The Love Issue | To be or not to be?
It’s been mostly lows but also some highs for queer cinema
Homosexual love remains one of the great taboos of Indian cinema, to be broken only cautiously or crassly. There have been hints and side characters in movies down the years—the lesbian inmate in Jabbar Patel’s jail drama Umbartha (The Threshold), the suggestive glances between Parveen Babi and Hema Malini in Kamal Amrohi’s historical Razia Sultan, the more-than-sisterly bond between Huma Qureshi and Madhuri Dixit-Nene in Dedh Ishqiya—as well as more open explorations of same-sex love.
Trepidation and tragedy often mark the exploration of love that dare not speak its name, viewers are left with what-if scenarios, and some heterosexual romances are better understood when viewed through a queer lens. There is some fearlessness, lots of winking from the depths of closets, and a great deal of outright homophobia as film-makers try to look beyond the family friendly man-loves-woman binary and venture into riskier terrain.
Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh’s early movies were about lonely and anxious women who sought to break social strictures, but by the time he died in 2013, he had turned into a singular chronicler of the homosexual experience. Ghosh played gay characters in films by other directors, Arekti Premer Golpo and Memories in March, and in his penultimate feature, Chitrangada, in which he plays a transgendered choreographer. Other Bengali directors, such as Q in Gandu and Tasher Desh, have also put gay love on the screen, but Ghosh stands apart for his empathy and boldness.
A proud marcher…
Let’s hear it for Onir, one of a handful of film-makers in the country who is openly out. Onir’s debut, My Brother... Nikhil, is a remarkable screen exploration of a gay character who isn’t a pink-boa-sporting fashion designer or a lurid-lipped eunuch. Made in 2005 and distributed by Yash Raj Films, the movie doesn’t spray-paint its queerness but it’s obvious that the “friend” of a swimmer who dies of AIDS after facing ignorance and opprobrium is actually his lover, and that some of the discrimination is because of the victim’s homosexuality. Two of the four stories in his third film, I Am, explore homosexuality from two cautionary tales, one of a gay man and his sexually abusive stepfather, and the other of a blackmailing, struggling actor.
Karan Johar makes conventional films about the trifling worries of beautiful people but remarkable subversions lurk in that designer closet. His production, Kal Ho Naa Ho, introduced to mainstream audiences the idea that two men can be lovers and not just friends. Humour has proved its usefulness as a device in Kal Ho Naa Ho, which fires its salvo over the shoulder of scandalized maid Kantaben, and Johar’s production Dostana, in which two buddies pretend to be gay in order to share an apartment with a woman they supposedly both love. Not for nothing has Dostana’s hit song Maa Da Laadla Bigad Gaya, featuring the hysterical Punjabi mummy of Abhishek Bachchan’s arrow-straight pretender, become a favourite at gay parties.
Johar gets all serious in his contribution to last year’s Bombay Talkies anthology, which explores a curious triangular relationship between a magazine editor, her gay staffer and her closeted husband. The kiss between Saqib Saleem and Randeep Hooda is second only to the passionate lip-lock between Rahul Bose and Arjun Mathur in I Am.
In fact, it’s possible to look at Johar’s debut feature Kuch Kuch Hota Hai through a queer lens. The scenario: Tomboyish teenager is in love with her best friend, but he has eyes only for the resident sex-bomb. He marries sex-bomb, who conveniently dies, and then loses his heart to the tomboy who has now become a curvaceous creature. Hmm. Replace tomboy with lesbian/gay person and best friend with closeted lesbian/gay person who finally crawls out of the closet after the spouse’s death and you have a great Indian love story.
Madhur Bhandarkar’s cinema is dredged from the depths of tabloid muck where, occasionally, flowers bloom in the form of Chandni Bar and Page 3. Did he throw a party after the Supreme Court upheld the unjust Section 377, and can we churn out a screenplay based on that moment? Let’s call it “377” and pack it with every single stereotype you can think of—pink-lipped gay designers, shrill-voiced hairstylists, preening film journalists, predatory closeted men and suspiciously solicitous young women. Bhandarkar’s war on closeted and openly gay celebrations of queerness has several supporters, within the movie trade, inside cinema halls and police stations, on Twitter and in the media, and even in some courts in the country, it appears.
Just like there are many more instances of female nudity than male nudity and more explorations of the female sexual experience than the male, so also there are many more instances of women in love. Even before Deepa Mehta’s bold Fire, which shocked puritans and political parties, there have been tentative and outright explorations of women in love. From progressive Kerala came Mohan’s Randu Penkuttikal, made in 1978 and based on the novel of the same name by V.T. Nandakumar.
The story is of an intensely close friendship between two young women, where one is clearly more invested in the relationship than the other. P. Padmarajan’s realist Deshadanakili Karayarilla, made in 1986, explores the misadventures of two teenage girls who run away from school. The lesbian angle is suggested, and again seems to be one-sided since one of them falls in love with an unattainable older man, but longing glances are exchanged, passions bubble away under the surface, and the tragic outcome of the relationship has found echoes down the years in real life.
Also from Kerala comes Ligy J. Pullappally’s Sancharram (The Journey), made in 2004 and bereft of the ambiguity of previous productions. Pullappally openly and honestly explores the ramifications of the feelings that two childhood friends develop for each other.
Mehta’s Fire rightfully became the trailblazer because it was made in Hindi and was therefore accessible to wider audiences, starred acclaimed arthouse names, including Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, and was released in cinemas in 1998 to outrage and protests. Less high-minded film-makers have attempted to raise temperatures in other ways by pairing two women, such as Girlfriend (2004), whose poster alone locates it firmly in the realm of so-sleazy-it-is-going-to-sell-tickets territory.
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