Everyone has their own take on homosexuality. Some treat it as a lifestyle choice, which every individual has a right to make for himself or herself. Some regard it as an illness that can be ‘cured’ by a judicious administration of therapy combined with a heavy dose of religious dogma. Some see it as a sin against God and nature, an abomination that must be condemned if not punished.
There are those who struggle to come to terms with their own homosexuality, tormented with the thought of being outside the mainstream. Some of them live in denial, others in soul-destroying secrecy. And then, there are others who are glad to be gay, coming out to their friends and families with the minimum of fuss.
When it comes to homosexuality, there is no one way in which people respond to it. The only exception, of course, is our venerable film industry. As far as Bollywood is concerned, there seems to be only one valid response to homosexuality: laughter.
Oh yes, if you watch our films, being gay is an absolute hoot. It’s the kind of thing that just cracks you up. It is an invitation to mirth, an excuse for a bit of a chortle.
If you see how homosexuals are portrayed in Hindi movies, it rapidly becomes clear that Bollywood sees gayness as some sort of running gag which has been set up entirely for the benefit of its comedy writers – such as they are – so that they can milk it for cheap laughs in any situation.
When I was much younger and Hindi cinema had yet to evolve into its current slick, urbanised avatar, gay characters were not really part of the scenery. It is another matter, of course, that the kind of close friendships portrayed between the hero and his best mate had fairly serious homo-erotic overtones (I mean, honestly, why else were they always vying for the ‘honour’ of dumping the heroine so that the other guy could get her? The standard dialogue of those times was: “No woman can ever come between our friendship.” Yeah, right!)
Then came a brief period when drag queens became part of the Hindi moviescape. They would be given bit parts, so that they could mince their way through a few scenes and raise a few guffaws along the way. Bobby Darling became a particular favourite at this time, with producers treating him almost as a lucky mascot.
And then came the Kantaben moment of Hindi cinema. I’m sure you remember the capers of Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan in Kal Ho Na Ho. The two men were always being discovered in ‘compromising’ positions by their increasingly scandalised maid, the aforementioned Kantaben.
Of course, there was no question of Shah Rukh and Saif being gay – perish the thought. So wasn’t it just hilarious that they were forever being caught in naughty positions by that poor woman? Oh yes, how we roared with laughter!
After that, the laughs just kept on coming Shah Rukh and Saif reprised their ‘gay’ roles on stage while hosting the Filmfare awards. This time they went even further. Re-enacting a scene from the movie, Shah Rukh stage-whispered to Saif, “Mujhe tumhare saath sona hai.” Cue: hysterical laughter from the audience.
Imagine, a hero wanting to sleep with another hero? I mean, honestly, how funny is that? Uproarious, right? Just in case you didn’t get the joke, along came Dostana. Here Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham are two friends who pretend to be gay while vying for the attentions of Priyanka Chopra. Needless to say, the gay angle is the source of much puerile humour. And now much the same jokes are being recycled at such film award functions as IIFA.
Humour may well be a way to tear down people’s defences, a disarming device that helps in tackling difficult issues. But once it becomes a default position whenever you are confronted with homosexuality, well, then it begins to verge on the offensive. I mean, what is so funny about being gay that we should dissolve into giggles at the thought of Shah Rukh and Saif in bed together, or of John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan fancying one another?
Perhaps it is time that someone informed the film fraternity that homosexuality is not some sort of cosmic joke, which exists only so that they can raise some cheap laughs. It is a lifestyle choice of many people, which is often accompanied by much angst, confusion, embarrassment and even fear.
Those who fail to come to terms with their sexual orientation end up leading sad, unfulfilled lives. Those who are forced into falling in with the heterosexual mores of our society – that is, marrying and having children – often become depressed, even suicidal.
No, it’s not such a laugh, is it?
Surely there are enough gay people in the Hindi film industry – and they know who they are even if they are still firmly in the closet – who have an understanding of what it is to be homosexual in a closed society like India? And yet, there isn’t a single convincing, sensitive or even compassionate study of the gay lifestyle that has emerged out of Hindi cinema.
If you ask me, that is what is truly funny – if only because it is such a sad commentary on Bollywood.