Straight Out of the Closet: Is Bollywood Finally Happy and Gay?
In 2003, as a first in mainstream Hindi cinema there was a comic gay skit between Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan in Kal Ho Naa Ho. I don't think any of us can forget the shock on Kantaben’s face when she saw the two of them sleeping on the same bed. From that we have come a long way, when you look at the depiction of the gay character in Kapoor & Sons (2016) played by Fawad Khan, coincidentally also a Dharma film.
But you haven't really seen a film or a series that explores the budding romance between two young teenagers. In Netflix’s Selection Day one gets the hint of it, very briefly though as the protagonist Manju begins to form a special equation with his classmate Javed- an elitist snob who makes life hell for him and his brother. Since the first season doesn’t complete the story, one doesn’t get to see the complete arc. But in the book Manju slowly realises that he is gay and begins to fantasise about Javed. Now if explored in the second season, this could be the first time we see a teenage boy’s tryst with his sexuality in an Indian series.
If this wasn’t good enough, in the trailer of the Sonam Kapoor starrer Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Asia Laga there is a suggestion that the protagonist is lesbian. In 1996, Deepa Mehta’s Fire was also about a lesbian couple but was met with massive protest and bans across the nation. But Fire was still considered to be ‘art house’, however, now you have a mainstream actor like Sonam headlining a film that is about a lesbian character.
A few years ago in Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya, there was a delicate romance between the characters of Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi. Bollywood pushed the envelope further in Kalki Koechlin’s Margarita With a Straw, where she plays Malini- a girl with cerebral palsy who discovers her sexuality in college and falls in love with a blind girl. There’s a poignant scene in the film where her mother asks her what she wants for her birthday, and Malini says, “I just want to have sex.”
The big change in the depiction of homosexual characters particularly that of men, is that the stereotypical image of an effeminate man strutting around in tight pants has been broken to a large extent. If you look at Saqib Saleem’s character in Karan Johar’s short film in Bombay Talkies, or even Fawad Khan’s character in Kapoor & Sons they're just like other men but are gay. That's a distinction Bollywood should have learnt years ago, but then again as a society we haven't, so why expect the movies to do so.
For years, gay characters have been included only as a comic point or to accentuate the stereotype and play to the gallery. For the latter, we have Madhur Bhandarkar to thank for creating a stock personality out of gay characters. They were devoid of anything but the fact they were ‘gay’ in films like Page 3 and Fashion. Transgender actor Bobby Darling was used as an accessory in films like Apna Sapna Money Money, Kyaa Kool Hain Hum and many others with exaggerated mannerisms mostly written to be ridiculed by other characters.
This narrative has also benefitted because of a director like Onir, who is openly gay and has made films like I am and My Brother Nikhil. Both films deal with the consequences of having homosexual relations, and the subsequent alienation. It’s no surprise that Onir is the only openly gay Bollywood director, and has also said that he feels punished for coming out of the closet. He told DNA:
In Dostana, you had Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham play acting as ‘gay men’, and there are moments where the makers resort to the stereotypical tropes particularly with Abhishek’s character. That “Ma Da Laadla...” song might make some cringe, but one must credit the film for bringing the topic of homosexuality out in the open. What also worked was the fact that Abhishek’s staunch Punjabi mother accepted his sexual preference, unaware of the fact that he was actually not gay.
That probably paved the way for Manoj Bajpayee’s heart breaking performance in Aligarh in 2016 as a gay professor, who is persecuted and forced to leave his job when people get to know of his sexuality. That is the reality for most people in the country, and it’s nice to see that being reflected on screen.
We often say that cinema is a reflection of reality and sometimes the other way round. So did mass culture accentuate our stigma for homosexuality or did it reflect our sentiments? Either way, what one hopes for now is for mainstream Bollywood to take the next step where sexuality of a character does not become a trait. He / she’s gay, so what? Till then we have Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga to look forward to.