Coming out in Hindi Cinema: A look at the representation (and the lack of it) of LGBTQ+ in Bollywood
This is a guest post by one of our readers, Ram Sharma. The ideas and views expressed in the article are solely the writer's and CelluloidTales doesn't endorse these views.
Cinema has always been a strong force for change in this country. It drives public opinion and reflects the various shades of the society. Post-independence, filmmakers of Bombay were very much aware of the burden they carried on their shoulders. They looked at themselves not just as entertainers and artists but also as strong proponents of the idea of “A New India”.
Films in the 1950's and 60's covered stories of affluent, rich and poor farmers. The films those days, predominantly talked about women empowerment, celebrating laborers and vast diversity of the country. The 1957 Oscar nominated classic Mother India, celebrated the story of a single mother who raises two sons despite the evil pressures from society. Who can forget the blockbusters like Amar Akbar Anthony, a tale of 3 brothers raised as Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Mehmood’s Hum Kale hain to kya hua dilwale hain' talked about inherent racism in Indian society before it was cool to do so. But there was a community that was totally neglected from any mainstream references, the LGBTQ+ lot. All romances were between a male and a female. Maybe due to the Sec 377, which wasn’t made void yet, it would have amounted to promoting an illegal act or reintroducing the idea of queer identity on a nation marred by two centuries of Victorian morality was too bold.
But Indian filmmakers very well knew their responsibility, Queer identity found resemblance in Indian Cinema subtly and slowly. Praveen Babi was probably first A-list Queer icon of India. In the 1983 classic Razia Sultan, India witnessed its first lesbian kiss between her and Hema Malini. Parveen and Hema Malini recline on a luxurious boat in gay abandon, Hema Malini half-asleep, Parveen Babi gazing at her intensely, singing a lullaby.At one point, Hema Malini wakes up and they kiss. The kiss itself is hidden behind some feathers. This was the norm for any kind of kiss at that time. Feathers, flowers and dupattas were the preferred methods of keeping a lid on it. It was in a passing moment that many would have ignored but it was revolutionary.
Even many very heterosexual films like Sholay celebrated the spirit of two male friends bromancing on a single scooter. Even this was a rarity in those times. 80's and 90's saw a sudden surge in the number of queer characters on screen. Unfortunately, they were not in a positive light. Either they were irritating comic sidekicks whose femininity was ridiculed as a joke(Read Raja Hindustani) or they were portrayed as angry revenge-seekers (much like Akshay Kumar’s Laxmii). But the 90’s also saw emergence of Rekha and Sridevi the ultimate subtle Queer icons. Sridevi’s unconscious portrayal of the ‘conflict’ found resonance among the Queer community. It was probably the first of the very few attempts that Bollywood has ever made to portray angst, confusion and dilemma in an unbiased way. Her ‘Hawa Hawaai’ act was loud, brazen, but at no point was it obnoxious. Sridevi brought the flamboyant culture to every Indian's doorstep. In the 2014 anthology Bombay Velvet, Sakib Salim famously says, “All the 90s boys liked one of the 2 Bollywood divas - if they liked Madhuri, they were straight. If they liked Sridevi, chances are they were gay.” In her third last movie “English Vinglish” she admonishes her fellow batch-mates for making fun of their tutor who identified himself as gay. She very aptly said:
Love should be universal for all. Who the person loves shouldn’t be anyone’s concern. Love, after all, is the most beautiful expression and everyone must have access to it.
Liberalization of 90's also saw rise of woke upper middle class youth viewers who saw foreign shows and were open to the “not so conventional” notions of the society (I wont call homosexuality a western construct because I find it deeply rooted in Indian Culture and society). With that came, in 1996, Fire directed by Deepa Mehta. This was actually the first Indian film to feature a lesbian couple in Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. Best part about it was that it was never promoted as a lesbian love story. It got a normal release and was passed uncut by the then Censor Board of India (As surprising as it sounds, it’s true!). It ran to full houses for 3 weeks in 42 theaters across India, until it came into mainstream public eye-view. Several places screening was stopped, conservative organizations took strong offence to its screening anywhere. But Fire created the much needed spark. It promoted a dialogue on gay and lesbian rights in India.
But post that, most LGBTQ+ portrayals in films were unreal, based on massive generalization only hindering the LGBTQ+ cause. Gay boys were only shown as flamboyant, weak and effeminate characters hitting on every other boy on the street. This was far from the truth. Many gay males are gym going hunks, while other are intellectuals like Yuval Noah Farrari, or tech giants like Tim Cook. Their dismal portrayals and use as mere props continued in the early 2000s with few exceptions. My Brother Nikhil starring Juhi Chawla and Sanjay Suri is a rare cinematic masterpiece, something all art cinema lovers should watch. It educated people not just about AIDS awareness but also broke long held stereotypes. Sanjay Suri who plays Nikhil is a state level “macho” swimmer. The director Onir has much more to his credit, in his 2010 anthology film I Am, he introduces us to the dark life of gay people where they can't even trust similar people.
Today, with Netflix and Prime at our disposal, representation of queer community has greatly improved. They are no longer objectified and ridiculed. Amazon Prime’s Made in Heaven takes the lead by giving space to queer characters in its large ensemble cast. Arjun Mathur’s portrayal of Delhi based closted gay wedding planner earned him an International Emmy award nomination for 'Best Performance by an Actor'.
I won't be mentioning the likes of shows created by Johars and movies like Shubh Mangal Savdhan Zyaada, although they help in making uncommon the norm, they mostly play to stereotypes. Ekta Kapoor’s Romil and Jugal is a very sweet watch. However homophobic you might be, you cant cringe over that. His Story, now premiering on Zee5 is also refreshing and very emotional watch. It talks about a hetrosexual couple seeking a divorce as husband has discovered his true calling, impact of this on their children and tons of baggage that comes along “coming out”(It boasts a score of 9.8 on IMDb).
Movies are a reflection of the society we live in. A cinema that's not inclusive of LGBTQ+ people is not doing justice to its cause. They are very much part of our diverse society and playing very important roles in shaping 21st century. This Pride month, let's take a step back and recognize both their existence and contribution to our lives. If you are someone who doesn't know much about them, this is the perfect time to watch these movies and celebrate great and diverse cinema.
After all, Love is Love.