Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & An Evolving Bollywood
By Anna MM Vetticad
(This article was originally published in Maxim magazine’s August 2014 edition)
“Oh, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” For millions of Indian bibliophiles, these words conjure up images of a pretty Caucasian teen on a balcony, as a young man looks longingly at her from the courtyard below. Transpose that to an Indian setting and the latest visual etched in popular imagination is of Deepika Padukone, eyes sparkling with a new-born passion, while a muscular, moustachioed Ranveer Singh gazes up at her in Ram-leela (2013).
Now imagine another scenario. Imagine on that verandah a man being gazed upon by his male lover. Or the fellow below replaced by a woman. After all, Romeo and Juliet is not a metaphor for heterosexual love, but forbidden love. And is there a love more forbidden today than love between two people of the same sex?
Enter Ekta Kapoor. The news that she may produce a gay version of Romeo and Juliet elicits both curiosity and caution. Kapoor’s reputation as a flag-bearer of desi conservatism in melodramatic tele-soaps raises concerns about whether the film will spoof the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community or be a progressive, thoughtful take on homosexual love. The fears are legitimate since Hindi movies at large have long responded to same-sex liaisons with sniggers or, perhaps at best, silence.
“A sensitive Hindi film where a gay person is not being marked out as gay, where gay people are treated like straight people, is rare,” says Sanjay Suri who co-produced director Onir’s landmark 2005 film, My Brother Nikhil, and starred in it as a gay swimmer with AIDS.
Sensitivity reared its head again this year with Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya. Neither is it an issue-based film designed for a niche market, with homosexuality as the “issue,” nor does it mock its lesbian characters to tickle the audience. In fact, the indication of their sexual preference is so understated that India’s morality brigade — those who denounce same-sex love as a vice of the wild white West — probably didn’t notice.
“I was sure there would be no protests against Dedh Ishqiya,” says Chaubey, “because the kind of idiots who protect their sanskriti (culture) through protests over a film are the kind of idiots who will not even get that angle in this film.”
Rewind to the scene in which Khaalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi) are being held captive by Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit-Nene) and Muniya (Huma Qureshi). As the ladies play hopscotch, the camera quietly shifts to the wall where their shadows fall, and we watch as their game turns to frisky jostling before a fleeting moment when silhouettes intertwine.
In 1996, Deepa Mehta’s Fire had sparked off violence from agitated right-wing groups for its far more patent and protracted depiction of lesbianism. By telling an Indian story, Fire gave the discourse on same-sex love in India a new impetus, despite being an Indo-Canadian production by an NRI director. Hindi cinema, by then, had already delivered abundant LGBT portrayals — some overt, most covert, some sympathetic, some prejudiced, some well-fleshed-out, most not.
Anupam Kher played what was arguably mainstream Hindi cinema’s first openly gay man in living memory in Mast Kalandar (1991). Pinkoo’s screaming effeminacy, a clingy tendency towards straight men and their revulsion, made him a caricature, as was the norm. Yet, he also defied the norm by not being a minor player or a mere distraction from the main plotline, and by being frank about his obvious interest in men. In showing Pinkoo spurning a man who unabashedly pursues him, the screenplay also gave him agency and contradicted notions that all gay men are romantically desperate.
At one point in Mast Kalandar, an unexpected flash of IQ in the writing leads to some genuine — and layered — hilarity when Pinkoo sings a line from the song Aadmi hoon aadmi se pyaar karta hoon (I’m a man who loves men) from the 1970 Manoj Kumar-starrer Pehchan. The original, of course, was sung to exemplify an innocent villager’s love for humanity, not men in particular.
While most gay men in commercial cinema have been cartoonish like Pinkoo, at least some allusions to homosexuality have been amusing without being scornful. In Silsila (1981), a bathing scene featuring buddies Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) and Shekhar (Shashi Kapoor) added a sub-text to their relationship with humour. The two are showering together when Shekhar slyly chucks a bar of soap on the floor. Amit jocularly refuses to pick it up, prompting both to burst out laughing. Shekhar adds: “Remember in the hostel bathroom, too, no one wanted to pick up the soap?”
Romances between women have been less common in mainstream Hindi cinema. In 1983’s Razia Sultan, Razia (Hema Malini) is shown with her lady-in-waiting (Parveen Babi) who sings to her and draws a feather over their faces to hide a kiss, while two attendants exchange meaningful glances. The clandestine nature of the relationship and even its representation — and Razia’s possible bisexuality — are all illustrated by the fact that the song is about her male lover (Dharmendra) who she is visualising right then.
