The (very late) awakening of the Indian woke
The monologue at the end of Call Me By Your Name by actor Michael Stuhlbarg is one of the most poignant scenes in the film. Michael’s character ‘casually’ has a heart to heart talk with his 17-year-old son about his alleged affair with another man. He says: ‘But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!’
Call Me By Your Name was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Actor for 21-year-old Timothée Chalamet. It won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It was one of the most critical and commercial successes of 2017. Sadly it also had the demeritorious distinction of not having a theatrical release in India due to its LGBTQIA+ theme. The studio decided not to release the film here.
I questioned why such a decision was taken. There were no objectionable scenes, no crudities. It was just a simple love story based on the book by André Aciman. I finally watched the film on Apple TV and was swept away by its story, cinematography, acting and soundtrack. It reminded me of the classic French song, Plaisir d’amour: “The joy of love is but a moment long, the pain of love endures the whole life long.”
In May the same year, a small LGBTQIA+ film, Love, Simon made waves in the US. It was a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy who establishes a connection with another boy on email. I looked forward to its release, certain it would not meet the same fate as Call Me By Your Name. To my dismay, this film too was not deemed appropriate for release in India. It won eight awards and 24 nominations, including a Humanitarian award and a Teen Choice award, but its theme of self-realisation, teenage angst and the struggle of growing up with or without sexual ambiguity was apparently too much for India.
Disturbed by this trend, I was transported to the year 1996, when Deepa Mehta’s film Fire met with protests so violent that it had to be banned. Sensitive portrayals by the brilliant Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das of two women abandoned by their husbands finding love and solace in each other didn’t go down well with our patriarchal society.
But that was 1996 and this was 2017. In two decades, nothing had changed. Art is a reflection of society and we were clearly not ready to embrace the diversity of humankind provided by the gods.
A surprising and much awaited silver lining came on September 6, 2018, when a five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court unanimously decriminalised part of the 158-year-old colonial law under section 377 of the IPC. Justice Indu Malhotra said same gender consensual sex “is not an aberration but a variation.”
There was so much jubilation after this landmark judgement that it seemed mindsets would be changed and there would be more freedom of expression in art and media.
In 2019, another Hollywood film garnered critical and commercial recognition. Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz led the cast for The Favourite, a film about the intimate relationship between a frail Queen Anne and her two ladies in waiting. The film earned 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture, and won Olivia Colman her first Oscar for best actress in a leading role. Altogether, it received 177 wins and 316 nominations for awards.
Despite the decriminalisation of section 377, the studio decided to not release it in India because of its LQBTQIA+ theme.
The 2019 Bollywood release Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga seemed promising, but did not manage to encourage conversations around itself. It also seemed to shy away from even moderately declaring and marketing itself as the first mainstream LGBTQIA+ film in India.
However, the Netflix drama Made In Heaven, directed by Zoya Akhtar, unapologetically had a gay character as the hero. He had an incredible character arc and just happened to be queer. Finally, it seems, filmmakers are looking at representing strong characters in Indian cinema, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Last month came Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan by one of India’s most talented actors, Ayushmann Khurrana. It remains to be seen whether the sexually fluid characters of this film will be accepted by its audience. Are we ready, or will we have to wait longer to hear these words on celluloid: ‘I’m just a boy, standing in front of a boy, wanting him to love him!’
Author bio: Sanjeev Kumar Bijli is the Joint Managing Director of PVR cinemas, and a much loved face on Delhi’s social scene
Also read: The André Aciman interview
From HT Brunch, March 1, 2020
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