The representation of LGBTQ+ community in Bollywood films has left so much to be desired. While there have been many great strides made in this area over the past decades, regressive portrayal, bordering on homophobia and transphobia have dragged the industry back by steps, for every step taken in the right direction. So while the LGBTQ+ individuals felt seen in Riyad Wadia’s BomGay, Mahesh Dattani’s Mango Souffle, and Sridhar Rangayan’s Gulabi Aaina, commercial films like Dostana, Humshakals, Mastizade and Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya spoofed and distorted the image of “gay” men as queer people kept struggling with acceptance. Things seem to be changing, very slowly now.
For over a century, voices that did not quite ‘fit in,’ felt rooted to their spot – or nipped in the bud due to Section 377 (a British era penal code that criminalised all sexual acts “against the order of nature”) which was put into effect back in 1838. It prompted the “outliers” to want to flee and hide, their voices getting reduced to whispers. When a brave voice dared to challenge the discourse around same-sex love it was met with fierce opposition. For instance, when the 1998 film Fire, directed by Deepa Mehta and starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, depicted a same-sex relationship certain organisations staged protests, forcing cinemas to stop screening the movie.
“Although we have certain queer writers in Bollywood, for actors to come out as queer and then to even get proper roles in films is to expect a lot right now,” says Sharanya. Coming out as queer when she was 18 years old, Sharanya opines that the unacceptable yet normalised tropes include the “cishet man” saving the “queer woman.” They further add, “Queer people have lives outside their queer struggle and when we ask for representation, it does not necessarily mean only show our struggles.”
On September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court delivered a final judgement on Section 377, stating that the “LGBT” Community has the same rights as any ordinary citizen. Criminalising “gay sex” is irrational and indefensible, observed the then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra.
Hindi films on LGBTQ+ community:
Winds of change slowly begin to breeze through Bollywood. The most recent one being Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar’s Badhaai Do that focussed on lavender marriages. “We are lucky to be living in this day and age, and despite everything, I have hope,” says a 25-year-old Delhi-based queer journalist on the condition of anonymity. However, for the 25-year-old, there is a rampant misrepresentation of queer voices in mainstream Bollywood even now, especially in the space of comedy. “Even if there is an actual umbrella term for gay people in the film, they are either heartbroken or just an object of ridicule,” she says. Movies like Dostana mislead society and reinforce the idea that “gayness” could be a very convenient disguise for anyone “thirsting” for a woman, hence totally undermining the essence of sexuality, opines Sharanya.
Who can forget Suresh Menon playing a 24/7 “horny gay” man who gets humiliated and jested about by the whole set of characters in the 2007 film Partner. And then there was Sulbha Arya’s dramatic distress on discovering Shah Rukh Khan’s Aman and Saif Ali Khan’s Rohit in a “compromising position” for the sake of comic relief.
Suggested Reading: Building a safe space for LGBTQ relationships in India
“Indian filmmakers need to ensure that there is nothing which can be humorous to heterosexual and cisgender people,” says Ujjwal Tiwary. Belonging to the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, class of 2022, Ujjwal served as the governor of Ambar, IIT Kharagpur’s LGBTQ+ support group and ally resource. Movies which are meant to educate the masses must address the multiple triggering issues originating from society and the family that the LGBTQ+ community has to deal with. Even a movie which depicts a queer person’s subjugation to societal triggers, including harassment, must know the audience it is catering to and flag the potential triggers, Ujjwal opines.
Despite everything, however, the community does have hope. Geeli Pucchi, a short film part of the anthology Ajeeb Daastaans, told the story of a queer Dalit woman who tries to survive in a casteist and patriarchal world. This Neeraj Ghaywan film showcased a rare narrative about a woman who was doubly marginalised, due to her sexual orientation and caste.
Yet, the strides made by these recent projects leave a lot more to be desired as it is cishet actors who are roped in to play characters from the LGBTQ+ spectrum. “OTT has impacted the Hindi cinema but a lot needs to be done. There is a lack of intersectionality of caste and class which needs to be dealt with. We need to talk about disability about queerness,” says Divyansh Bhatt. An MPhil scholar at the Department of English, University of Delhi, Divyansh likes reading fiction and exploring the streets in Delhi. “Film festivals should be pan-India and not just restricted to the metropolis. There is rarely any kind of discussion in villages and cinema is the most powerful of all mediums in instigating change,” he says.
One hopes that cinema finds a way to take voices full of pride to every nook and corner of the country and films stop taking those two steps backwards, with every powerful and important film on the queer community.