Hijras or transgender persons are the most neglected LGBT group in Hindi cinema. Over the years, they’ve occasionally appeared as entertaining asides in songs or other brief scenes. Mahesh Bhatt’s Tamanna (1997) is unusual for the centrality of its hijra character. So was the well-written part of Maharani, played by Sadashiv Amrapurkar in Sadak (1991). Though it was the principal villain’s character, it had a real-world edge, then a rarity.
Saleem Kidwai, co-editor with Ruth Vanita of the book Same-Sex Love In India, takes us back to his first memory of a Hindi film with an LGBT character. The black-and-white Manzil (1960) starred Mehmood as a paanwala who befriends the hero, Raju (Dev Anand). One day when Raju leaves the paan shop with a female admirer, the paanwala is singing “Jaao, hato, kaahe ko jhooti banao batiya.” “This is a disappointed man singing about his attraction for another man,” says Kidwai.
“Then, of course, there’s Dosti,” he adds. “It was the 1960s, I was entering my teens, and I could relate to those guys. I could see how a situation like that could have been sexual. These things are so coded that only people looking for those messages could have gotten them.” This is where we enter tricky territory. Dosti is the 1964 classic from Rajshri Productions, about a friendship between two physically challenged teenagers. Assuming that they were gay seems bizarre at one level. Besides, Rajshri is too conventional to countenance such non-conformism.
Yet, Dosti comes up repeatedly in conversations with chroniclers of Hindi cinema’s homosexual — or bisexual — history. So do most films based on the once-frequented dosti-yaarana formula: Sangam (1964) with Raj Kapoor and Rajendra Kumar, Anand (1971) and Namak Haram (1973), both starring Rajesh Khanna and Bachchan, Sholay (1975) with Bachchan-Dharmendra, and numerous others. You could see this interpretation as an over-reading of those films never intended by the writer, with all that searingly intense boy bonding merely proving mainstream Hindi cinema’s penchant for over-statement. The analysis could also be seen as emerging from a conservative school of thought that cannot fathom an intimate same-sex relationship sans a romance. Alternatively, you could see homo-erotic undertones as a possible logical explanation for those powerful (usually male) friendships involving utter devotion to a degree that goes beyond what’s accepted in the average non-romantic tie.
Vanita says: “I’ve shown these films to my students here (at the University of Montana, the US), and all of them commented on the fact that the men are singing romantic songs to each other like Diye jalte hai (from Namak Haram) and the songs from Dosti. If you played those songs without knowing that a man is singing to a man, it sounds like a man is singing to a woman. The way they look into each other’s eyes while singing, put food into each other’s mouths, all these gestures have meaning within the economy of cinema. My students say, and I agree, that in Hollywood you have the buddy movie but buddies don’t behave in this intense romantic way.” Vanita further cites songs featuring cross-dressing women as a cinematic device used to represent same-sex eroticism for the audience.
Not everyone takes kindly to such deconstruction. Saif Ali Khan was reportedly so enraged by LGBT rights activist Ashok Row Kavi’s take on the sparks and suggestive exchanges between him and Akshay Kumar in 1994’s Main Khiladi Tu Anari, that he reportedly went to Kavi’s home and hit him.
As you may have already gathered, this is an unending debate. For many present-generation cinema-gazers, though, the starting block for deliberations on LGBT films is megahit producer-director Karan Johar. An old-fashioned Kantaben’s suspicions of hanky-panky between Shah Rukh Khan and Saif on the sidelines of Johar’s 2003 production Kal Ho Naa Ho, preceded Dostana’s central theme of straight men pretending to be gay in 2008, loosely inspired by the Hollywood comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. In 2012, Johar directed Student of the Year, starring Rishi Kapoor as a gay school principal.
These films have received both condemnation and commendations. The book, The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic, quotes National Award-winning filmmaker Onir slamming KJo without naming him. “It’s absolutely okay not to do films which have gay characters but at least don’t do the opposite where you harm your own community,” he says. “As long as you’re making jokes where you are laughing along, fine, but if you’re laughing at all the time? Not funny... Very often, Hindi mainstream films have over-the-top trans-dressers as gay characters. The only representation is that, and you’re always laughing at. At the end of the day, the word that the audience goes back home with is ‘Ma ka whatever bigad gaya’... India as a society is not homophobic. You see men walking hand in hand all over the place. But now, suddenly, it’s ‘Oh dekh, Dostana ja raha hai.’ (See, there goes Dostana.)” The reference above is to Dostana’s song Ma da laadla bigad gaya (Mother’s darling son has been spoilt).
