What Dostana Meant For an India Where Homosexuality Was Still a Crime


What Dostana Meant For an India Where Homosexuality Was Still a Crime

Illustration: Arati Gujar

It’s been a whole decade since the rainbow-hued glory of Tarun Mansukhani’s Dostana graced our screens – and for once, it doesn’t feel like Bollywood’s biggest almost-gay blockbuster released just yesterday.

On one hand, it’s difficult to deny Dostana’s status as an era-defining classic. Like any noughties’ film worth its salt, it featured bright, beachy locations, all the better to show off a trio of bronzed, six-packed leads (okay, two bronzed, six-packed leads and Abhishek Bachchan). It has the candy-coloured bubbliness of a tropical cocktail, and the requisite appearance of Kirron Kher as Jr Bachchan’s long-suffering Punjabi mom who is unable to get with the times.

But ten years later, in our (hopefully more) enlightened post-Section 377 age, it’s finally okay to be gay, and Dostana can feel hopelessly outdated, for the film goes out of its way to avoid any suggestion of an authentic LGBT story.

After all, the film’s main conceit is that two guys in Miami, Kunal (John Abraham) and Sam (Abhishek Bachchan) are so desperate to rent a flat owned by the gorgeous Neha (Priyanka Chopra), that they pretend to be gay. Of course, Kunal and Sam promptly fall in love with Neha, complicating their charade further. Besides lying to Neha, they sabotage her job and her relationships with other men in their misguided pursuit of her – another toxic Bollywood trope that has aged poorly in this era of #MeToo. She, in turn, tries to get them to flirt with her gay boss (Boman Irani), whose character forgoes any nuance in favour of tired stereotypes. Following roughly two cinematic hours of this shitty behaviour, Kunal and Sam are only able to win back Neha’s friendship by a ritual public humiliation, doing the worst thing any heterosexual man can think of: kissing another man.

Looking back, Dostana’s attitude towards the LGBT community seems hardly better than that one uncle who insists on referring to them as “the gays”. The male leads – Kunal in particular – are perpetually in a state of hetero anxiety, terrified that they might be perceived as actual gays. They casually equate “acting gay” with “acting like girls,” and balk at the prospect of simple interactions with homosexual men.

And yet, was Dostana’s regressive depiction so far off from the reality of male insecurity in India? Despite its glaring imperfections, the film’s release mere months before the landmark Delhi High Court judgment that read down Section 377 (a victory that would later be overturned by the Supreme Court in 2013) played a role in drawing the attention of a nation oblivious to the queer community and its struggles.

Despite the obvious flaws of the overarching narrative, both Abraham and Bachchan, as actors, display none of the film’s anxiety over sexuality.

With Dostana, producer Karan Johar, costume designers Manish Malhotra and Aki Narula, went on to define both the fashion sensibilities of the decade, and the mantra of the LGBT community: sexy, fabulous, and deeply individual.

Despite being very much an item song, “Desi Girl”, with its instantly clockable silver sari, was not designed solely for straight male moviegoers. Instead, it was a joyful celebration of Indian womanhood. And then there was the equal-opportunity thirst trap: an impossibly buff John Abraham, emerging godlike from the sea in minuscule yellow trunks. Similarly, Abhishek Bachchan’s floral shirt-and-scarf combo felt true to his character, serving as a symbol of self-expression that went beyond Bollywood’s usual machismo.

Despite the obvious flaws of the overarching narrative, both Abraham and Bachchan, as actors, display none of the film’s anxiety over sexuality. Instead, they slip comfortably into homoerotic scenes. Even Kirron Kher’s character, the most obvious representative of society’s homophobia, exists only to be talked into acceptance by Neha.

In a country where, only a decade prior, Deepa Mehta’s Fire, about a lesbian romance within a middle-class joint family, was rioted out of theatres, perhaps Dostana was the baby step we needed. With its theme of LGBT acceptance and its nods to gay culture that only those in the know would appreciate, even 12 years on, Dostana is one of the few Bollywood films that’s not just for “the straights”. Yes, it hasn’t aged well – but have you tried watching Student of the Year?