Gone are the days of flamboyant and suggestive gay men, sidekick tomboys often ignored by lead characters, and the formulaic cross-dressers stuck in awkward situations. Comic relief in mainstream cinema often came at the cost of the community.
Character sketches are now undertaken seriously – sometimes intellectually – such as in Neeraj Ghayawan’s directed Geeli Pucchi, the third instalment of the anthology Ajeeb Daastaans, where the lives of two queer characters are explored in all seriousness.
Bharti Mondal, a Dalit woman played by Konkona Sen Sharma, sparks chemistry with Priya, a Brahmin, played by Aditi Rao Hydari, and what follows is a realistic portrayal of caste, patriarchy and sexuality.
Movies like Geeli Pucchi give a new kind of hope for honest queer representation in mainstream cinema. A change can be seen on the horizon – however, a more sensitive touch is still needed while dealing with such themes.
Change for the better
“It feels good when you see LGBTQIA+ stories getting the attention they deserve, especially from the middle class,” says Vidur Sethi, a queer actor who is all set to start his Bollywood journey with a film in the genre. “However, in some of these movies, the characters shown are mostly irrelevant, which one cannot relate with. Characters are portrayed in a very bad light — overly dressed, highly stereotyped and desperate to have some physical intimacy for no reason. Showing these stories with the right nuances will create a better impact”, he adds.
Sethi will be starting his Bollywood journey with Pine Cone, directed by filmmaker Onir, where he will play the character of a gay man. He may perhaps be the first queer person to play a lead role. This comes after a raging debate around the casting of heterosexual people for queer roles that was sparked by Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi, where cis man Vijay Raaz played the role of Raziabai, a transwoman.
Sethi believes that queer actors can add to the strength of the character they are playing because of their personal involvement. “Their experiences, pain and anxiety will be presented in a way that has never been seen before. And I would like to see more queer actors coming up, especially from minority communities, to just see queer bodies having more representation, which might create a subtle shift. It’s going to take years, and we should be hopeful,” says the actor.
On being asked if he is happy with Indian cinema’s portrayal of the queer community, the actor denies it saying, “The storytellers have failed to understand the binary of gender and the complexity of the emotions of a queer person and the different spectrums of the community.”
Bollywood movies come from a space where any queer person is tagged as homosexual and different queer identities are often ignored, he comments. “Nuances are missing, but it’s not just happening in Bollywood; it’s happening everywhere”, adds Sethi.
What may seem surprising, though, is that Bollywood’s involvement with same-sex relationships is not a recent thing. The obscure Badnam Basti, directed by Prem Kapoor and based on the Hindi novel Ek Sadak Sattavan Galiyan (A Street with 57 Lanes), suggests the unconventional romance between two men.
Reels of the movie were lost for 49 years till one was found in Germany in 2019. Funded by Film Finance Corporation, Badnam Basti created a furore on its first release and may perhaps be called the first Indian film featuring gay characters. The movie was subsequently screened at Kashish, Mumbai International Film Festival, 2020.
Following the legacy of Badnam Basti, serious movies around same-sex subjects were made in Bollywood. Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) is an erotic romantic drama starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. The film is loosely based on Ismat Chughtai’s short story Lihaaf and was the first to feature a lesbian relationship explicitly.
What sets Fire apart, other than its unapologetic portrayal of patriarchy and desire, is its reworking of age-old traditions that find a new feminist voice and are told with a dream-like tonality. The music is composed by AR Rahman.
Based on the real-life incidents of Ramchandra Siras, a professor of Marathi Literature at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh (Hansal Mehta, 2015) is an empathetic portrayal of a gay man surviving in an oppressive society. Manoj Bajpayee plays the brooding and lonely Siras. The film starts with a scene of Siras’ privacy being invaded by staffers who find him in an intimate meeting with a male lover. What follows is a melancholic picture of rejection and defiance.
Margarita With a Straw (2014) explores different dimensions of marginality and remains a moving portrayal of self-acceptance and inclusion. Directed by Shonali Bose and featuring Kalki Koechlin, the movie follows the life of Leila — who suffers from cerebral palsy, and her exploration of sexuality and self-love.
Among these rare Bollywood gems, the regular audience seems to be exposed to movies like Mastizade, Dostana and Girlfriend. These movies encourage false stereotypes regarding gay characters, using them as a token of regressive humour. The concepts of sexuality and gender are a punchline, a caricature to be laughed upon and forgotten. The same casual treatment occurs in the name of entertainment while the portrayal of queer characters remains derogatory and problematic.
Fortunately, some filmmakers are changing these stereotypes in mainstream Hindi cinema with a diverse cast comprising Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkumar Rao, Manoj Bajpayee, Sonam Kapoor, Vaani Kapoor, and Bhumi Pednekar among others. This will help broaden the outreach to the regular audience and may perhaps help break the stereotypes that revolve around the queer community in Hindi cinema.
Patriot interacted with Hrithik, a queer student, who also found the portrayal of the queer community in mainstream Hindi cinema irrelevant. “I identify as gay, and I have never been able to relate to any Bollywood character. This says a lot since even after being a layered person, I haven’t been able to connect,” he says.
He adds, “Often, queer characters are portrayed wrongly. As much as the chances of it being an educational lapse, it could be a Bollywood problem. I have yet to see any character played onscreen who is ‘feminine’ but bold, not ashamed and confident. And if anyone presented a guy with a feminine disposition, I would probably find myself relating to the character in some way.”
Although Hrithik believes that queer people should play queer roles, he understands that society is not ready for it just yet. He believes that the regular audience in India is not ready to watch such nuances and has to be comfortable with the subject first. The best way to begin to represent queer people in mainstream cinema is, Hrithik suggests, through the casting of well-known faces in light feel-good movies.
“The representation is majorly of uppercaste men or women, played by rich uppercaste cisgender heterosexual actors who aren’t directly related to the community or marginalised. They will only reap the benefit from capitalising over queer identities.” says Vikram Raj, a demisexual freelance journalist who is presently working on the changing nature of films in India through a political lens. He is also a National Foundation for India (NFI) fellow and a student of the Delhi School of Journalism.
Commenting on the importance of movies in a social landscape, he adds, “Movies play an important role in modern society by creating a space for discourse and bringing awareness and acceptance. Queer history, fashion and struggle have been concealed from the public, and movies on such topics can encourage people to understand better.“
Several filmmakers have certainly begun to move in the right direction now.
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