How does one address the landscape of queer cinema in a year when Indian cinema celebrates its 100 years? One cannot cover the entire spectrum of Indian cinema and I will focus on Hindi cinema as it is the most popular stream.
Should one start from the day Anupam Kher donned a pink suit and played the ‘gay’ baddie — the Pinku in the 1991 film Mast Kalandar? Or does one go further back to films like Sholay (1975) and look at the subtle homoerotic tone between Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra exemplified by a song celebrated by the queer community: ‘Yeh dosti/hum nahi todenge…’?
The gay man in Hindi cinema has been primarily represented as an overtly feminine and sexed-up man. There is nothing wrong in the feminine portrayal of the gay man but it becomes problematic when it becomes the only representation and a representation that is not respected and is constantly subjected to mockery.
The other so-called non-stereotype portrayal too is problematic. In Page Three (2005), the gay man betrays his close friend and ‘steals’ her boyfriend. The same story of the gay man being a home-breaker who cannot be trusted is repeated in Life in a Metro (2007). Then there is Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. (2007) where the gay man cheats on his wife, but after being discovered the couple decides that they would live in a marriage of convenience.
At this point one must draw a parallel to Bombay Talkies (2013). Once again the narrative of the gay man is that of a home-breaker. Queer characters do not necessarily have to be ‘good’ but the narrative remains the same over and over again. Having said that one cannot take away the fact that the biggest contribution of the film is that you see an actor, who is a macho icon (Randeep Hooda), kiss another man. It shakes up an audience and some of them will accept that ‘this too is normal’. That is precious more so because it is a widely seen film.
However, we should be cautious before perceiving that Bombay Talkies getting a wider release is a reflection of overall society becoming more open. The answer will lie when another non-studio film with queer content is made. Will it find the support system? Or will it be turned away by the film certification board with the excuse that two men looking at each other romantically cannot be shown on satellite television as it sends a wrong signal to children? I was refused a U/A certification till the entire sequence, long with the kiss between Rahul Bose and Arjun Mathur, was edited out of my film I AM (2011).
Today, queer content faces another kind of censorship. While the channels are busy blaming cinema for every possible malady in society, films that address serious discourse are not shown on satellite television. I AM has still not found a satellite release and I hope that Bombay Talkies finds one. Acceptance will come when you are given a window. So you can’t blame the industry for avoiding treading that route.
Men and women holding hands; sleeping at close proximity was and still is in certain sections of our society very common. Dostana (2008) makes that gesture be termed ‘gay’ and to be laughed at. This film primarily laughs at someone from the perspective of the ‘other’. What was a natural way of male bonding, which is not necessarily sexual, gets perceived as ‘being gay’. Have you ever seen a film where a man and a woman holding hands is considered to be funny?
However, there were two moments in Dostana that are significant. The mother at one point is willing to accept the character played by John Abraham as her son’s partner. I think showing acceptance by family is a great signal to give to a community that often lacks the courage to confide in their family. In 2005, my film My Brother Nikhil was the first mainstream Hindi film where the male protagonist was gay. The journey of the film was that of rejection and then final acceptance by the family. Another important moment in Dostana is after the two guys have kissed Priyanka Chopra who asks them, “Did it feel special?” The two look at each other and that speaks more than their silence.
In English Vinglish, the character played by Sridevi delivers a long monologue about gay people, “They are also human…. They also feel….”. Are we talking about some extraterrestrials?
Where did the lesbians disappear in our cinema? There were the temple sculptures and the next thing we have is Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996). The nation was outraged and theatres were attacked. Be it in the space of queer literature/cinema or movement, the lesbians have much less representation. Perhaps more so because to be a woman in this society is not easy and to be a lesbian subjects you to the possibility of much more violence and ridicule than you would as a gay man. The only other significant film that depicted a lesbian relationship is the Malayalam film Sancharam (2004).
There has been some work done in the short film space. Riyad Vinci Wadia’s Bombay Boys (1996) is regarded as one of the first gay-themed movies from India. Fearless and honest to the essence of being queer, this will always remain a landmark film. Film-makers like Sridhar Rangayan through features, shorts and documentaries have constantly tried to address queer issues. He is the founder festival director of KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, India’s biggest queer film festival, and responsible for bringing the festival from underground auditoriums to multiplexes.
Apart from Hindi cinema some important films with queer content have been made in Bengali spearheaded by the late Rituparno Ghosh (Chitrangada); Kaushik Ganguli (Just Another Love story); Sanjoy Nag (Memories of March), etc.
As a filmmaker who wants to deal with more queer content, I feel handicapped. I feel that the system is forcing me to censor my thoughts. As an artist who is queer, I hope I do not stop telling the stories…. because then I would stop discovering my identity as a human.
Onir is a film-maker
The views expressed by the author are personal
Barkha Dutt’s column Third Eye will appear on August 3