It’s been a few days since I saw Dostana, Bollywood’s so-called gay coming out film.
My first reaction was: Wow. Here’s a film that is made within the parameters and, therefore, limitations of mainstream cinema. The two lead actors aren’t gay; they only pretend to be gay. But despite these limitations, the film brings homosexuality out of the fringe and into the drawing room.
Look, director Tarun Mansukhani seems to be saying, hot-blooded guys can be gay; there’s nothing chee about the notion and, in a pivotal scene, the lead actress tells the “gay” guy’s resistant mother to accept her son as he is, so that he can live his life and be happy (and gay).
Dostana is not My Brother Nikhil, a sensitively made film about an HIV-positive man. Nor does it have the angry defiance of Fire, Deepa Mehta’s film about two lesbians that sparked riots and protests. But because it is mainstream, Dostana will also shatter more glass ceilings, make homosexuality a little less taboo and bring conversation about gays and sexual orientation out in the open. To me, that is a beginning. Not a great leap, but a small and significant step towards figuring out the kind of society we want to become. The message about tolerance and accepting people’s personal choices about sexuality is too important to miss.
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That the film has been released at a time when gay rights activists are pushing ahead to decriminalize homosexuality can only be serendipitous. Even as I write this, the Delhi high court has been hearing a petition against an 1860 law passed by the British that makes homosexuality, even among consenting adults, an act “against the order of nature”. People convicted under this law can be jailed for up to 10 years (longer than most rape convictions). Activists concede that this law is rarely invoked against consensual adults.
But a report by Emily Wax this past week in The Washington Post points out that because homosexuality is illegal in India, many gay men are subjected to blackmail and extortion by former lovers, the police and a bunch of other crooks who want to make money, safe in the knowledge that their victims have no recourse.
In the law books, section 377 criminalizes homosexuality (and technically, at least, makes many heterosexual acts illegal as well). As an aside, section 377 also deals with child sexual abuse which is why nobody wants it to be repealed; activists only want to make consensual sex between male adults legal.
Those who want homosexuality to remain illegal—and this lot includes the usual suspects such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—argue that it is evil, it is against our culture and that it causes bodily harm (the last claim resulted in a sharp putdown by the judges hearing the case). Our home minister Shivraj Patil believes that any move to relax 377 will result in a spurt in criminal activity. “Indian society strongly disapproves of homosexuality,” an affidavit filed in court by the home ministry states.
“Disapproval is strong enough to justify it being treated as a criminal offence even where consenting adults indulge in it in private.” In court, additional solicitor general P.P. Malhotra called homosexuality a “disease” that is responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country. Legalize it and even more people will indulge in “such practices”, resulting in even more cases of HIV/AIDS. Moreover, homosexuals constitute only a minority of our population so why should the rights and safety of the majority be “compromised” in order to accommodate this tiny minority?
This is clearly a ridiculous argument. Health minister Anbumani Ramadoss has been arguing that criminalization in fact makes it difficult for homosexuals to seek treatment for HIV/AIDS. Legalization will actually allow for better regulation and check the spread of disease. The health ministry and home ministry are at loggerheads over the issue, a fact that caused the government to ask for an adjournment of the case so that it could understand what line it was going to take. In the event, it was Patil’s view that prevailed, unfortunately.
The Delhi high court will deliver its verdict by the end of the year and I’m pretty sure that when it does the losers will appeal in the Supreme Court. So, don’t count on the statute book changing any time soon. But until that happens, films such as Dostana will help reconfigure some of our preconceptions and biases. When Nobel laureate Amartya Sen appended his signature to an appeal asking for the decriminalization of homosexuality, it encouraged many others to add their own. When Vikram Seth’s mother, justice Leila Seth, talked about her son’s sexual choices in her autobiography, A Fine Balance, I am sure it counselled other mothers in similar positions.
Ultimately, it’s important to have laws that reflect contemporary reality. But it’s more important to have a mindset that will also accept these.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org