From homophobic characters to problematic dialogues that blatantly mock the queer community — a lot of mainstream Bollywood movies have, over the years, normalized ridiculing the LGBTQ+ sentiments through their unrealistic scripts on screen. However, films like director Deepa Mehta's Fire and Manoj Bajpai-starrer Aligarh were ahead of their time in honestly reflecting upon the love and hardships of the queer community even before the decriminalisation of Article 377 in India.
Here's a look at 6 Bollywood films that did not disappoint the LGBTQ+ community:
1. Fire (1996)
Filmmaker Deepa Mehta's Fire, which is roughly based on Ismat Chughtai's Lihaaf (The Quilt), is one of Bollywood's first few films that sincerely approaches the subject of homosexuality in Indian cinema. The film follows the journey of two young women, Radha and Sita, played by Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi, respectively, in developing intimacy and love for each other against the patriarchal constraints of their traditional families.
Both Sita and Radha’s characters are unhappy with their married lives. Radha, who is unable to conceive, is restricted to catering to the needs of her husband Ashok and performing all the household chores. Sita, on the other hand, has to live with the bitter reality of her husband having an extramarital affair. In order to fill the void of their desolate love lives, the two gradually form a bond with one another which turns out to be a means for them to experience the love that they were unable to receive from their husbands.
Without any bias or exaggeration, the film beautifully explores the intimacy between two women who are passionately in love with each other. The romantic drama not only aptly portrays queer love, but also sends across a strong message for women who are often treated as mere objects of procreation for men in the Indian society.
2. My Brother…Nikhil (2005)
Onir’s debut film My Brother…Nikhil dwells into the topic of HIV AIDS and homosexuality in the Indian society. Set in Goa, the film is based on the true story of late AIDS activist Dominic D’Souza, also known as Goa’s ‘Patient Zero’. The sports drama revolves around the story of Nikhil Kapoor (played by Sanjay Suri), a beloved and talented state swimming champion from Goa who soon loses his popularity among his friends and peers after he is tested positive with HIV AIDS. His homophobic friends and coworkers begin to associate his sexual orientation to his illness, believing that he contracted the virus while "sleeping around with other men". The only two people who stick by his side through these tough times turn out to be his sister Anu, and his partner Nigel, played by Juhi Chawla and Purab Kohli respectively.
Through Nikhil’s journey, the film brilliantly explores the underlying fear and bias of people towards HIV positive patients and also highlights the irrational mindset of the Indian society towards homosexuality — a romantic relationship between two men. The script beautifully reflects upon queer love, emphasising on the natural gaze of lovers regardless of their gender. The film still remains fresh as it successfully taps into the viewer’s emotions and also conveys a crucial message to the society at the same time.
3. Margarita with a Straw (2014)
Directed and written by Shonali Bose, this film is centered on a female lead we would not see in many mainstream Bollywood films. Margarita with a Straw follows the story of a differently-abled and bisexual teenager Laila, admirably played by Kalki Koechlin in the film. Laila, who is a Delhi University student, suffers from cerebral palsy since birth, and is confined to a wheelchair. But despite her condition, our protagonist loves fiercely — both men and a woman, living her life to the fullest.
Later in the film, when Laila moves to New York to pursue a course in Creative Writing at NYU, she meets her lady-love Khanum, played by Sayani Gupta, who happens to be a blind firebrand activist. The scenes are crafted in such a natural manner that they beautifully showcase the emotional and physical intimacy of a romance between two women without making it awkward on screen. The performances of the actors in this romantic drama is powerful enough to touch people’s heart and leave tears in their eyes. Bollywood needs more such realistic films that explore the LGBTQ+ community in such a simplistic and effortless manner.
4. Aligarh (2015)
Aligarh is inspired by the life of late Dr. Srinivas Ramchandra Siras, played by Manoj Bajpayee in the film, a professor at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), who was suspended from his job because of his sexual orientation. This Hansal Mehta directorial brilliantly talks about the homophobia that lies within the four-walls of the society which deeply affects the lives of scores of such individuals who belong to the LGBTQ+ community.
The 64-year-old professor is humiliated and ostracised by his colleagues at the university after a video of him having sex with a rickshaw puller is leaked out in a “sting operation” conducted by two reporters of a local TV station in Aligarh. Siras is not only fired from his job but is also told to vacate his place of stay within the next 7 days by the AMU. Rajkummar Rao, who brilliantly plays the character of Deepu, a local journalist in the film, helps Siras to come out of his plight and legally fight for justice — fight for his rights.
Nevertheless, a week after winning his legal battle in the court of justice, the 64-year-old Siras is found dead at his apartment with traces of poison in his blood, deeply affected by society's degradation of his character. While the film deals with a hard-hitting and sensitive topic, it does not fail in convincing the audience with the fact that being gay is not a crime, but being homophobic is.
5. Kapoor & Sons (2016)
Directed by Shakun Batra, the film is a multi-starrer family drama about a dysfunctional family and their underlying resentment for each other. Although it may appear to be just another mainstream Bollywood drama, but the film takes a step forward with the inclusion of a LGBTQ+ character in it. Fawad Khan, who plays the character of Rahul, the “beloved son” of the family, and a well-known novelist in London, comes out to his mother about his sexual orientation in the second half of the movie. Sunita, his mother, played remarkably by Ratna Pathak, reacts like any other Indian mother at first, and stops talking to her son after their conservation. Eventually, she accepts Rahul for who he is with a warm hug.
The film beautifully forms an emotional connect with the audience by simplistically touching upon the dynamics and relationships of most families. Rahul’s part may have been modest in the film, but its brilliant execution and timing leaves a strong impression on the viewers. Batra’s directorial effortlessly broadcasts the message of acceptance and love in the face of society's stigmatisation of homosexuality. The film also stars prominent actors like Rishi Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Sidharth Malhotra, and Rajat Kapoor.
6. Badhaai Do! (2022)
Not often do we see a Bollywood film in which both the male and female leads appear to be queer. But, filmmaker Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s Badhaai Do! is one among such films. This romantic comedy follows the journey of two queer people — Sumi played by Bhumi Pedhnekar, and Shardul played by Rajkumar Rao, who enter into a lavender marriage to please their parents and remain heterosexual in the eyes of the society.
As the film gradually progresses, both Sumi and Shardul find their respective love interests. But the real tension begins when both families learn about Sumi’s sexuality. The Badhaai Ho! sequel then, takes a sympathetic turn towards scenes where the protagonists gather the courage to come out to their families about their sexual orientation. The film seamlessly addresses the significance of an individual’s freedom to love beyond gender, while also exposing the conservative Indian society’s attitude towards those who do so, in a lighthearted manner.
For a long list of films that miserably fail in representing the queer community in the Indian cinema, Badhaai Ho! surely saves the show.