Satyam, a South Indian law student, is faced with the murder of her beloved cousin, who has been poisoned by her own brother in an honor killing. The girl was going to marry a Dalit (outcaste) boy and dishonor her family. The police rule it a suicide. Satyam, a timid woman, is convinced it was murder but is paralyzed by grief and fear. Soon she is faced with compelling evidence of murder from the family servants.
The story weaves back and forth between Satyam’s courage and fear, between action and paralysis, as she tries to pressure the police to re-open the case. The police continue to turn a blind eye to caste violence, and men start threatening and intimidating her. Her only allies, her elderly father and the family’s 70 year-old cook, assist her but sometimes wane in their commitment to Satyam’s cause. Finally, the murderous cousin is arrested, but soon afterwards thugs attack Satyam and injure her.
On the outside, Satyam seeks justice for her dead cousin. On the inside, she is tortured by her desires for Meena, a college friend, and struggles to accept herself as a lesbian. She also resists her mother’s pressures to accept an arranged marriage. As the story progresses, Satyam becomes more emboldened. The murderous cousin is arrested. Satyam tells Meena that she is gay and breaks off the friendship because of Meena’s hot and cold behavior. And she finally tells her mother she refuses to marry.
Soon after the murderer’s arrest, the police intimidate the chief witness who recants. The murderer is released. Thugs then attack Satyam and injure her, and she almost gives up. Fate intervenes, and the murderer is arrested on unrelated charges and is killed in jail. At school, a new female law professor becomes her mentor. Satyam continues her fight for justice by joining a lawsuit against the police for their inaction in a variety of Dalit cases, including her cousin’s case. She starts to vocally defend gay rights in her school. And the Indian Supreme Court, after almost a decade of court battles, issues it’s iconic September 2018 ruling decriminalizing homosexuality. Satyam is invited by her mentor to argue the case in school, and she does with vigor.
The story ends with the High Court ruling against the police in the honor killing case. Satyam makes the bittersweet decision to absolutely refuse marriage, which means staying with her parents, and to pursue work as a human rights attorney. She tells no one she is gay. But she has told herself she is gay. Although she knows gay rights are slowly being recognized in India, Satyam’s longings are still a secret and frightening dream. The love from her elderly allies and the familiarity of her small town life hold Satyam in place, at least for now. In the last scene, Satyam is offered a human rights internship at a law office in another state. We don’t know what will happen in the future.
This story is a realistic tale of one modern Indian woman’s external and internal fight for the right to love. Personal freedom, especially in marriage, is limited in this unequal, caste-based and homophobic society. Family pressure is powerful. Women’s freedoms are limited. And caste violence continues. Satyam’s name means Truth. Her heart contains the dilemma of so many women in rapidly changing societies: to be true to oneself and face the consequences, or to remain safe in the shelter of traditional roles and culture.