Johar’s response is uncharacteristically acerbic: “Onir was born to be upset. He just wants to be upset all the time. If you want to be offended, you can be offended by the opening of an envelope. Dostana did more for the community than My Brother Nikhil. There are gay people who came out to their parents after Dostana. Yes, it has a light-hearted tone suited to commercial cinema, but it brought the discussion into the mainstream and many more people saw it than My Brother Nikhil, so I feel I’ve contributed tremendously.”
Dostana’s director, Tarun Mansukhani, adds: “Don’t people see that while John and Abhishek pretend to be gay in the film, they don’t play effeminate? I know I’ve to still stay on the borderline and say, ‘Let’s pretend they are gay’, so that audiences at least come in. Next step could be, ‘Maybe they’re actually gay. Who knows?’ But you can’t have that next step till you take the first.”
Support comes from unexpected quarters. Purab Kohli, who played the hero’s lover in My Brother Nikhil, laments the fact that commercial films use LGBT persons as comic relief, but also acknowledges: “It’s a light way of conveying a point. Dostana was funny, but at the same time one very important thing happened in it, which was Kirron Kher as the quintessential Indian mother, saying, ‘Hey, my son is gay and I’m okay with that.’ That’s bold for a commercial platform.” It’s only fair to also point out that even the over-the-top gay templates Johar sometimes uses are drawn with far more dignity than the LGBT caricatures in so many films, where limp-wristed, womanly men debase themselves to entertain.
Director Madhur Bhandarkar has featured at least one LGBT person in almost all his films. His marginal gay characters have been camp clichés, and the lesbian encounter in Heroine was terribly contrived. His 2008 film, Fashion, merits praise, though, for its delicate depiction of a lavender marriage (a male-female marriage in which at least one partner is not heterosexual, with the arrangement shielding the homosexual person in the relationship from social scrutiny). On the other hand, the heroine’s gay friend in Page 3 adhered to the social stereotype of gay men as sexual predators. So did the boy who seduced his female friend’s husband in the short film Johar contributed to the omnibus volume Bombay Talkies in 2013.
For a legally and socially ostracised people, is it better to be represented negatively or not at all? “Negative characters at least prompt a discussion,” says Kidwai. “Caricatures are not good, but if we wait for that perfect gay character to emerge, we’ll be waiting a long time. There’s a whole journey where lots of rubbish will be produced before a full-fledged gay character grows.”
Casting challenges are one reason for Hindi cinema’s LGBT caricatures. “Actors feel they can pass off caricatures as fun. But even smaller actors fear a serious gay role will spoil their image,” Bhandarkar explains.
“This just shows how little India has moved because even when I did BOMgAY, no actor was willing to take that part,” says actor Rahul Bose. BOMgAY is Riyad Vinci Wadia and Jangu Sethna’s 1996 short feature, believed to be India’s first gay film. More recently, Bose played a gay man going to extreme lengths to stay closeted in Onir’s I Am (2011).
Despite her background as a top commercial star, Juhi Chawla was liberal enough to play a gay man’s sister in My Brother Nikhil, and to co-produce I Am. Yet she frankly admits she’d hesitate to play a lesbian woman. “I’m a little shy of any kind of intimacy on screen,” she explains. Would she refuse even if there were no sex scene? “Perhaps. Because I cannot imagine having a relationship with a woman. It’s not natural for me. I don’t say it’s not natural for others. I accept it of others. I may say no because I can’t understand it and don’t know how to portray it.”
So when will mainstream Hindi cinema deliver leading and supporting LGBT characters played by major stars in commercial films, in which their gender and sexual orientation are not a source of jokes or the fulcrum of the plot? Not anytime soon, going by this assessment from actor Imran Khan, who starred in a satirical video in 2013 lampooning homophobia in India: “Hollywood is so open that in a film like Mean Girls, targeted at children, they have a gay character among the leads and they show that you should respect this person. Archie Comics recently introduced a gay character. If Tinkle were to introduce a gay protagonist, India would come to a standstill, politicians would shout that we are corrupting our youth, newsstands carrying it would be burnt down, the writer and artists would be killed. In the West, if a gay character is stereotyped, it is remarkable and people point fingers. For us, it’s remarkable if a gay character is treated fairly.”
This is not to say Hollywood does not stereotype. It does. But it offers sensitivity too, far more than Hindi cinema. Clearly then, a Brokeback Mountain from Mumbai, or a big-budget My Brother Nikhil produced by a moneyed studio, could be a while in coming. Small beginnings, though, have already been made.