Has the Famously Homophobic Bollywood Really Changed in Post Sec-377 India?

Bollywood

Has the Famously Homophobic Bollywood Really Changed in Post Sec-377 India?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

B

ollywood has the queerest relationship with the LGBTQIA+ community. In February, when actors Sonam Kapoor and Anil Kapoor were doling out press interviews for Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, primed to be the first mainstream Hindi film with a lesbian lead, they refused to address queries about the same-sex love depicted in the movie. Their good intentions stank of doublespeak, given that it was a chance for the filmmakers to be the torchbearer of a post 377-world.  

Instead, throughout the film’s promotional lifespan, its actors chose to deflect from acknowledging its lesbian leanings, presumably for the fear of alienating the heterosexual audience at large. To me, it felt like a poorly thought-out publicity campaign that neither transformed the movie into a blockbuster nor managed to be a vehicle that vocalised the prevalence of a thriving and surviving LGBTQIA+ community in the country. In fact, it reminded me of Prem Kapoor’s Badnaam Basti, that featured a love triangle between two men and a woman, which the filmmakers were forced to tiptoe around for fear of censure. The only difference was that the year was 1971.

ek_ladki_ko_dekha_toh

Yet it’d still be remiss to not champion Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga as a film that attempted to stay from convention by having a lesbian love story at the heart of its proceedings.

Vinod Chopra Films

Yet it’d still be remiss to not champion Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga as a film that attempted to stay from convention by having a lesbian love story at the heart of its proceedings. It’s a stark contrast from Karan Razdan’s Girlfriend (2004), a queerbashing film where Isha Koppikar played Tanya, a headstrong butch who is obsessed with her friend Sapna (Amrita Arora) and takes to stalking her like the average Indian incel bloke. Eventually, when Sapna doesn’t reciprocate her feelings, Tanya goes on a violent bloodthirsty spree. The movie essentially demonised the lesbian with the characteristic ticks of a psychotic person – it was loud, bizarre, and worst of all, encouraged homophobia

In Girlfriend, Tanya’s depiction as a short-haired lesbian who rides a bike is itself representative of the erronous shorthand that Hindi cinema often employs to identify the queer. In fact, mainstream Bollywood’s reading of gay people has always been limited to seeing them as effeminate people who are perpetually horny. Looking for love, inclusion, and acceptance is rarely allowed to be their primary concern. The rare exceptions (Bombay Boys, My Brother Nikhil, Loev) that try to break this stereotype are usually low-budget films made by independent filmmakers that find a limited audience, unable to transmute their cachet to effect awareness in the industry. 

In fact, mainstream Bollywood’s reading of gay people has always been limited to seeing them as effeminate people who are perpetually horny.

The mainstream films on the other hand, generously employ stereotypes while representing the queer, shaping a misunderstood perception of them. In fact, Bollywood’s blighted sense of humour that doesn’t leave an opportunity to milk homosexuality for punchlines is best evidenced in two of the biggest hits of the noughties. Both Dostana and Kal Ho Na Ho take to exploiting homosexuality. In the former, Kantaben’s (Sulbha Arya) shivering food tray at the sight of two men in an embrace can be read as a reinforcement of the general Indian disapproval toward the queer. Dostana, a film where two men pretend to be gay to become roommates with a girl, goes a step further. In it, Rani Kapoor (Kirron Kher) embodies a superstitious Indian mother who assumes that homosexuality isn’t an orientation, but just an evil phase that can be warded off with prayers.

In that sense, Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons marked a beginning of sorts, embodying the possibility of a mainstream film to retain its commercial sensibilities – elaborate song and dance routines, a love triangle, and a gentle, but difficult sibling relationship – while being tender to its queer sub-plot. This film, along with Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, that was based on the real-life story of a professor struggling for inclusivity, played an integral role in demanding for a revision of the type. Suddenly, gone was the caricature and in was the normalisation of the queer voice. The very existence of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is in fact cut from the same cloth.

dostana

In Dostana, Rani Kapoor (Kirron Kher) embodies a superstitious Indian mother who assumes that homosexuality isn’t an orientation, but just an evil phase that can be warded off with prayers.

Dharma Productions

It’s been a year since the landmark Supreme Court judgement that decriminalised homosexuality. In this post-Section 377 world, Bollywood has evidently taken major leaps: Film producers, screenwriters, and actors have begun to actively invest in, and advocate queer characters. There is a lesser chance of the queer community being straitjacketed into black-and-white stereotypes, given that pandering is being replaced with pushing the boundaries. In the last year, the industry has envisioned a web series – Made in Heaven – starring an openly gay protagonist, whose concerns spill beyond his love life as well as one, that afforded a room to a transgender character.

Much of it also stems from the fact that straight men aren’t the only ones who are calling the shots any longer, opening up space for not just diversity, but also for the queer comnunity to bring their lived-in perspective to the table. In most production houses, it has now become mandatory to consult a queer person if the script involves queer lives. Take me for instance. I was recently brought in as a consultant for a  film script when the production team felt that the straight men writing a story about queer lives lacked insight. Producers have shown interest in adapting my book for a web series. Film directors are engaging with me to develop scripts involving the queer community. There’s no better evidence than this year’s slate of movies, which include Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan 2 and Dostana 2, whose plots centre around homosexuality. The token gay character is finally being given a plot.

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