Readers Write In #57: LGBTs in Hindi cinema in light of the 377 judgment

Posted on October 26, 2018

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Looking back at the delineation of LGBTs in Hindi cinema in general and in some recent releases in particular in light of the Section 377 judgment

There no single or simple answer to “Which is the first queer Hindi film?” To some, it may be D.G. Phalke’sRaja Harishchandra, which had male actors playing the female parts. To some, it may be the 1974 release KunwaraBaap, whose most cherished song, Sajrahigali, is filmed on a group of hijras who are commemorating the protagonist’s adoption of an abandoned newborn as his son and thus become the unmarried father the film’s title refers to. To others, it may be the now-unavailable BadnamBasti, released three years before KunwaraBaap and dealing, according to some reports, with two men involved in a sexual relationship.

Personally, I think homoeroticism became a regular part of Hindi cinema only after the arrival of Amitabh Bachchan. Raja Harishchandra may have had men in drag, but that was the socio-cultural norm in 1913 (the year it released) rather than an articulation of queerness on the part of the film, which is a mythological based on Indian folklores. It is common, to this day, for hijras to bless a newborn through their song-and-dance rituals, and be paid for it by the parents, so the song in KunwaraBaap functions as a portrayal of that custom rather than as a portrayal of the hijra community, who are not seen before or after the song. As for BadnamBasti, no opinions may be offered, for it is no longer possible to see the film and find out how, and to what extent, it portrays a same-sex relationship. A number of Bachchan’s films, on the other hand, have him play the part of a protagonist involved in a till-death-do-us-part relationship with another man, and though these relationships are seldom spelled out as homosexual ones, there is no mistaking the undercurrent of romantic attraction. In the recent years, critics and scholars have picked up on this undercurrent. Meheli Sen has said that such films of Bachchan cut across categories:if there is anything (apart from Bachchan) that Angry Young Man films like Zanjeerand KaalaPatthar, masala concoctions such as Sholayand Hera Pheri, and middle-of-the-road fare like Anand and Namak Haraam have in common, it is that in all of them, the most significant relations that Bachchan has is with a “friend” of the same sex, for whom he is prepared to do anything. R. Raj Rao has translated and analyzed the lyrics of the songs in these films that Bachchan and his male companions sing for each other, and has demonstrated the thoroughly romantic bent of the feelings expressed in them. Baradwaj Rangan acknowledges the homoeroticism of the Bachchan-starrers in his review of Gunday, which owes much to those films. Sanjay Srivastava acknowledges the same more openly, saying, “An aspect of Bachchan’s on-screen appeal lay in his ability to tap into the symbolic world of homoeroticism that finds play in a number of provincial contexts in India”, adding that while same-sex desires have, for long, found expression in myriad ways in many parts of India and are even recognized as such, “Bachchan was the first hero to openly express a homoerotic aura in several of his films.” Plus, there are those five drags he puts on in Mere angne mein, and the dance moves in Yeh hain Bambainagariya from Don, where he claps his hands and swings his hips much like the hijras do during their dances. Take all of this into account, and the queerness of Bachchan’s onscreen personas become apparent.

Indeed, some of the best portrayals of same-sex relationships in Hindi cinema are along the same lines as the Bachchan films. These films don’t bother (or perhaps, given the priggish censor board and the largely homophobic Indian audience, don’t dare) to actually call their protagonists gay, but leave enough indications for the discerning viewers to arrive at the necessary conclusions. Some go further than others in this regard, but Kai Po Che, UdaanSonuKeTitu Ki Sweety and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy all have this propensity of colouring their characters queer but doing so in a manner that’s subtle rather than overt. The same goes for three of the most cherished characters in RajkumarHirani’s films—Munna, Circuit and P.K.

If some movies actually spell out the characters’ queerness, it is often because the characters in these films are comic degenerates (think of the parts Bobby Darling mostly plays), or unprincipled traitors (such as Page 3 and Life…In a Metro, both of which castigate gays who stay closeted and get involved in heterosexual relationships, but say nothing about the strictures that make them do so), or a combination of both (the principal in Student of the Year and the gay gangster in EkChalis Ki Local; their sexual orientation constitutes the comic relief in both movies, and while the principal is blamed for ending the friendship between the students, the gangster turns out to be as violent as he is comical, going so far as to almost rape a young man after binding him to the bed). Since these characters are either ridiculous or unsympathetic anyway, revealing their sexual inclination carries no risk.  It is best not to say much about something like Girlfriend, where Isha “I am a lesbian” Koppikar is the crazed killer. The likes of Fire and Dedh Ishqiya are almost as nauseating, given their misconception that women enter same-sex relationships when they are being ignored by their husbands for some reason or the other.

