As per Wikipedia, subtext or undertone is any content of a creative work which is not announced explicitly by the characters or author, but is implicit or becomes something understood by the observer of the work as the production unfolds. Simply put, all art has been made by certain individuals with certain motivations behind them; however, the general public can interpret a single piece of art in countless new ways.
This gives rise to a new subcategory of a queer subtext. A lot of times, in both Indian and foreign media, a lot of us queer folks might have come across uncommon, often exaggerated bonds of friendship between two fictional characters of the same sex, which leads nowhere in terms of their relationship development. Straight people will probably, dismissively, call this wishful thinking, but more often than not, when such characters have been from opposite genders, they have ended up marrying each other and having a “happily forever after” for them. This leads to a near erasure of queer representation in media, as subtext is a safer way out for most such commercially produced films and television when it comes to general audience approval and box office collections.
We have seen many ‘butch’ looking women in Bollywood whose apparent lesbian sexuality has always been completely absent, and has rather been replaced by a more heteronormative story which frankly, does their characterization a great disservice. You have your basketball pro Anjali (played by Kajol) from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, your sporty Kusum/Datto (played by Kangana Ranaut) from Tanu Weds Manu Returns, the rebellious genius of hell, even your friendly neighbourhood butch Kajal (played by Bhairavi Raichura) on the classic Indian sitcom Hum Paanch and many more, but we have never seen their character find a significant other that was a woman. While it is not necessary to associate a butch appearance to a non-heterosexual sexual orientation, it certainly is not right to shame these characters for these particular physical attributes, which has been done to death in Bollywood.
Time and time again, these characters have been shamed and called out openly for their “tomboyish” behavior, with dialogues unashamedly stating that if a girl likes to play sports, or keep her hair short, or not wear make-up, or who refuses to be shy – those are all things that men do, so the underlying connotation by this logic is that these female characters are not women, rather they are men. And it has so often happened, from Bollywood classics like Main Hoon Na to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, that such a woman, who is not a lipstick-wearing, soft-spoken, or femme in her demeanour, has been ridiculed up to a point that she has had to undergo an almost violent, drastic transformation to achieve that. Frankly speaking as a film studies graduate and a queer feminist, 1) none of it makes sense, when a character decides midway in the film to change her very self (thereby, completely betraying everything she stood for till this point) and lose her voice as a character just in order to please a man and solely serve the story as his love interest, 2) this reinforces the common toxic belief that there is only one way to be a woman and 3) this not only fails the Bechdel Test, but violates it to a whole ‘another level. Ultimately, you see the hero sweep away the credit for everything, but you often completely ignore the fact that it was due to this girl, who he so often derogatorily called “tomboy”, that he became a better person.
However, Bollywood even with its massively problematic take on butch women, and with a majority of only hyper feminine women in its films, has still managed to screen some queer moments, (read: unknowingly/unwittingly). This is an attempt to collect some of Bollywood’s sub textual and subliminal Sapphic musical moments through time.
While Shaandaar is a love story between the characters of Alia Bhatt and Shahid Kapoor, it also dares out to address (and also fails miserably at) the issues of gender disparity, patriarchy, positive body image and female empowerment. In this song sequence, Alia (Bhatt) and JJ (Kapoor) are serenading Alia’s half-sister, Isha, before her impending nuptials, and applauding her for who she is and her natural beauty. However, it is interesting to see how Alia is wearing a suit and a moustache to top off her almost drag king look, while keeping up with Kapoor’s dance moves. There is even a scene in the video (around the 1:45 minute mark) where she feigns a romantic/sexual relationship with Isha.
2. and 3.
Film: Bajirao Mastani, Devdas
Song: Pinga, Dola Re Dola
Dola Re Dola was probably the first of its kind music video, and with a big director like Sanjay Leela Bhansali creating a dance duet in arguably his first big budget cinematic magnum opus. The Bollywood dance was given a new twist, with two heroines at its centre, dancing in perfect harmony with each other. And while the lyrics talk of their respective loves for the film’s titular hero, the smiles they pass to each other do not fit in with the animosity two rivals in love should have. And if you think I am the only who noticed this subtext, then you are wrong, there are countless other Internet denizens who agree to the same.
While Bajirao Mastani might not have passed the Bechdel Test when it comes to its two female protagonists, as you see Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra) and Mastani (Deepika Padukone) at constant loggerheads over being the object of Bajirao’s (Ranveer Singh) affections, the visualization of Pinga offers a delightful dancing camaraderie between the two female protagonists, who while they are again singing about the common object of their affections, have at least put aside their differences with each other, and are also exonerating each other for their virtues.
Film: Razia Sultan
Song: Khwab Ban Kar Koi Aayega
Coming from a film that was made in 1983, and has had two famous and beautiful Indian actresses of the yesteryears in this song sequence, I was just as flabbergasted as anyone who stumbled upon this. While the intention or the screenplay might not have portrayed the characters of Khakun (Parveen Babi) and Razia Begum (Hema Malini) as same-sex lovers, the depiction of the two in this video seems decidedly Sapphic, as the two partake in a passionate embrace (which is hidden from the audience by means of a flowery fan, that can interpreted as a popular Bollywood motif for sexual intercourse). And if that does not convince you, the reaction of the maids thereafter only confirms it for even the most ill-informed of audiences.
Watch from the 1:23 minute mark, if you do not believe me.
