their wives: the chain reaction begins, without any point in sight at which it would end.

Depression and Suppression in Society:

Then there is Ranjit who leaves India in order to lead a life of his choice. There are others like Deepali and Sharad who are very honest about their sexuality and flaunt it openly. They are not afraid of what people would think about them, but go on to do their own thing. Deepali lives with her girlfriend Tina and is very comfortable discussing her femininity: “I thank God. Every time I menstruate, I thank God I am a woman” (66). But it is interesting to note her remarks on queer-men-relationships: “I'm all for the gay man's cause. Men deserve only men!” (60). Sexuality is one thing; but the gender war is also there to be seen. When Kamlesh is accused of exploiting the guard sexually, Deepali comments: “Treat him like a sex object. Men should get a dose of their own medicine!” (63).

The heterosexual world peeps in time and again and makes its presence felt. There is a wedding taking place in the compound whose noises and sounds disrupt the peace of the cosy flat. Then there is the neighboring couple making love, seen through a window. The couple becomes a tool for exposing and even deconstructing the reality of heterosexual marriage in the play. Sharad comments, “Oh my Gawd! Those heterosexuals are at it again!” (53). By using a condemning tone, Sharad hints at the way queer people are talked about in heterosexual world. His comments are almost like an expression of feelings of revenge: “Of course he is her husband! He is too fat and bald to be her lover…….. She is gritting her teeth. She might throw up any moment” (53). Sharad seems to be exposing the unhappiness and compromises that a 'normal' marriage usually involves. Probably that is the reason he is averse to paid sex, as it involves sexual exploitation of the one being paid. The neighboring woman can be compared to the guard, who is sexually exploited by Kamlesh in return for money. Sharad comments, “Only men who are fat, bald and forty pay for sex” (63). The parallel between Kamlesh and the husband in the neighborhood is apparent.

The outside world which is alien to the insiders keeps on exerting its pressure. First the wedding, then the children chasing Bunny for an autograph and finally the neighbours finding out the incriminating photograph of Kamlesh and Ed. John McRae remarks on the relationship between the outside and the inside worlds: The outside world's always pressing in - the heat, the sounds, the people pestering Bunny, the kids who find the photo. Very few dramatists are able to give this sense of a whole society touching the participant in the on-stage drama - it recalls Ibsen at his social best. (45) The outside world is a metaphor of oppressive ambience in which a queer person has to live. It appears as both a metaphor and reality. The presence of the opposing force in the form of the outside world creates a discourse of opposition to homosexuality. By constraining and suppressing, it shapes the subjectivity of queer people, making them what they are. The suppression of homosexual culture is a result of the dominant discourse of heterosexuality, which has been fed to society for centuries, blocking the minds of people to anything other than it. Nietzsche questions the validity and authenticity of such discourses in On the Genealogy of Morals and avers that these work by hypnotizing the entire nervous and intellectual system (61).

These discourses damage the vitality and energy of human beings. As a result the subjects of such discourses create around themselves a cocoon of cultural codes and institutions which further increase their subjection. Gay subjectivity is shown to be constructed as an oppositional subjectivity against an oppressive discourse of normative heterosexual behavior. These discourses construct an idea of the subject, so that people start seeing themselves as normal/abnormal. When a queer person sees himself as a hypocrite, he/she has internalized the discourse, not being critically conscious about it. In this context, Chaudhari remarks:
Looking at how the society creates stereotypes and behavioral patterns that devour any aberration from the expected format, the play builds up tension within this context and ends in…… pulling apart the given norms that the audience has begun to expect. (42).

Dilemma of Same Gender Sex:

The ending of the play is not on the expected lines. Conventionally, it could have ended in Ed's suicide; but Ed is saved and is shown to get up, although with some help. He starts walking towards the people he earlier dreaded facing. The playwright, though not very loudly, makes a plea for an atmosphere of acceptance and acknowledgement for the queer community and also brings out the gay issues out of the closet into the open. The play stands on the side of gay emancipation, as Chaudhari also notes:
Dattani obviously seems to have a point to make to his audience. But rather than directly preach, the playwright dramatises and peoples the performance stage with characters one begins to identify with, facing genuine, real life problems. The play, then, in a sense, is a plea for empathy and sensitivity to India’s “queer culture”. (51)

Dattani projects through the play the problems faced by the Indian urban queer community. He deals with a variety of queer sensibilities, including men and women, showing how they react to societal pressures. The play also raises serious questions as to whether homosexuality is an unnatural aberration. Are people homosexuals by choice? In other words, can one choose one's gender and sexuality? And can homosexuals convert to heterosexuality?

