A mountain moves
Hopes of Mumbai's gay community for an open society ride on a popular Hollywood film, writes Piyush Roy.india Updated: Mar 10, 2006 08:35 IST
Releasing in theatres today, Brokeback Mountain, the most talked-about film at this year’s Oscars, has aroused great expectations in the city’s gay community. After all, not often does one hear of a film about homosexuality riding on the crest of such media hype and critical praise.
“Everybody in the city’s gay community is eagerly awaiting the release of Brokeback and most plan to watch it in the first weekend; they are scared that it might be banned soon,” says Aneesh*, a founder-member of the Gaybombay Association. “If you see the film’s ads in the newspapers, names of the theatres where it will be screened have appeared only two days before its release, unlike other films, which are heavily advertised with theatre listings often two weeks in advance.” The buzz is so great, says Aneesh, that many gay people have asked friends coming from abroad to get pirated copies.
However, Mahesh Dattani, director of the critically acclaimed Mango Souffle (2002), dealing with not-so-straight preferences of its lead characters, is not optimistic about the film’s box-office fate. He points to the consistently lukewarm response to films dealing with alternate sexuality — ranging from the highly controversial Fire to the well-received My Brother Nikhil. “The Indian audience has an aversion to different stories, so it’s really too much to expect that they would appreciate stories with homosexual undertones. Even within the multiplex crowd, the appeal for such films is very niche,” observes Dattani.
In agreement with Dattani is actor-director Deven Bhojani, who played one of Indian television’s first gay characters — Petha in the Nineties’ Zee TV series Tara. “Indian cinema and television are not fully prepared to tackle the sensitivities involving homosexual characters,” says Bhojani. “Bollywood has propagated pansy-like stereotypes for gay men and the box-office failure of welcome exceptions like My Brother Nikhil only reaffirms that the Indian majority is not ready to receive these films without embarrassment.”
Recent Hindi films have shown gays either as the butt of all jokes (Bobby Darling in Kya Kool Hai Hum and Style) or as disturbed, aggressive people (Isha Koppikar in Girlfriend or Mita Vashisht in Ghaav).
Onir, the director of My Brother Nikhil, is quite unsparing in his criticism of the Indian film industry’s double standard.
“In spite of politically correct noises,” says Onir, “our film fraternity is not at all gay-friendly. It’s ironical that in spite of all the critical praise, neither my film nor the stellar performances of Sanjay Suri or Purab Kohli got nominations at any of the Indian awards this year.”
“The industry is homophobic and insecure about its own sexuality half the time,” says the director, who feels audiences may be more comfortable with Brokeback as the film is set in distant America.
Dattani feels Brokeback’s loss in the race for Best Picture was due to the “inherent homophobia” among Academy Award voters. “Earlier, Oliver Stone’s Alexander, too… had failed at the box-office for portraying the war hero as a bisexual man, which, though historically true, wasn’t palatable for the so-called liberal Western audience.”
Members of the gay community, however, prefer to look at the brighter side. “There is positive visibility for gay characters in Indian cinema today, which was unthinkable a decade ago. Actors and celebrities today don’t mind being termed gay icons and subtle references are cropping up in mainstream Hindi films, like some scenes involving Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan in Kal Ho Na Ho,” observes Aneesh.
“Attitudes are changing,” agrees Dattani, “but it’s yet to be seen whether the audience is open to such themes.” Onir finds hope in the high DVD sales of My Brother Nikhil, an indication that Indian viewers are more accommodating now, and “the fact that the film got a theatrical release in a country that still penalises homosexuality under Article 377”.
*Name changed on request