From Dostana to Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan: How Bollywood’s Queer Stories Have Evolved

Bollywood

From Dostana to Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan: How Bollywood’s Queer Stories Have Evolved

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

Back in 1998, when Deepa Mehta’s Fire, the first Hindi film to feature a lesbian relationship, was released, it was withdrawn from Indian theatres, re-released, and faced violent protests – posters were burnt, and theatres were vandalised by angry Hindu activists. Two decades later, Hitesh Kewalya’s Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan, the first mainstream Bollywood gay rom-com, earned over ₹30 crore in its opening weekend, its box-office fate accelerated by the fact that an A-list actor starred as one of the gay leads. In the space between these two movies, lies evidence of the distance traversed not only by the Hindi film industry but also by Indian society, now much more tolerant to acknowledging queer stories instead of othering or caricaturising them.

That Bollywood has always been risk-averse is no secret. But its reluctance to make space for queer naratives within mainstream cinema, also reflects a tendency to resist change. In the past, filmmakers have in some way or the other, sneaked in a dash of homosexuality in their plots – stretching the boundaries of what would be accepted by Indian audiences as much as they could. Yet their priority was always box-office returns: How much a film could openly declare its queerness hinged a lot on how much it could get away with, without alienating its audiences or its financial fate. 

Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan in that sense, is the Hindi film industry displaying pluck at its finest. It is as open as a film on same-sex love can be. Set in 2018 Allahabad, the film, written by Kewalya himself, doesn’t beat around the bush with either its vocabulary or its imagery. It imagines a post-377 India where two men taking a bike ride in the night mirrors the romantic longing of any other couple; a country where the terms “gay”, “homophobia” and even “homosexuality” are a part of lexicon. Moreover, it makes the sexuality of its leads clear from the opening sequence and is ingenious enough to employ the language of a family-friendly film. That is an achievement, considering queer cinema in Bollywood is often bracketed as a separate genre. Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan demands to be judged by the fact that it appeals to the set of people who make up the largest possible cinema-going audience in the country: Indian families.

A film like this couldn’t have been conjured out of thin air. There are several underseen and underappreciated films that had to walk so that Ayushmanna Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar could run (and catch a Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge-inspired train). Even as recently as 2016, no mainstream Hindi actor was willing to play a gay protagonist in Shakun Batra’s Kapoor and Sons, a film where homosexuality was refreshingly incidental to the film’s plot. Before Pakistani heartthrob Fawad Khan stepped in to play Rahul Kapoor, a character that marked a turning point in Hindi cinema’s depiction of gay men, six actors had turned down the role, presumably fearing the implications of playing a homosexual hero. In the film, Khan’s Rahul Kapoor wasn’t defined by his sexuality, neither was his personality informed by it. For much of Kapoor and Sons, the film primes him as the ideal man, one whom girls crush on, and who is devoid of any cliched identifiers of homosexuality. 

It’s an even rarer feat, given that the film was produced by Karan Johar’s Dharma movies, a production house notorious for drawing out caricatures of homosexual men, instead of depicting them as living, breathing characters. Both Student of the Year (2014) and Dostana (2009) mainstreamed the idea of gay men as punchlines. In a recent interview, Onir, who is possibly the industry’s only openly gay director, claimed that Dostana did more harm than good to Hindi cinema’s depiction of homosexuality, “It made a mockery of gay people. The word became a slur, as people would tell people, dostana mat kar yaar.” Despite its deserved criticism, it’d be remiss to not acknowledge that these two films, by virtue of being big-budget, star-studded movies, did in fact bring conversations on homosexuality to the living room. In an industry only too comfortable to continue talking about homosexuality in hushed whispers, even something that made audiences confront the idea of homosexuality, was a step forward.

Even as recently as 2016, no mainstream Hindi actor was willing to play a gay protagonist in Shakun Batra’s Kapoor and Sons.

But, the real shoulders that were dedicated to carrying the burden of normalising the idea of a queer universe, much before it was even a sub-genre, were the indie films made on shoestring budgets and tackling difficult questions. In 2005, Onir’s My Brother… Nikhil, was the first Hindi film to feature two men in love, although they didn’t get to have a happy-ever-after in the same vein as the leads of Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan. Legend is that although the film was based on a true story, Onir had to put a disclaimer that claimed that the events in the film were fictional to placate the country’s Censor Board. Onir’s I am (2010), an anthology of four stories, also comprised a short about the persecution that gay men routinely faced before Section 377 was decriminalised. 

Five years later, Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh (2015), a biopic on the life of late gay professor Ramchandra Siras, became a landmark movie for posing the same questions about the injustice of a law like Section 377. That it encapsulated the intolerance that a country reserved for its own people, discriminating them solely based on who they chose to love, was as frightening as it was revealing. The same year saw Shonali Bose’s Margarita With a Straw, which was headlined by a gay and disabled female lead, and brought a completely different perspective to Hindi cinema – that of queer coming-of-age. On the other hand, Sudhanshu Saria’s Loev, an indie movie limited to film-festival runs, unpacked the complex web of power heirarchies that exist among gay men.

But if there’s one film that felt as thrilling as watching Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan feels in 2020, it was Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya (2014). A black comedy that borrowed its third act from Ismat Chugtai’s seminal short story “Lihaaf”, it revolved around a lesbian romance while operating in a masculine universe of a UP “Western”. Even though the relationship between Begum and Muniya (Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi) is only alluded to and never quite stated, homosexuality forms a fair bit of the film’s central narrative. Recently, Chaubey revealed that getting the Censor Board to pass the film didn’t pose a problem. “Either they didn’t get that Begum and Muniya were lesbians or they let it pass,” he added. 

Six years later, the very fact that there remains no question behind the Censor Board passing Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan, a film that questions our latent and obvious homophobia, and no unnecessary cuts, is indicative of Hindi cinema’s coming-of-age.

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