For sure, you do find a My Brother Nikhil here and a Margarita with a Straw there, with more accurate and sympathetic portrayals of LGBTs, but these are small dots on the vast expanse of Bollywood, and even in these films, the characters’ sexual orientation is often set aside to address other, admittedly relevant, topics. My Brother Nikhil has far less to say about Nikhil’s homosexuality than it does about his being HIV positive. There are plenty of discussions in the film about the need to treat those diagnosed with this disease with care and understanding, but there is hardly any mention of the need to do the same with gays. Besides, as the very title indicates, Nikhil’s relationship with his sister, rather than his boyfriend, is prioritized (to the extent that the one occasion that Nikhil says “I love you”, it is addressed to his sister, not his lover), meaning that the movie is ultimately about the final acceptance of the ill Nikhil by his initially disapproving parents, via his sister’s mediation. The necessity of parental acceptance for an AIDS patient can hardly be overstated, but since Nikhil’s relationship with his boyfriend is so rarely delved into, it stays unclear if the parents have come to accept only their son’s ailment, or his homosexuality as well. The sister’s declaration that the parents began to treat Nikhil’s boyfriend as their son after Nikhil’s death, is similarly bereft of any direct acknowledgement of the exact relationship between the lovers. Making the protagonist gay, and then defining him almost exclusively in terms of a disease that many continue to think of as a “gay disease”, is somewhat troubling, and this could have been averted had the film been a little less discreet about Nikhil and his boyfriend’s relationship.

To cut a could-have-been-much-longer story short, Bollywood does not make many films about LGBTs, and the ones that it does make often do not fare well in terms of the accuracy and understanding with which the queer characters are presented. This is precisely what makes 2016 something of a watershed year, for you cannot name any other annum when as many as four Hindi films dealt with homosexuality, and did so with empathy. I am glad for this, because this same year also has releases that serve as lessons in how not to deal with homosexuality. Take Dear Zindagi, for instance, a film about a young woman named Kaira who learns, with the aid of an unorthodox therapist called Dr. Jehangir Khan, to cope with the troubles in her personal life. There is much that I did not like about the movie, but let me speak, for now, only about what it has to say about LGBTs, and how it says this. Raunak, a friend of Kaira’s, visits a shrink, and since Kaira is contemplating if she should do the same, she asks him, “Why did you start seeing a therapist? So that you could speak to others about being gay?” Raunak replies, “I did it so that I can come to terms with my being gay.” At first, you may want to praise this scene—I know I did—for saying that it is okay to be gay, and that you must first learn to accept yourself for what you are before you ask others to do so. Then I found myself asking, “Why does this fellow feature prominently in only this one scene, and then is practically shooed off the movie? I mean, in a film running for almost three hours, Raunak has, by a generous estimate, about five minutes allotted to him, and during those five minutes, all he does is loiter around Kaira and have with her that one-line conversation. I know the movie is about Kairaand not about Raunak, but it is also not “about” Jehangir, or Fatima or Jackie (the latter being Kaira’s friends), so if the movie could nonetheless make them a prominent part of Kaira’s life, what stopped it from doing the same with Raunak?” This lead me, inevitably, to the further ask the following: Is that scene between Kaira and Raunak put in the movie for the sole purpose of portraying how cool Kaira is about having a gay friend? This does seem to be the case, all the more because of a later scene, where Kaira’s nosy relatives ask her if she is “Lebanese”, by which they mean lesbian (this pun/joke is as old as Bend It Like Beckham, which is to say it is not very funny any longer, but the Dear Zindagi team obviously thinks otherwise), and that if she is, then it is the doing of the film industry she works in, which is full of gays. A long, indignant reply comes from Kaira, all of which I don’t remember, but the gist is that while Bollywood does have gay people working there, every individual in the industry is not gay; it is simply that the industry is more accepting of homosexuals than the other workplaces are, which also have gay and lesbian workers who, unfortunately, have to conceal their actual selves from others. The relatives then ask again, “Are you lesbian?”, to which she says she is not, and then leaves to go and stay with a friend.

