What's so queer?

Gay characters have made an appearance in Hindi films for decades now, but mostly as caricatures or as stereotypical portrayals. Manjula Sen believes that Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh — the true story of a professor who is outed — marks a new beginning

  • Published 28.02.16
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Concept: Sabyasachi Kundu, imaging M. Iqbal Shaikh

A male professor in an intimate relationship with a rickshaw-puller: Aligarh (2016). A gay man in love with a bisexual male: Double Standard (2015). An intern stealing his colleague's husband: Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Yeh (2013). An aspiring model entering into a homosexual relationship in part to boost his career: Dunno Y Na Jaane Kyun... (2010). A gay fashion designer settling for a marriage of convenience: Fashion (2008). Two gay men travelling with couples on their honeymoon: Honeymoon Travels (2007). A woman obsessing about her girlfriend: Girlfriend (2004). A gay swimmer battling family and AIDS: My Brother Nikhil (2005).

Homosexuality is no more taboo in Bollywood. And gay men are not just on the margins of Hindi films. As the Manoj Bajpai-starrer Aligarh demonstrates, they can even be the subject of mainstream Hindi cinema.

Director Hansal Mehta's film, released on Friday, is the true story of Professor Ramchandra Siras of Aligarh Muslim University who was caught in an act of intimacy with a male partner by a journalist. The professor was suspended from his job and was later found dead.

The film highlights a quiet turn that the Hindi film industry has taken in recent years. By one count there are over 100 Hindi films with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) characters in pivotal or minor roles.

The break-out films include mainstream Bollywood and indie films. Among them are Split Wide Open, My Brother Nikhil, Fire, Mango Souffle, Bomgay, Fashion, Bombay Talkies, Margarita With A Straw, Dedh Ishqiya, Straight, Turning 30!!!, Bombay Boys, Yours Emotionally and the more dubious Mastizaades, Girlfriends and Humshakals.

Queer characters have made an appearance in Hindi films for decades now, but mostly as caricatures or stereotypical portrayals often dubbed homophobic. Films such as Girlfriend have been accused of showing lesbian desire through puerile titillation.

Homosexuality has also often come couched in humour. In Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), for instance, the two heroes, Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, were often found in what the maid, Kantaben, thought were compromising positions. In Dostana (2008), starring Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham, the two heroes pretended that they were gay.

The portrayals were not sensitive, says Sagorika Singha, a research scholar who authored "Gay Fictive City: Queer Imagination in the Cinematic Space", in the academic journal The Apollonian. But they helped bring the subject into the mainstream.

"Their tangential inclusion or stereotyping inadvertently did provoke a discussion and in turn an acknowledgment of the presence of the community," she says. "A Dostana (or a Kal Ho Na Ho) did not at all help in changing the definition of a 'gay man' but did allow in at least establishing the presence of gay men within the society represented by the film," she says.

However, filmmaker Onir, who debuted in 2005 with My Brother Nikhil and made I Am in 2010, is convinced that Indian films "overwhelmingly caricature" gay characters and as objects of laughter.

"I think it is extremely difficult to make films with any significant LGBT track," he rues.

But Bajpai's sensitive portrayal of Professor Siras may mark a paradigm shift. A line has clearly been drawn between mainstream portrayals that treat the LGBT characters as legitimate and those that are comic or outright offensive.

"I don't believe in stereotyping a community that is already so marginalised," says director Mehta. "Homophobia is a form of intolerance. I'd rather treat them with sensitivity or be ignorant than portray them as caricatures," Mehta adds.

The film also comes at a time when homosexuality is being discussed in courts and Parliament. Two years ago, the Supreme Court set aside a 2009 Delhi High Court judgment which had decriminalised gay sex. The SC verdict of December 2013, however, didn't put a lid on the subject.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court referred a batch of curative petitions against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code - which criminalises consensual sexual acts of the LGBT community - to a five-judge Constitution bench. In November last year, finance minister Arun Jaitley reopened the debate when he called for a rethink on the Supreme Court's judgment of 2013.

Bollywood seems to have reopened the debate, too. For Indian cinema, the issue came up way back in 1999 when a young gay activist, Nish Saran, directed a short film called Summer in My Veins, the autobiographical story of a gay man disclosing his sexual orientation to his mother. Over the years, parallel and regional cinema dealt with it in different ways. And now it's the turn of the Hindi film industry.

"At least the depiction has changed from the very caricature-like images to the little more respectable images," says Sridhar Rangayan, festival director of the annual Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. "But overall the progress is slow."

Some of the films that he believes have made an impact in recent times include Margarita With A Straw, Shonali Bose's film about a bisexual woman, and Qissa, a Punjabi film about a woman who is brought up like a man by her parents. He describes Rituparno Ghosh's three gay themed films - Chitrangada, which Ghosh directed, and Arekti Premer Golpo and Memories in March, where he had transgender roles - as exceptional portrayals.

