Winds of change in interpreting LGBTQIA+on Indian celluloid

Winds of change in interpreting LGBTQIA+on Indian celluloid

Arnab Banerjee

Cinema being enormously powerful, has the power to change the way we think about ourselves and our culture. Of course, cinema as a medium, can make us laugh or cry or leave us speechless too. But most important of all is its ability to raise voices and experiences of the marginalised to a global audience. 

Many stories of violence, torture, hope and longing, celebration, discoveries, to name a few, have reached out to a wide cross-section of the world only because somebody decided to talk about them in their creative efforts. 

While we see movies on a variety of themes, there still remain some stories that are never ever addressed. Or are shown perfunctorily without any research. Though love has been overly romanticised in every part of the world, filmmakers still shy away from depicting love between same-sex couples. Particularly in India. 

Same-sex/bisexuality/transgender have no representation in Indian films

Unlike in the Asian subcontinent, numerous films on the so-called taboo subject of LGBTQIA+ for instance, have created a stir and what’s more, have been hugely successful too.

Shifting the dynamics between women, men and society, some directors and writers have thought out of the box and woven sensitive stories of people that portray an LGBTQIA+ narrative and have normalised the socially crafted stigma. Or at least have attempted to.  

While Hollywood has time and again treated difficult subjects of the side-lined, downgraded and virtually ostracised community of gays and other trans community in ground-breaking classics, such as 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, to modern masterpieces like Call Me by Your Name and Sundance-smashing Beach Rats, not to forget Brokeback Mountain, not too much effort has been done back home in Hindi films in India. 

Indian films 

Indian cinema has not done justice to the LGBTQIA+ community, what with queer characters shown as loud, garish, and flashy in clichéd representation mostly playing to the gallery to the homophobic lot. 

Not that heterosexual romantic courtships are not questionable with blatant misogyny, glorification of toxicity, male chauvinism, objectification and scant regard for multi-dimensional characterisation. Therefore, if heterosexual associations are so poorly done, one cannot expect much of a fair deal for the LGBTQIA+ community either. 

Portrayal of the LGBTQIA+ was stereotypical

Thankfully, as luck would have it, celluloid depiction of such people has come a long way from the 1960s when a gay character was always portrayed as funny with a namby-pamby walk adding little to the narrative. In fact, such characters often served as comic relief. Cinema is a place where people not only go for entertainment purposes but it is also a go-to platform where the majority of social issues are raised.  

Bollywood encounter with gays was done rather gingerly. If we recall, the first-ever gay character seen in an Indian movie was actor Anupam Kher in Mast Kalander (1991) wearing a tuft of orange hair only with most of his head shaved off.  Also seen was Abhishek Bachchan in Bol Bachchan (2012) who was effeminate to the core walking with a swing and sporting floral clothes. 

Needless to add, both were caricatures who looked ‘abnormal’ demonising LGBTQIA+ identities and clearly adding inappropriate distasteful humour.  Undoubtedly, the writers came across as uninformed and unaware. 

But since these were mainstream films, the resultant hazard is very dangerous. Seen by the multitude, many ignorant would believe that all same-sex relationships border on being offensive, and hence, should be ridiculed. 

There has been other misrepresentation in other portrayals too. Dostana (2008) and Mastizaade (2016) revel in showing supposedly gay characters in a wacky sense. Using below the belt humour, the films did good business when audiences enjoyed the strictly proscribed dialogues liberally flowing between the leads. 

A definitive change for the better is in the offing

Earlier, censorship issues too often led to characters getting the axe or altered to suit the sensibility of a regressive mindset that was happy with draconian laws implemented all over the country.

Given that cinema, just the way literature is, is a mirror of society, a large chunk of film writers and directors are almost blind to their layered visibility that one sees all around in small and big cities these days. One wonders how the powers that be are so unenlightened about something that is so starkly present in our society. In fact, many commercially successful blockbusters rarely scratch the surface of the largely sub-culture that many among the members of this community thrive within. 