There are three things to be said about the scene. Firstly, that paean to Bollywood for  being gay-friendly is incredibly smug. Bollywood may well be more accepting than other industries are about gays, but do let us remember that this very industry was reluctant about funding My Brother Nikhil, and said to Onir, “Make Bipasha Basu give Nikhil AIDS, and we shall produce your film.” Years later, Karan Johar struggled to find an actor to play the young gay protagonist in his segment of Bombay Talkies, before Saquib Saleem accepted the part. As many as six actors, among them five prominent stars, turned down the part of the gay sibling in Kapoor and Sons, and had Fawad Khan, who was finally cast, not been around, the film would probably not have been made. To me, this does not seem like a very LGBT-loving industry, and to have industry-insiders spout praise for it in this regard is therefore very irritating. Secondly, queer people in Bollywood have to hide their sexual orientation as much as the queers in other workplaces; what else accounts for the fact that in these hundred years since the beginning of the industry, hardly any actor, producer or director has come out? I am not judging them for not doing so. I am simply unable to understand what makes Kaira think that queers in Bollywood have to be any less closeted. Thirdly, the entire scene, like the conversation between Raunak and Kaira, seems to have been put in the movie to enhance Kaira’s appeal as a character, rather than to promote discussions on LGBT rights. After all, as Kaira confirms, she herself is heterosexual, so her speaking for about two minutes in favour of gays does not really facilitate any engagement on the part of the audience with homosexuality. They are still being asked to invest in, to identify with, a young, beautiful, straight woman, and a socio-financially well-off one at that, who can afford dinners at posh restaurants and costly sessions with a shrink (in other words, she is very much like the multiplex crowd who constitute the chief audience for this movie). There is no rule that a movie cannot have such a character for a protagonist, but I think it is distressing if queer people, or discussions about them, populate a movie not in their own right but as means to ennoble a heterosexual character. If the makers were really concerned about LGBTs, they would have made Raunak a more prominent figure, or better still, made Kaira lesbian…or is that asking for the moon?

The film Befikre errs even more. Picture this: Dharam, the hero, who has come to Paris to work as a stand-up comedian at a friend’s club (don’t ask!), reaches the flat he is supposed to stay at. A woman opens the door, invites him in, and shows him around the place, while Dharam, even before he has put down the luggage he is carrying, has begun to fantasize about making out with her, leering like a horny teenager who has had his first glance at smut. Then, a second woman appears, and she is the first one’s partner; they are lesbians, learns Dharam, and there goes his wet dreams. Or so you think, because Dharam, after a second’s surprise, gets the leer back on his lips, thinking, now, of doing both of the women, instead of the only the first. The prurience in these scenes, I must add, is not held up to be satirized or criticized. Dharam learns no lesson about the pitfalls of heteronormative thinking, about not assuming somebody is straight unless stated otherwise. Rather, these scenes constitute what, I am sure, the makers consider comic relief, a proof of Dharam’s sense of humour that has landed him the gig as a comedian at the club, and not of a discriminatory attitude towards the LGBT community that involves laughing at them for what they are. Later, when Dharam and Shayra, his former flame, are walking through a marketplace, Dharam shouts “That’s so gay” to mark his disapproval of something Shayra has said. This alone would have been mortifying, but there also happens to be agay person present in the immediate vicinity, so that he can be made to speak in the slightly lisping manner that people seem to think is common to all homosexual people’s diction, and so that Dharam can mock that manner of speech and crack a joke about balls that is so dumb, I am glad I don’t remember it any longer.

