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'Think Like a Girl': Why 'Dostana' Was Anything But LGBTQ+ 'Representation'

Plot: Two A-list Bollywood stars unapologetically mock LGBTQIA+ community and propagate every possible stereotype.

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Edited By :Tejas Harad

Scene: Neha (Priyanka Chopra) wants to impress her queer boss Murli (Boman Irani) aka 'M' in order to get a promotion. She invites him over for dinner and asks her flatmates Kunal (John Abraham) and Sam (Abhishek Bachchan), two straight dudes already 'pretending to be gay,' to woo him. After being seductively greeted by Sam, Kunal reluctantly shakes M's hand and then hides behind Neha, visibly scared of 'M.' To his relief, the doorbell rings and he insists on opening the door while walking away from 'M' from a distance, as if he's just met someone scary.

Stereotype: Be scared of a homosexual man because he is bound to be inappropriate with heterosexual men!

Plot: Two A-list Bollywood stars unapologetically mock LGBTQIA+ community and propagate every possible stereotype.

A scene from 'Dostana.'

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Cinemagoers in 2008 roared in laughter at this scene from Dharma Production's Dostana. The film, produced by Karan Johar and directed by Tarun Mansukhani, is often credited with bringing homosexuality to 'mainstream' Bollywood. It was even promoted as such.

As we kick off Pride Month, here's an honest appeal – let us never take pride in the fact that Dostana was a 'representation' of the LGBTQIA+ community on-screen. Rather, the truth is that it was filled with blatant homophobia, catered to all forms of stereotype, and was at best a mockery of the community.

Why Was the Film Problematic?

John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan were established to be two straight men right in the opening credits of the film as they tried to woo Shilpa Shetty with her 'Shut Up and Bounce' in Miami, Florida. Not a problem.

What happens next is that they need to 'pretend to be gay' to find themselves an apartment. And, thus, it starts. As the duo 'act gay' in scene after scene, every possible stereotypical view of homosexuality is exploited. Be it suddenly transforming into effeminate men, speaking in a singsong way, the sudden 'flipping' of hands in the air, and running across parks with roses in their mouths... The audience erupted into a riot.

First, being effeminate is not laughable. Nothing that they made John and Abhishek do while they were 'acting gay' is supposed to be laughable. Second, men being effeminate is not directly proportional to them being gay or vice versa.

However, the film-makers catered to the homophobia in a society that has always found characteristically effeminate men to be a source of humour, leading to the scenes and characters in Dostana being categorically penned to make the 'straight' audience laugh.

Here's the trouble – in this overtly toxic and heteronormative society that we live in, doing anything 'like a woman' is laughable. How else do you explain queer characters being introduced in cinema only for comic relief for years?

Think Veeru Krishnan's characters in Raja and Raja Hindustani. Or think Suresh Menon in Partner and Rishi Kapoor in Student of the Year – they are all characters penned for comic relief. But Dostana was an entire film made to cater to those comical stereotypes!

Plot: Two A-list Bollywood stars unapologetically mock LGBTQIA+ community and propagate every possible stereotype.

Rishi Kapoor in 'Student of the Year' and Veeru Krishnan in 'Raja Hindustani'.

(Photo: The Quint)

Fathom this: As John Abraham opens the door after walking away from Boman Irani in the aforementioned scene, he finds a gay immigration officer at the door who has arrived to do a background check of their application for residency as a homosexual couple. A few moments later, while wondering 'how to keep acting gay' in front of the immigration officer, Abhishek's character says: "Ladkiyon ki tarah socho Kunal, talk to him about his hair, his shoes. Think like a woman, feel like a man!"

Yeah, because that's all that gay men do – think like women and obsess over people's shoes and hair! Again, why is 'thinking like a woman' supposed to be a joke? But the audiences laughed.

Plot: Two A-list Bollywood stars unapologetically mock LGBTQIA+ community and propagate every possible stereotype.

The sexism is evident in other scenes as well. Abhishek's character, a nurse by profession in the film, is asked: "Oh, you're a nurse at a hospital! Do you wear short skirts, too? Hahaha! Hahaha!" And then, of course, they also joke about impotency, twice!

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Was the Film Balanced?: Debatable

To be fair, there were instances in the film that aimed at establishing normalcy around homosexuality. Priyanka's character made sure that she does not treat the two guys differently and goes on to become best friends with them. She even convinces Sam's mother played by Kirron Kher to accept her son for who he is.

After all their visible irritation over homosexuality, toxic masculinity, and manipulation of their best friend to sabotage her relationship with her boyfriend, Sam and Kunal finally realise that they messed up. Now, they don't want to lose Neha as a friend, so they come clean. They apologise – not for their blatant homophobia and sexism but because they 'broke her heart and manipulated her.'

Throughout the film, the two men are shown to be disgusted about something that defines the very existence of scores of people. There is no need to elaborate on the struggles that queer people around the world face at different levels. So, while they entertained the toxic society by reducing them to 'men who think like women,' the least the script could have incorporated was an apology from the two male protagonists.

If one was to objectively look at it, Dostana didn't really succeed in doing either of the two most important things it should have aimed to:

  • It failed to accurately represent the LGBTQIA+ community because it was riddled with stereotypes

  • It also failed to attempt to normalise queerness because at the end, the two homophobic men didn't really learn their lessons or apologise for being problematic

The kiss between John and Abhishek towards the end cannot be considered a "lesson" for the two, because homosexuality is way beyond two people of the same sex kissing each other.

Undoubtedly, the film was an actual representation of how stigmas and stereotypes work, but when two A-list Bollywood stars are mocking the reality of an entire community on the big screen without any apology whatsoever, the heteronormative society watching it doesn't learn any lessons either.

Five years before Dostana, Karan Johar made Kal Ho Naa Ho and the world was introduced to Kanta Ben, who went on to become the flagbearer of homophobia. Scores of queer people were mocked in schools and colleges while bullies hummed the popular 'Kanta Ben' background score from the film.

Imagine the trauma, the self-doubt, the insecurity, and the suffocation that scores of 'closeted' queers must have suffered while plots and films like these made the entire cinema halls laugh at who they really are.

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'But This Was 14 Years Ago, Times Were Different!': This Argument Is Weak

It was 2008! While Hollywood had already made Brokeback Mountain (2005) starring two of its biggest stars, Bollywood already had two very mature offerings with Fire (1998) and My Brother Nikhil (2005). However, neither were remotely as commercially successful as Dostana was.

Through the years, not just Dharma Productions, but also Bollywood has come a long way in terms of queer representation. Kalki Kochelin in Margarita With a Straw, Fawad Khan in Kapoor and Sons, Manoj Bajpayee in Aligarh, Sonam Kapoor in Ek Ladki ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga – these are just a few examples of how the 'mainstream' Bollywood stars have become more open to playing queer characters sensitively and sensibly on screen.

The OTT platforms are a whole new arena for scripts and characters around queer inclusivity.

It's a welcome change that Dostana is no longer the only benchmark for queer representation.

Contrary to how many would remark that such representations should be 'taken lightly,' it's high time the society realises it cannot joke about the aspects of people's lives that have historically and culturally been discriminated against.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Edited By :Tejas Harad
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