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Same-sex romance in Indian cinema: A road less travelled

New Delhi: Same-sex romance came out of the mainstream cinema closet with Karan Johar’s Dostana in 2008. Indian movies have come a long way from that gaze of ridicule and slapstick laughter in the 15 years since with empathetic, real life portrayals of the queer community but it’s still a road less travelled.

The recent Supreme Court verdict refusing to recognise same-sex marriages has put the spotlight once again on LGBTQIA+ persons, who have been struggling for equal rights and were hoping desperately for legal validation for same-sex relationships. This indifference, say members of the community, is reflected in cinema too with most narratives pivoted on the acceptance of a heteronormative society.

LGBTQIA+ rights activist and director Onir said films such as Margarita, With a Straw, about a woman with cerebral palsy discovering her sexuality, and Kapoor & Sons, in which a gay protagonist struggles to find acceptance in his family, were appreciated for the sensitive way they depicted the community. While the former, directed by Shonali Bose, was a small, intimate film, the latter from the Karan Johar stable was packaged in mainstream format.

“It is more important to assert queer identity and not camouflage it to suit a heteronormative palette,” Onir, who is open about his gay identity and sexuality, told PTI.

“The filmmakers are trying to say the right thing but what is often problematic is that these films are made by cis-gendered men and they themselves are learning how to accept. So, there’s a lot of unease when it comes to portraying any kind of queer desire,” he added.

From Dostana to Badhaai Do in 2022, mainstream Hindi films have had quite a journey in their portrayal of same-sex romance and the third gender.

Dostana was some steps ahead of Johar’s 2003 production Kal Ho Naa Ho. Starring Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, the film had a brief segment involving Kantabai, Saif’s domestic help, who thinks the two men are having an affair. It was also used for comedic relief.

Directed by Tarun Mansukhani and produced by Johar, Dostana revolved around two heterosexual men, Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham, pretending to be gay so they could be around the woman they want to woo. The plot detail was largely for laughs and was panned for its stereotypical gaze. But many argue that it was the first time that the very idea was discussed in a mainstream Bollywood film.

The caricaturisation stopped in Johar’s later films.

In 2016 came Kapoor & Sons, directed by Shakun Batra, which was praised for its script but also for the way it handled same-sex romance. Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s Badhaai Do further explored the subject through a marriage of convenience between a gay man and a lesbian woman.

According to Onir, the most beautiful part of Badhaai Do was when the two same-sex couples – one played by Rajkummar Rao and Gulshan Devaiah and the other by Bhumi Pednekar and Chum Darang — participate in the Pride March.

The film ends with the characters of Rao and Pednekar continuing to pretend to be a couple even when they love different people. For the My Brother Nikhil filmmaker, the final messaging of the movie is ‘problematic’.

“People who have come out of the closet suddenly go back in and continue to live this life of pretence, where they are trying to fit into the heternormative society instead of telling them that ‘You accept us’. That messaging is problematic. That is not a choice. It’s a compromise,” Onir added.

There have been other films in between where same-sex relationships and desire are accorded the platform they deserve without making it a big deal. These include Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya, Geetu Mohandas’ Malayalam film Moothon, Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, Neeraj Ghaywan-directed Geeli Pucchi segment from Ajeeb Daastaans and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan by Hitesh Kewalya.

Films as recent as Vishal Bhardwaj’s Khufiya have treated same-sex love with equality. In Khufiya, Tabu’s relationship with a woman organically finds a mention in the story but is not a major plot point.

The audiences have evolved too.

Badhaai Do actor Devaiah said many people now understand that LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual and additional identities).

“There’s a certain sense of normalcy and sensitivity. When I had gone to Dehradun for the shooting of Guns & Gulaabs with Raj (Rao), people would come up to us and appreciate the film (Badhaai Do). A few of them even said, “Hamari jodi bahut achhi thi” (in the movie). We assume that people are bothered or disturbed by something like this, we underestimate a lot of these things,” the actor said.

In the south, be it Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu or Kannada cinema, gay characters have long been synonymous with transpersons and hijras. The token representation of the ‘other’ always bordered on offensive stereotyping.

It is only in the recent past that some films, particularly in Tamil, have started treating LGBTQIA+ characters with respect and dignity. The standout film among them is Kumararaja Thiagaraja’s mind-bending Super Deluxe (2019).

In the film, Vijay Sethupathi’s poignant portrayal of Shilpa, a married man with a kid who embraces his transgender identity, shattered many tropes involving hijras and transgender persons in films.

Another Tamil film that stood out was Kanchana, Raghava Lawrence’s 2011 film which saw another mainstream hero, Sarath Kumar, don the role of a transwoman. The film as such followed a commercial formula, but stood out for its stark portrayal of trans people’s lives.

Venkat Prabhu’s 2010 Tamil film Goa, although a comedy, sensitively touched upon homosexual relationships.

Popular Malayalam actor Jayasurya too won accolades for portraying a transwoman character in Njan Marykutty, which he also co-produced. The 2018 film traces Marykutty’s life as she realises her true orientation in a society that stigmatises gender transformation.

“It took me a while before I could find the courage to make a film about them mostly because I make commercial films and it is a huge risk. But the fact that we treat even criminals and rapists better kept niggling at me that I had to do Njan Marykutty,” said its director Ranjith Sankar.

In LGBTQIA+ activist and filmmaker Jessy Kuthanur’s view, few titles in Malayalam cinema rightly portrayed the issues of the community and their fight for equality. But Njan Marykutty‘ Kuthanur said, has “not done any justice'” to the marginalised group.

Kuthanur’s upcoming anthology Neethi, scheduled for release on November 17, is touted as “the first film in Malayalam which completely revolves around same-sex marriage and adoption by an LGBT couple”.

As experts look back, there are some films that have stood out for their portrayal of LGBTQIA+ issues over the decades. In his 1996 film Daayra, Amol Palekar depicted a relationship between a transvestite and a rape survivor.

In the same year, Bomgay by Riyad Vinci Wadia, was made. It is considered one of the first gay films of India and had a collection of six stories. Shridhar Rangayan’s Gulabi Aaina in 2006 was banned by the censor board for its depiction of transsexuals and their stories.

Kalpana Lazmi’s Darmiyaan, starring Arif Zakaria and Kirron Kher, revolved around an actress and her shock at discovering that her son is a eunuch. Malayalam movie Sancharram in 2004 dealt with same-sex romance between a Hindu and Christian woman.

(Published 29 October 2023, 10:01 IST)

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