The good LGBT films of 2016 more than make up for the lapses of the aforementioned ones, though. Kapoor and Sons and Dear Dad are made by different directors (Shakun Baatra and Tanuj Bhramar), financed by separate production houses, and there is no overlapping of cast and crews, but the similarities between them are many. Both have a scene in which the gay character tries to come out but cannot, and the outing in both films, when it finally happens, is accidental. In Dear Dad, Nitin, a middle-aged husband and father of two, has revealed that he is gay to his wife, and they have decided to part amicably, but Nitin also has to inform Shivam, his adolescent son, about this while driving him back to his boarding school after the vacations. Understandably, he is hesitant, and beats around the bush by asking Shivam about his classes and his friends, till the conversation veers towards the upcoming IPL tournament. Apparently, there are rumours doing the rounds about the sexual orientation of a cricketer, so Nitin tries to use that as a means to broach the topic of his own homosexuality, asking Shivam, “Do you know what they are saying about him [the cricketer]?” The son, fiddling with his mobile, asks, “What?”, and Nitin, in response, stutters and stumbles, before saying, “That…that…he is playing very well these days.” Shivam shrugs and keeps playing with his cell phone, as Nitin, cursing his hesitation silently, keeps driving.

The corresponding scene in Kapoor and Sons is even more poignant. Rahul, the elder of the two brothers in the film, comes to India after his grandfather suffers a heart attack. The old guy has recovered well, though, to the extent that he is smoking joints in his room, and his two grandsons, Rahul and Arjun, decide totake part in the revelries. They return to their bedroom in a state of intoxicated euphoria, and Rahul, apparently emboldened by the fumes inhaled, says, “Shall I say something to you? Something I have not told anyone else?” Arjun does not respond, for he has fallen asleep. Rahul looks at his sibling, sighs, and surrenders to sleep as well. At this stage, we still don’t know what this “something” is; we don’t, either, in Nitin’s case when he mentions the cricketer, though we did hear his wife say that he must speak to Shivam, so we know it is something urgent. The person to whom Nitin does first mention his homosexuality is his father, who is now paralyzed and cannot speak. Despite Nitin’s protestations to the contrary, his father’s condition, one feels, is one significant reason that Nitin can actually speak to him about this, for no matter how upset or enraged the father may get upon hearing that Nitin is gay, there is little he can do. Unfortunately, Shivam overhears Nitin’s confession, and his response is what one would expect—he storms away furiously, refuses to speak to his father except in monosyllables thereafter, thinks that his father is being friendly with a reality television star only because he wants to sleep with the latter, and even goes to meet a sadhu who, he thinks, can “cure” Nitin’s homosexuality. Rahul’s mother, Sunita, chances upon the photos of Rahul and his British boyfriend on her son’s laptop, and confronts Rahul in the ugliest manner possible, using all the terms that gay people fear their parents shall hurl at them should they come out: “Shame on you!” “You didn’t bother to think about me or your father or any of us, did you?” “You have hurt me so much.” “Go away, there can be no relations between us any more.” Indeed, Sunita even accuses Rahul of having lied to her about having a girlfriend, unaware that it is precisely the sort of virulent homophobia that she is demonstrating that necessitated Rahul’s falsehood. As Rahul asks her later, “Is it my lie that bothers you, or the truth about me?”

