The vibrant media landscape in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where kiosks overflow with magazines and colorful film posters line roadside walls, creates a sexually charged public sphere that has a long history of political protests. The 2014 “Kiss of Love” campaign garnered national attention, sparking controversy as images of activists kissing in public and dragged into police vans flooded the media. In Unruly Figures, Navaneetha Mokkil tracks the cultural practices through which sexual figures—particularly the sex worker and the lesbian—are produced in the public imagination. Her analysis includes representations of the prostitute figure in popular media, trajectories of queerness in Malayalam films, public discourse on lesbian sexuality, the autobiographical project of sex worker and activist Nalini Jameela, and the memorialization of murdered transgender activist Sweet Maria, showing how various marginalized figures stage their own fractured journeys of resistance in the post-1990s context of globalization.
By bringing a substantial body of Malayalam-language literature and media texts on gender, sexuality, and social justice into conversation with current debates around sexuality studies and transnational feminism in Asian and Anglo-American academia, Mokkil reorients the debates on sexuality in India by considering the fraught trajectories of identity and rights.
In the long history of writing about queer theory both in South Asia and beyond, Mokkil’s study is unique in bringing Kerala and sexuality studies together in a powerfully pointed yet capacious way. Mokkil marshals such an enormously productive conclave of materials -- video from events, art video, art catalogues, films, epistolary writing, autobiographies, published interviews, archives in different genres, and more conventional ethnographies – that the monograph becomes its own evidentiary corpus that flows into descriptions that are a pleasure to peruse. Mokkil’s theoretical interventions blended into this book as an archive, promise to make this monograph one that readers will turn to over and over.
Geeta Patel, Author of Risky Bodies and Techno-Intimacy: Reflections on Sexuality, Media, Science, Finance; Professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures and Women, Gender and Sexuality, University of Virginia
Mokkil deftly reads, in an in-depth and sustained manner, a range of materials that constitute zones of publicity and intimacy in Kerala, drawing out how figurations of gender and sexuality mark this fraught terrain. Linking Indian and Anglo-American feminist and queer studies to these readings, the analysis makes a strong case for the importance of the regional as a site for new directions in critical scholarship.
Ritty Lukose, author of Liberalizations’s Children: Gender, Youth, and Consumer Citizenship in Globalizing India; Associate Professor of Anthropology | Gender and Sexuality Studies |South Asian Studies at The Gallatin School, New York University