Every city has its secret little hideouts for people living on the fringes of the society. Sometimes, we overlook its presence. At other times, we refuse to accept our social underbelly. This time, it was my chance to explore the gay hotspot of Siliguri, a tier-2 city located in the northern part of West Bengal. As it turns out, a simple Google search—“where to meet gay guys in Siliguri”—is enough to find the most famous cruising spot for gay and bisexual men in the area, a spot we choose to call, for the sake of anonymity and protection, Cinema Paradiso.
This single-screen theatre is known for screening mainstream Hindi and Bangla films since the 1970s. Located in one of the busiest streets of the city, the cinema hall is surrounded by big shopping brands and bank branches. A regional office of a political party sits cheek-by-jowl to this seedy establishment.
On request of a local LGBTQ activist, Prabir Ghosh, I decided to explore Siliguri’s Cinema Paradiso. I met Ghose on a Sunday morning near the box office; he was waiting for me with two tickets of the balcony show. It is the balcony show, he preambles, where the “real fun” happens. “This is an open secret: most of the shopkeepers in the vicinity know about the activities here. This place is visited by men from all walks of life,” Ghosh told me.
Upon entrance, the cinema hall opened up creakily, old in some parts, and shabby in many. As we walked towards the dimly-lit balcony, the damp and paan-stained walls closed in. The pungent smell of nicotine and sweat hung in the air. The movie had already begun—a south Indian movie with terrible audio. The screen itself was dirty and torn in many places. Upon a quick scan, I spotted 20 to 30 heads at the balcony. Ten minutes in, the movie was suddenly replaced with a patched-up clip of a vintage English porn. In the meantime, two men sitting in front of us started changing their seats. I turned to Ghosh, who hushed me immediately and asked me to “enjoy the show”.
The next few minutes was a smorgasbord of noises and visuals. Three men had begun to have sex at the rear end of the hall. “The back of this stall during the morning show is notoriously famous for gay fun,” Ghosh told me. While the two men who were frequently changing seats were seen locking lips in one corner, a few other men were engaged in different sexual activities. To be a mute spectator to this gay orgy in such a public space comes with an acute sense of revelry and loss at the same time.
With the ring of the intermission bell and switching on of the three low-watt tungsten bulb, it all abruptly stopped. A few middle-aged men sat back in their lungis and lit up their beedis.
Still in Hiding
Cinema Paradiso is where the gay and bisexual men have found a safe haven in Siliguri. “Many gay men, from the working class especially, come for the morning show to have sex without being disturbed. Neither the cops nor the hall authorities bother the couples,” said Ghosh.
By the time the second half of the movie started, most men had left. When the movie ended, several men were seen leaving the hall with their helmets on; a few walked with their heads hung low and eyes on the floor.
Subhodeep Sanyal*, an old-timer of the Sunday morning show, says, “Till a few years back, this place was safe for gay men to meet other men from the community. It’s a very self-liberating experience, especially for the working-class gay men living in a conservative Indian society.” Things have changed now, adds Sanyal, as local thugs have found their way into their space and turn up on Sunday mornings to harass them.
“I was gagged and beaten up by few men during a morning show a month back. My newly bought Samsung mobile phone was also taken away by them. I could not go to the police, fearing other legal hassles,” says Ramesh*, a shop assistant who hails from the neighbouring town of Jalpaiguri.
Under conditions of anonymity, a local gay man told me that the footfall has also reduced in this cinema hall because of the emergence of gay dating sites such as Planet Romeo and Grindr. But he swiftly adds that “this place will never lose its charm because there are many men who cannot use dating sites, and they will still come here. Also, this incognito meeting in the dark where you don’t know your partner has its own thrill!”
As the whole country celebrated the decriminalising of Section 377 last week, this small town in northern West Bengal is yet to come to terms with its attitude towards alternate sexualities. “Siliguri is not a metropolitan city. Here, people still have a conservative attitude towards alternative sexual orientation. From a homophobic prism, this is a filthy place where gay men engage in carnal activities,” says Souvik, member of a local NGO working for LGBTQ community in the area. “This place has been a meeting ground for gay and bi-men from Siliguri and visitors from different parts of north Bengal, Nepal and Bihar for many decades now, and hopefully it will remain the same.”
Most importantly, the Cinema Paradiso morning shows represent a space for alternate sexualities who still don’t have access to parties and parades to meet their counterparts from other cities. “Unfortunately, most single-screen cinema halls are running in losses in the city; they’re either shutting down business or converting the place to a shopping complex,” said Prabir. Only time will tell if the Sunday morning regulars will come out of their hiding, or just find another Cinema Paradiso.
*Names changed on request.