Rahul’s attempt to reach out to his mother, and Nitin’s to his son, throw light on a further similarity between the two films—both are about how queer people relate to their families, their near and dear ones. Rahul cares for each and every one in his household. In spite of having a novel to finish and submit to his publisher, in spite of going through a writer’s block, he comes to India immediately after hearing about his grandfather’s stroke; he speaks separately to each of his bickering parents to bring about some sort of reconciliation; he tries to patch up with Arjun, with whom he is not on good terms for reasons we shall learn of later; he takes the blame for his father’s thoughtless actions to prevent further fights between his parents; and he is shattered when he learns that his father has been cheating on his mother with a neighbour, as Sunita has suspected for long. Such devotion, in itself, is reason enough to love Rahul back unconditionally, but if there is one lesson to be learned from Kapoor and Sons, it is that love is seldom unconditional, and that the conditions imposed are often cruel. Therefore, while Rahul may be a “perfect bachcha” to Sunita, that perfection is synonymous with heterosexuality. In an early scene, we see Sunita say to Rahul that if he wants to make her happy, he should marry a good Indian woman and have children, and later, we see her trying to pair Rahul off with a prospective daughter-in-law, much to Rahul’s discomfiture. For Sunita, like it is for countless Indian parents, a good son is he who knows when to “settle down”, and once it becomes clear that Rahul won’t, can’t, settle down the way others can, rage replaces Sunita’s affection. Shivam’s actions are a little more understandable. One cannot possibly expect a school student to be very knowledgeable about something like homosexuality, and since Nitin being gay means he and his wife are going to split, Shivam has grounds to feel upset, for divorce is painful for the children involved. This is not to say that his homophobia is not disconcerting. Even as Nitin tries to reach a truce, Shivam keeps pushing him away, and when Nitin says that he has been struggling with his homosexuality for long and had felt, on some occasions, the urge to commit suicide, Shivam retorts, “You know what, you should have.” This reply hits you like a slap, not only because those are cruel words to say to anyone, but also because we have seen how much Nitin loves his children, Shivam and his younger sister, and that he cares, even, for his wife, though not, of course, in the way a heterosexual husband could have. He also visits his parents and looks after their needs. In other words, Rahul and Nitin are like any other son, brother, or father, different only in terms of their sexual leanings, but those leanings are, alas, the only bit that matters when it comes to LGBTs. Thus, Nitin can speak to his father about being gay only under the assurance that the latter’s paralysis shall prevent him from responding spitefully, and Shivam supplies that spite once he comes to know that his father is gay, all the love he has received from Nitin forgotten in the light of that one, single fact. Likewise, Rahul hides his homosexuality with mentions of a non-existent girlfriend, can think of coming out only in a drugged state, and once the truth is out, his mother is outraged, and his brother mutters, “I don’t know what to say.” Is it surprising, then, that so many LGBTs in our country stay in the closet, and even submit to heterosexual marriages? Kapoor and Sons and Dear Dad are valuable because they clarify, among other things, that queers keep secrets not because they like to, but because they have to. One can easily see that Rahul, had he lived in India, would have possibly become a Nitin, married to one of the many good girls his mother would have kept introducing him to until he concurred to marrying one of them, and then having children, and living a painful life until one day he could no longer have. Going abroad has spared him that fate, but how ironical is it that the country that has offered him, a gay Indian, a refuge, is Britain, the very nation that had drafted the homophobic Section 377 that criminalized homosexuality in India till about two weeks ago. This calls for sustained, prolonged, agonizing reflection: that our former oppressor and colonizer is now a safer place for our fellow Indians who are queer, and this is because so many years after the departure of the British, we continue to hold on to the homophobic remnants of colonialism even as the colonizers themselves have decriminalized homosexuality. If this doesn’t make us feel ashamed as a nation, what shall? The fact that Rahul and Nitin are finally accepted by Sunita and Shivam is not much consolation in this regard, though this acceptance, undoubtedly, is important, for the same reason that E.M. Forster’s decision to give Maurice a happy ending is important—for opening up the possibility the being gay need not be all about misery, that there is light at the end of the tunnel. You could say that for many Indian queers, there is no such light, but a retort to this may be found in Kapoor and Sons itself, namely, that since life so often refuses us happy endings, fiction is the place we often go looking for them, and while realism in fiction is admirable, even necessary, change can be heralded only by incorporating what should be (the ideal) alongside what is (the actuality). A son should reciprocate the love of a father, as Shivam ultimately does, even if the father likes men, and a mother should ask after the well-being of her son’s male lover, as Sunita manages to.