"I think the battle is half won if there is no negative stereotyping. The positive stereotyping can come a little later," Rangayan says.

Singha refers to Dedh Ishqiya, where Begum and Muniya, two female characters, run away together. She also cites the example of Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Yeh, which was directed by Karan Johar and was one of four shorts in a film called Bombay Talkies.

"The fact that a gay man and his desires found a place in a short directed by a popular film director hints at small successes," she suggests.

Not everybody agrees. Online outrage pointed to the fact that the gay character in the Johar film was portrayed as a stalker, husband snatcher, violent and repressed.

"It was not a good portrayal to show this very impulsive gay man who breaks up his best friend's home and also beats up his father at the end," Rangayan says.

What most agree on, however, are the difficulties that filmmakers face in directing films, getting them released and finding audiences.

"It is a struggle," Onir stresses.

It's not easy to get producers, for one. His film I Am was made with crowdfunding, through Facebook and Twitter, he says. "Ultimately it is the audience that put in the money and made it. No studio did it. No channels supported it."

The censor board is the other major problem. Mehta points out how difficult it will be to draw audiences when the film's trailer itself is given an A certificate.

"My trailer couldn't even be shown on TV," he says. On social media channels, on the other hand, the trailer got over 4 million hits. Mehta is also encouraged by his distributors, Eros International, who "planned a huge release despite an establishment that does not want you to see the film".

The censors' often arbitrary stand is illustrated with Rangayan's two documentaries. Purple Sky about LGBT women got a U certificate, while Breaking Free, released after Pahlaj Nihalani took over as the censor board chairman, got an A.

It's not just Nihalani, though. Before his tenure, the word "lesbian" was beeped out in the mainstream film, Dum Laga Ke Haisha.

On the other hand, just one word was beeped out of Breaking Free, which was on how Article 377 was being used to victimise the community. The documentary was shown on Doordarshan's national network, which is a "big plus", the director says.

Onir fears that the industry may be moving backwards. He points out that My Brother Nikhil got a U certificate, an all-India release and a satellite release.

"It was much more accepted. In 2011 when I did I Am, I thought society had moved ahead. But I was slapped with an A certificate. Satellite channels refused to telecast the film despite its two National Awards," he adds.

Filmmakers, however, hope that the situation may change. The fact that some of the films have been feted abroad has encouraged directors. The Dunno Y series won several awards in international gay film festivals.

"The productions were very brave attempts because they dealt with homosexuality head-on and were pretty outspoken in sexual scenes. One of the reasons it went very well with the audiences was it was primarily in English," Rangayan says.

The two films also took its message closer home in an interesting off-screen twist to its tale. The parents of one of the lead actors initially disowned him for "shaming" them but they reunited by the time the sequel followed, with the father proud of the films' success.

Indisputably, films impact audiences. "A film like Aligarh is a human rights film about freedom of choice. I don't see how homosexuals are different; they are part of the same world as anyone else," says Mehta.

As Singha notes, " Aligarh needs to be seen as a struggle of an individual in a constricted society and tells a human story and not just a gay one. This is when the objective of the greater queer community is achieved."

Friday may have been a step towards that.

Rishi Kapoor in Student of the Year

Good, bad and ugly  
Some portrayals in Indian cinema

  • Aligarh (2016) by Hansal Mehta: The story of a professor who is outed
  • Qissa (2015) by Anup SIngh: Explores sexual identities
  • Margarita With A Straw (2014) by Shonali Bose: About a bisexual girl with cerebral palsy
  • Ajeeb Daastaan Hai Yeh (2013) by Karan Johar: About a gay man’s encounter with a married man who is not out
  • Student of the Year (2012) by Karan Johar: Rishi Kapoor plays a gay teacher
  • Dunno Y Na Jaaney Kyun... (2010), by Sanjay Sharma: The first mainstream gay love story with explicit love-making scenes
  • I Am (2010) by Onir: A crowdfunded film anthology about the misuse of Section 377
  • Dostana (2008) by Tarun Mansukhani: About a pretend-gay couple
  • Yours Emotionally (2007) by Sridhar Rangayan: A queer love story which starts with an erotic gay party
  • My Brother Nikhil (2005) by Onir: About a gay swimming champion
  • Girlfriend (2004) by Karan Razdan: A titillating film on lesbianism
  • Split Wide Open (2000) by Dev Benegal: The film has a gay priest
  • Bombay Boys (1998) by Kaizad Gustad: A gay landlord
  • Bomgay (1996) by Riyad Wadia: a 12-min short film starring Rahul Bose set to gay poetry.
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