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Play a gay? Psst, not me

- Karan on bollywood’s attitude to sexuality

Mumbai, Dec. 11: Karan Johar had to audition 22 actors for his critically acclaimed short in Bombay Talkies. Not because of a talent drought in Bollywood.

“…Nobody wanted to play a gay man’s role,” Johar told a seminar on cinema in Mumbai last week.

Sources in Dharma Productions, which Karan heads, said best-known faces — from Bollywood to the small screen — hid behind flimsy excuses when approached for the role.

“Despite this perception about the Hindi film industry in Mumbai being a cradle of free choices in so far as sexuality is concerned, in effect it is just a myth,” a Bollywood star told The Telegraph.

“People are desperate to maintain saleable images and while homosexuality may be practised, it is never openly flaunted. Even those who are known to be openly gay, or are perceived to be so, are shy of publicly acknowledging their sexuality,” he said.

“As I see it, Calcutta has a more open mind and bold acceptance of homosexuality, be it the iconic Rituparno Ghosh… or some top designers and creative artists — there is no hypocrisy.”

Today, after the Supreme Court judgment reinforcing IPC Section 377 got Bollywood stars tweeting their nuanced angst in measured 140 characters, a mere 50-odd gay rights activists protested the verdict in the evening.

At the seminar, Johar had referred to Brokeback Mountain, a film that depicts the complex romantic and sexual relationship between two men in the American West. “I would love to do a Brokeback Mountain in Hindi, but mainstream stars will not kiss on screen.”

Bollywood actors, he added, believe in onscreen “self-censorship” though they may be kissing each other off screen.

Johar, who plays the role of a gay media mogul in Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet — set to release in 2014 — has often portrayed gay relationships in his mainstream Hindi films.

But whether in the situational hilarity of a Kantaben’s entry in Shah Rukh Khan- and Saif Ali Khan-starrer Kal Ho Naa Ho, or the comedy of Dostana, they were largely cheeky homophobic humour.

Niche films like Mahesh Dattani’s Mango Souffle (2002), about a gay fashion designer, or Vinay Pathak’s Straight (2009), about a man’s sexual self-discovery, carried on the comic strain, though Reema Kagti’s Honeymoon Travels broke the mode with a sensitive portrayal of a man who realises on his honeymoon that he is attracted to men.

Films like My Brother… Nikhil (2005) or Johar’s short in Bombay Talkies do buck the general Bollywood trend of portraying homosexuality as a comic relief and deal with the issue with all the sensitivity at their command. But as arthouse films, their appeal and reach remain limited.