It is difficult to answer these questions with certainty, but contemporary theory suggests that gender is per formative. According to Judith Butler, it is possible to make a choice since we become the gender we perform. In other words, gender identity is not fixed and permanent. It is a sequence of acts and utterances and there are ways of doing one's identity which may upset the conventional binary oppositions of masculine/feminine or straight/queer. Butler remarks in Variations on Sex and Gender:
……. to choose a gender is to interpret received gender norms in a way that organizes them anew. Less a radical act of creation, gender is a tacit project to renew one's cultural history in one's own terms” (131).

But by choice Butler does not mean that the subject is entirely a free agent who can select her/his gender because the choice of gender is limited from the start. The subject can, however, do its gender per formatively like Ed does in the play, as he tries to become 'manly' through certain acts while trying to convert to heterosexuality on the advice of his psychiatrist. He says, “I am not happy with being who I am. And I want to try to be like the rest” (92). He adopts certain mannerisms which make him look more aggressive and manly. Sharad remarks jauntily on the mannerisms such people adopt:
All it needs is a bit of practice. I have begun my lessons. Don't sit with your legs crossed. Keep them wide apart. And make sure you occupy lots of room. It's all about occupying space, baby. The walk: walk as if you have a cricket bat between your legs. And thrust your hand forward when you meet people . . . And the speech. Watch the speech. No fluttery vowels. Not 'It's so-o-o hot in here!' - but 'it's HOT! It's fucking HOT!' (101)

It is a performance one puts up before the world to gain acceptance, power and authority. Ed plans to put up this performance before others, so that they should see him as a normal, straight, heterosexual man. As a result, Kiran remarks about him, “he is so……. male. So protective, so caring and yet so assertive” (104). But in reality Ed admits before Kamlesh that he wants to remain a homosexual and continue his relation ns with him. But he forgets the harm he is causing to Kiran. He realises it later, “I am . . . sorry. I didn't mean to harm you. I only wanted to live” (110). He asks Kamlesh, “Where do I begin? How do I begin to live?” (111). It is difficult for a queer person to decide about putting an end to hypocrisy and begin life afresh.

Ed is so confused by the expectations and pressures of society that he cannot decide for himself. But the question remains whether one can choose his/her gender/sexuality. Ranjit asks: “Aren't we all forgetting something? Does Sharad really have a choice? Can he become heterosexual?” (100). Kamlesh agrees with him, when he advises Ed not to deny himself his real identity: “Please! Don't turn your back on yourself. You are wrenching your soul from your body!” (93).


The play attempts to pose several questions while affirming also that any definite answers are not possible. Dattani's play thus raises a host of rarely addressed issues and places them in the forefront. The constant movement of action across time and a multi-level stage are recurrent technical devices in Dattani. He uses the past into the present and oversteps the limitations of time by two methods. The first is the flash back method (when, for instance, Kamlesh goes back to the time when he first met Ed) and the second is the simultaneous action in a particular scene at one time but with different characters in different parts of the set, juxtaposing the two conversations to achieve either comic or ironical effects. Sometimes it is also a case of history constructing subjectivity through the memory of one character and the oblivion of another. Through this method, Dattani plays with the temporal layers of subjectivity. The theatrical techniques used by Dattani reinforce the multi-layered perception of subjectivity. Dattani thus achieves a decentralization of subjectivity, granting the subject the freedom to make himself/herself, the freedom of self-invention.

Works Cited

  1. Butler, Judith. Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig and Foucault. Praxis International, 1986.
  2. Chaudhari, Asha Kuthari. Mahesh Dattani : An Introduction. Foundation Books, 2005.
  3. Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings. Ed. Colin Gordon. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1980.
  4. McRae, John, “A Note on the Play”, On a Muggy Night in Mumbai: Collected Plays Mahesh Dattani, Penguin Books, 2000.
  5. Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals, Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. Vantage Books, Random House, 1989.
  6. Singh, R.A. Critical Studies on Common wealth Literature, Book Endive, 2003.

Dr. Rishi A. Thakar, Asst. Professor & H.O.D (English Department), Aroma College of Commerce, Ahmedabad. Mobile : 9687628977