One niggle, though; if the road to this acceptance, this love, is so difficult with one’s kith and kin, is there any possibility of getting it from others, those to whom a queer is not related by blood? The otherwise tragic Aligarh has a surprisingly optimistic answer to this, for Srinivas Ramchandra Siras, the Marathi teacher who has his house broken into by hired goons, is beaten up, and suspended once the photos and videos of him in the bed with his partner are released, finds a confidante in somebody who is not only unrelated to him, but is unlike him in almost every way possible. The difference between Siras and Deepu Sebastian, the reporter who comes to like and respect Siras in the course of reporting about what has been done to the latter, is not only that one is gay and the other heterosexual. Siras is old while Deepu is young; Siras is Marathi and Deepu Malayali; Siras is a devout Hindu but Deepu is a Christian who doesn’t care much about religion; Siras is a poet while Deepu, as a reporter, deals in prose and, by his own admission, has little grasp of the nuances of poetry that Siras does. Aligarh acknowledges these differences, and then proceeds to say that they do not matter as long as you have empathy for others. The film is also very clear about what constitutes empathy and lets us know as much early on. After reading about Siras’s suspension, Deepu asks his boss for permission to cover the incident. The boss answers that Deepu should delegate the task to somebody else, somebody who is good with “sex scandals”, to which Deepu indignantly says, “You call this a sex scandal, boss?” “Then what is it, according to you?” she sarcastically asks. “It’s a human story”, comes the response. The ability to treat others’ misfortune not as material for gossip but as human concerns is one of the fundamental definitions of empathy, and it says a lot about our country that Deepu is one of the few folks around Siras who understands that. But what is incredibly interesting and moving about Aligarh is that the ones who do come to Siras’s aid are not his relatives or even his old friends, but a small group of persons who were practically strangers to Siras until mishap struck. There is Deepu and his photographer friend; there is LGBT and HIV positive rights campaigner Anjali Gopalan who conveys to Siras the important message that he must fight for his rights if he wishes to reap their benefit; and then there are the gay men he later meets at a party who had signed the petition that criticized the way Siras had been treated, some of them being admirers of Siras’s writings as well as translators of the same. Apart from his lover, the ones mentioned above are the only ones with whom Siras feels happy and at ease.Having been thrown out of their houses and often disowned altogether for their sexual orientation, LGBTs have often had to find support and love and consolation and aid from those who are not related to them by birth and who build relations with them solely through humane considerations. The film is a beautifully accurate portrayal of that side of LGBT lives.

That heartening bit aside, Aligarh offers us a grim portrait of the Indian society as one that is so rife with prejudices that it invites comparison to the one that hauled up Oscar Wilde about a hundred years ago. I mention Wilde specifically because the reasons behind his persecution and Siras’s are eerily similar. As Graham Robb has said in his wonderful book Strangers, the reasons Wilde had to suffer included not only his homosexuality but also that he consorted with men who were younger than he was and who belonged to the working class, and that Wilde was Irish was one more reason behind the hostility he had to withstand (Robb mentions the other Irishmen of the period who had been penalized under England’s anti-sodomy statutes). The factors of age and class are also relevant as far as Siras is concerned. He is berated and mocked for being in a relationship with a working class person (his partner is a rickshaw-puller) despite coming from the “educated” upper strata of the social order, as well as for indulging his sexual urges in spite of being sixty-four years old. The issue of age is used to suggest both that Siras is a damaging influence on the young because he is likely to make them emulate his ways (“societies have a right to filter their members and no one shall want someone like Siras living where his/her children are growing up”) and that he is slighting the stature of senior citizens by not only thinking about but having sex at a stage in his life when he is supposed to give up desires (an idea that has its roots in the Hindu scriptures that permit sex only for the grihastha or the young married householders so that they have children and continue the lineage; the next stages are vanaprastha and sanyas, meaning retirement and renunciation, when spiritual practices are meant to replace desirous thoughts as a person grows older). Since religion is often to Indians what race is to westerner, and as Siras lives in a city where the population is almost evenly split between Hindus and Muslims, one cannot but ask if Siras being in love with a Muslim man has antagonized both communities, the Hindus because Siras has loved an ‘Other’, the Muslims because one of their own has been polluted by an ‘Other’. The term “haram” (sacrilege) has been used in the film by a character to describe homosexuality and another denounces same-sex orientations as being abominations before God, so religious ideas about homosexuality do have a part to play in Siras’s suffering, though Aligarh does not dwell on that in detail. A homosexual person who was from a country that was not on the best of terms with England was denounced for luring the young into the “sinful” life and disregarding the rigidly observed class divisions in the British society of the period, and another person who chose to get involved in an inter-class and inter-religious relationship with a younger lover of the same sex was denounced in India for those very reasons. The more they say things change…