This is not a musical sequence per se, but a really powerful scene from one of my favourite Bollywood films of all time, with Radhika Apte playing the character of Lajjo and Tannistha Chatterjee playing Rani. The story is set in rural Rajasthan, and Lajjo’s character is a young woman, who is a virgin and has never experienced sexual pleasure or marital happiness, as she is subjected to repeated physical abuse at the hands of her much older husband. Rani is aware of this abuse, and on one such instance, when Lajjo runs to her best friend for help, the two share an intimate moment together.
However, this scene in Parched really blurs the boundaries between lesbian subtext and reality, as it is quite the opposite. Rani and Lajjo both have been trying as women to fight and survive against the family members of the oppressive patriarchal society they live with. This poignant moment where the two kiss, is not romantic or sexual in its nature, rather, but a strong, emotionally charged moment, where two beaten down characters come together and bare their vulnerabilities and seek solace in each other.
Film: Dil Dhadakne Do
Song: Girls Like To Swing
Maybe it is the lesbian in me reading things a little too hard, or the YouTube user who echoes the same a few comments down, but the song takes a different and more vibrant turn when Farah (Anushka Sharma), who plays Kabir’s (Ranveer Singh) love interest in the film, takes his sister Ayesha’s hand at the last second in this song sequence. Up till then, the song has been suggestive of Farah’s growing romantic leanings towards Kabir, but the instant Farah and Ayesha start dancing and singing together, it boldly subverts and gives a new meaning to the title of the song: maybe girls do like to swing, both ways, it seems.
Film: Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na
Song: Pappu Can’t Dance Saala
When I first watched Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, I always had this nagging suspicion in the back of my head that Shaleen (Sugandha Garg) was a lesbian, only to be sorely disappointed towards the end of the film, where we find she has been paired off with the supporting male character in the friend circle. Shaleen was classy, feminine, and tough, played the guitar, and displayed platonic affection towards her male friends rather than any sort of sexual attraction. And sure enough, there are a dozen fan theories floating around on the Internet that she was one. However, during the famous party anthem that was “Pappu Can’t Dance Saala”, seeing Shaleen dance (in a skirt paired with black leather boots) in a less-than-friendly-and-more-Sapphically way at around the 3:40 minute mark onwards basically cemented my belief that there was no way in hell Shaleen was straight. In fact, according to the TV Tropes page on the film, it is mentioned that the director states in the DVD commentary that he intended for Shaleen to be a lesbian, but in the film this is depicted entirely through subtext.
At around the 12:30 minute mark of this clip from the film, you see this excruciating “will-they-won’t-they” buildup that involves a short chase from a red light area, an intimate and homely party scene, from where the film’s protagonist, Mahi (Kareena Kapoor) and Promita (Shahana Goswami) engage in what seems to be a one night stand. That is, until all your dreams are dashed into dust by Madhur Bhandarkar, as Mahi gives Promita the cold shoulder throughout afterwards, making you empathize with the latter, until Promita herself dismisses their sexual encounter (that is never explicitly shown in the film) says “For God’s sake, I’m not a lesbian”. This is incredibly frustrating to watch, as it completely glosses over canon queerness and turns it back into subtext, thereby erasing what could have been a maturely handled queer love story.
Other honourable mentions:
These songs/videos do not fall into the subtext category, but instead count as the few rare moments where the Indian media industry dared, or atleast tried to convert subtext into maintext.
Film: Angry Indian Goddesses
This film touched my heart, and I am sure that it did for many other Bollywood loving queer ladies. Sure, I did not like the ending of the film (not going to give you spoilers), but it at least let its lesbian couple live and be together. The film’s plot revolves around a group of female friends who all come together to Goa for their friend Frieda’s (Sarah Jane-Dias) sudden nuptials, only for them to discover that she is going to marry Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee). This film is way ahead of its times, not only maturely handling the storyline of an Indian interfaith lesbian couple, but also tackling female friendships, gender equality, the toxic effects of modern day patriarchy, while showing an ensemble of fleshed out female characters on screen. Take notes, rest of Bollywood!
Film: Dedh Ishqiya
Song: Hamari Atariya
Dedh Ishqiya does not show two caricaturized lesbian characters, neither does it claim to be a “lesbian love story”. It is a simple and plain love story, only the two people in the love story happen to be women, and this is revealed right in the ending of the film, when all the loose ends tie up. It has the characters of Begum Para and Muniya at its centre who exercise their own agency, as opposed to Radha and Sita who are trapped in abusive/neglected marriages and find solace in each other. Loosely based on Ismat Chughtai’s short story Lihaaf (The Quilt), you cannot help but rejoice as the two women successfully dupe the two male protagonists, Babban and Khalujaan, and ride off in the sunset in a beaten down Maruti 800.
Artist: Humble The Poet
Features the famous Indian origin Youtuber Lilly Singh, aka, iiSuperwomanii, in an interracial same-sex relationship with another actress. ‘Nuff said.
Song: Lay You Down
In a multi-artist collaboration, Indian singer-actresses, Anushka Manchanda and Monica Dogra, are depicted in a relationship in this video for the song by indie artists Nanok and Ray Dee. The video has been shot aesthetically, and has softcore elements; it shows like any love story, the beginning, the middle, and the ending of a relationship. It just happens to centre around two women, like any other romantic relationship.