Change, they say, has to be gradual. And slow.  And we have been negotiating with the changing demands as the internet and globalisation made us more open and exposed to many films whose primary theme was all about intimate physical homoerotic bonds. Way back, the first such film that broke all taboos was the Shabana Azmi-Nandita Das starrer Fire (1998) that did create a storm across the nation with many members of a particular religious and political outfits demanding a ban. 

Around the same time, Onir’s film My Brother Nikhil (2005) was way ahead of its times, though it was made much before the historic judgement of 2018, when the Court ruled unanimously in Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India that Section 377 was unconstitutional “in so far as it criminalises consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex”.

Thanks to the effects of globalisation, things move much faster in this day and age, and the entire world seems to stand up for the protection and promotion of the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and two-spirit (LGBTQAI+) people globally. And this change should reflect in the thematic content too in the days to come.  

Notable exceptions

Also, noteworthy have been Margarita with a Straw (2015) and Aligarh (2016) where the lead Kalki Koechlin and Sayani Gupta in the former, and Manoj Bajpayee in the latter showed the uncompromising love with extreme sensitivity and responsibility. Cinema, including Bollywood, has woken up to the reality full on.  In Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019), a coming-of-age same-sex romantic comedy, mainstream actor Sonam Kapoor agreed to play a role that many top of the line female actors had declined. The subtle implication shown between Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi as a closeted duo in Dedh Ishqiya (2014) tenderly hinted to their being lesbians while showcasing their interdependence and fond companionship.

Earlier in Sadak (1990) Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s character Maharani as the evil transgender pimp outraged the trans community. With good reason too. Since such on-screen characters are few and far between, an out of the blue hijra being shown as wicked, malicious, immoral and criminal was grossly wrong. 

In that sense, popular Indian cinema always lacked perception and vision when it comes to telling stories of the LGBTQIA+ community. Hardly anyone thought that audiences have matured and would want to see great stories about any person with whatever orientation. They want to see believable humane people. 

There came a time when Bollywood fast forwarded its concern for gays in the 2016 film Kapoor and Sons. There was a marked difference of treatment that had Fawad Khan’s character as an attractive, likeable and honest gay man with multiple layers beyond his sexuality. 

The same way, in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020), an inherently wired gay man being forced to marry a girl and lead heterosexual lives in lavender marriage was well received.  

OTT and streaming platforms

Lately, the digital space has shown tremendous way forward with queer stories fast gaining popularity. His Story, Guilty Minds, Maja Ma, Human, Aarya, to name a few have all dealt with gay themes with aplomb. What comes as a big relief about these shows is the fact that bisexual or gay characters have specific and unambiguous identities and are a significant part of the narrative with a distinct role to play in the development of the storyline.   

In Bombay Begums the content was varied with heterosexual and homosexual characters often seen in mainstream lives intersecting each other’s lives the way all human beings do. Plabita Thakur is openly bisexual and has no qualms about declaring it too. Another film released on OTT Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare explored yet another aspect of the LGBTQIA+ lives. Similarly, Arjun Mathur in Made in Heaven is seen as a wedding planner whose personal life as gay is nobody’s concern as he goes about doing his job most professionally while enjoying a relationship with another man (Vikrant Massey) in his private bedroom. The anthology of four short stories in Ajeeb Daastaans had Jaideep Ahlawat confessing to his wife that he had a male lover in hiding. 

Change, they say, has to be gradual. And slow.  And we have been negotiating with the changing demands as the internet and globalisation made us more open and exposed to many films whose primary theme was all about intimate physical homoerotic bonds.

The question arises then: How long would it take for supposedly the world’s fastest growing economy to come to terms with the mounting demands of an independent progressive society? Or is it that like for everything else, we ought to count on the political will? Do financiers spending millions in mega productions realise that for a sizeable percentage of gay population it is traumatic to not get any succour from what is considered the most impactful medium. 

As it is, they are branded and defamed by the so-called ‘normal’. If cinema doesn’t do justice to their suffering and pain of being victimised, it would incur more agony and grief leading to mental affliction and infirmity all the more.  

True depiction of the changing and hopefully evolving civilisation and the social order is far, but not an unachievable dream.