Even keeping the other factors in mind, though, there is little doubt that Siras’s homosexuality contributes more to his misery than anything else. Perhaps having a woman who was younger than he was and who came from the lower strata of the society and belonged to a different religion as a lover would also have caused Siras trouble, but I doubt if his effigies would have been burned on the streets or if he would have been looked at with so much repugnance then (the reporter William Stead said the same about Wilde when he remarked that had Wilde had an affair with a friend’s wife or romanced younger girls rather than boys he could not have been persecuted the way he had been). What really kills Siras in the end is that he lives in a country that looks upon homosexuality as a sexual act of the unusual sort rather than as a manifestation of love. That is something Siras mentions when he says he does not understand the term “gay” and does not think that three-letter word to be capable of capturing the breadth of his feelings and sensibilities. That he loves a person is simply a source of joy for Siras, much like the songs of LataMangeshkar that he is so fond of. He does not see the need for any definite term like “gay” to understand and luxuriate in that love, though he does grasp the fact that his love is one that ought not to speak its name before others (hence he says his love is like the moon that comes out only at night and retreats into a celestial abode at dawn). Belonging to an older group of LGBTs from non-metropolitan India that has not seen gay rights movements, he does not ask for anything more than non-interference in his life and that of his partner. But when the world outside barges into his house and insists on seeing him as nothing more than “gay” and therefore “haram” he learns to fight for his rights, but he also feels that the fight is going to be endless in a nation as full of homophobia as ours, and that he ought to go to a different part of the world if he is to live with dignity and in peace. The “mysterious” death which befalls him and the fact that those who killed him remain at large to this day demonstrate how right he had been: India is indeed a land of heteronormativity that brooks no deviation.

The fourth film I shall mention is perhaps one that does not belong in this article, for unlike the other three discussed so far it is a short film and not a feature-length one. But Kawa Hatef’sAarsa has stayed with me since the day I first watched the film, and I cannot let go of an opportunity to speak about a favourite film that not many have seen and not many are likely to because such films rarely make it out of festival circuits that screen LGBT-themed films. The film is about a fellow named Raju who works as a cleaner at a dance studio. The stares he often directs at a famous dancer named Sitara who teaches there suggests that the film is about a love that is rendered unrequited by class differences. But then there comes a twist that I simply did not see coming, as Raju finds a costume of Sitara’s that the latter had forgotten to pick up. Seeinng Raju affectionately run his hands over the costume and trying to putit on, one realizes with a jolt that Raju does not desire Sitara but desires to be Sitara and that the film is not about a poor young man who falls in love with a celebrity woman but about a transgender person who finds in the said woman an ideal to emulate. The rest of the film chronicles Raju’s attempts to break out of the control of a domineering mother and pursue that ideal with gusto. Twists in stories are often evaluated in terms of their cleverness, but here the cleverness is laced with a humane touch which ensures that the viewers are not only surprised but also emotionally stirred. I realize that the information I have provided thus far about Aarsa constitutes a spoiler and that many would have preferred to see the film without learning beforehand what Raju is. But I also could not think of a way to describe why I like the film so much without giving away the revelation that it hinges on. The initial scenes are so similar to the many heterosexual romances between one rich and one poor person we see every year that when the film turns out to be something completely different, one gets the sense that a message is being delivered on that aspect of heteronormativity that assumes everyone is the same and that there is nothing more to anything than what meets the eye. The film is a brief and forceful statement to the contrary that ought to be more well-known than it is.

While I love the four films discussed, there is something which is missing from them: a portrayal of a same-sex romance. The scenes between Siras and his partner are compressed into a couple of flashbacks that are lovely but also so brief that one cannot really get to know what they mean to each other; Rahul’s boyfriend appears for about five seconds in person; there is hardly any romance in Nitin’s life; and Raju does not mention any lovers. I understand that those films had been made with different aims and that there is nofilm discussion more fruitless than that which finds faults with films for not doing something that they did not set out to do in the first place, but compared to the countless heterosexual romances that release every year the dearth of the LGBT counterparts is troubling. The only Hindi films featuring openly LGBT characters that permit them a love life seem to be those that are made by LGBT directors, such as Sridhar Raangaayaan’sEvening Shadows and SonaliBasu’sMargarita with a Straw. Shall things be different now that homosexuality has been decriminalized in India and LGBT-related Hindi films are no longer completely unheard of? Here’s hoping that a change along those lines happens.

(by Abhirup)

Cited:

From Dostana to Bromance: Buddies in Hindi Commercial Cinema Reconsidered, by Meheli Sen.

Memories pierce the heart: homoeroticism, Bollywood-style, by R.Raj Rao.

Review:Gunday, BaradwajRangan.

“Sane Sex”, the Five-Year Plan Hero and Men on Footpaths and in Gated Communities: On the Cultures of Twentieth-Century Masculinity, bySanjay Srivastava.

Strangers, Graham Robb