I see it embedded amidst the infinite scroll of suggestions that YouTube lobs at me. The title – Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (loosely translated as “Be Extremely Wary of Marriage”) – is playful enough to warrant attention but it is the thumbnail which makes me pause. It shows a popular Indian actor sitting in the lap of another man. I catch my breath, my finger hovering over the screen. Could it finally be happening?
And in that microsecond pause, between seeing and clicking on the link, lies the story of my life. And of the lives of countless Indian men who discovered, at some point in time, that they were gay.
Until a rainy summer night six years ago when I began my transatlantic move to America, I had never set foot outside India for any considerable length of time. By extension, this had also meant that I could never muster the courage to step out of the closet. Other than my parents, whom I’d finally told a while back after years of worrying, no one else knew. Or at least, as I would find out some years later when I started coming out to my friends over international phone calls, they had suspected it but could never put it into words. Such was the stigma surrounding homosexuality in our growing-up years that you wouldn’t wish it for your best friend.
Because to be gay in India meant being a criminal. The spectre of Section 377, among the most poisonous remnants of India’s colonial history, cast a shadow that turned day into night. And so, I looked to the stars for hope. Not to the ones that hung in the sky, but to those that glittered on the marquee. In other words, to Bollywood.
I grew up with an all-consuming love for Bollywood movies. They supplied the canvas for my visions and the soundtrack to my life’s cadences. To go to the theatre to watch a movie was to touch magic. And nowhere was that magic more apparent than in the quintessential Bollywood romance. While the ‘rom com’ will always be a favoured genre of mine, few American or English movies would make as deep an impression on my adolescent psyche as the epic romances that Indian cinema was so fond of, and so good at, back then. As I grew up in a small place, my initial trysts with such movies were limited to the possibilities offered by the three single-screen theatres that dotted my hometown. There was an urban legend surrounding a fourth theatre that had been shuttered under ‘mysterious circumstances’ (a euphemism for ‘they showed smut’) but nothing was ever proven. And modern multiplexes, with their jaw-dropping levels of lavish comfort, were still a decade away.
While each theatre had a distinct architectural personality, their insides were uncannily similar. Depressingly lit foyers, tarnished bannisters, and nightmarish restrooms. Popcorn, if available, promised to be stale and no one who worked at the theatre could be held guilty of smiling. Ushers would vaguely direct me to my seat with the aid of a thermos-sized flashlight, its flickering beam illuminating a cloud of dust motes plentifully swirling through the air. The seats were hard and punishingly straight-backed, guaranteeing a backache by the end of the 3-hour runtime. And throughout the darkness there either hung the nauseating reek of paan (a betel leaf-areca nut combo favoured by a regrettable majority of theatre patrons) or the (somehow worse) stench of cheap air freshener hastily sprayed in-between shows in a miscalculated but well-intentioned bid to gussy up the place.
But all these creature discomforts would melt away when the credits started to roll and imaginary curtains would lift to reveal the latest edition of Love, Bollywood-style. Within minutes I would fall under the movie’s spell, imagining myself as the leading man dancing around trees in the rain with an impeccably coiffed head of hair, showing off wardrobe choices that made up for in theatricality what they lacked in practicality, fighting the villain’s goons so that Good could triumph over Evil, and delivering soliloquies that would have made Julius Caesar envious. Shot through all this, like a golden thread through a tapestry, was the romance. A saga of serendipitous meet-cutes, playful banter, innocent flirtations, heart-stopping dilemmas, and heartfelt reconciliations, all done against painterly landscapes and opulent mansions. And, because it was a Bollywood movie, the leading man naturally took regular breaks to serenade his leading lady with charming ditties in the moonlight.
It was this last point that I would come back to many years later with a growing sense of disquiet; the one flaw in this wondrous technicolour dream.
He never serenaded another leading man.
I kept waiting.
As did, I imagine, all other gay men.
Adolescents who grew up convinced that something was horrifically wrong with them because nowhere could they find their confusion and experience represented in mass media. Youths who desperately sought inspiration and reassurance to be confident in their own skin but couldn’t find a strong gay role model even in liberal Tinseltown, let alone the forbidding “real world”. Men who were leading, to borrow from Thoreau, lives of quiet desperation because they had caved in to familial demands and were now trapped in bleak facsimiles of marriages with women; because what could they point to in the culture around them that could have helped them defend their orientation?
To be gay had to be an anomaly, an aberration, an abomination.
Because if it wasn’t, why wasn’t there a Bollywood movie about it?
Fire. My Brother…Nikhil. I Am. Bombay Talkies. Margarita with a Straw.
Until a few years ago, these and a few other titles comprised much of the queer Indian filmography that tried to portray some facets of the LGBTQIA+ experience without succumbing to stereotypes or resorting to ridicule. Not surprisingly, these movies were often characterised as being niche or arthouse and were never accorded the same fanfare or media attention that was canon for the average Bollywood potboiler. Most of these movies were also sombre, dealing with characters who were trapped in unhappy marriages, dealing with an HIV diagnosis, or were being blackmailed. 2016 brought with it two excellent movies: Aligarh and Kapoor and Sons. While both were excellently made and thought-provoking, the former about a professor suspended for his orientation and the latter about a dysfunctional family with a closeted son, their overall tone was still serious as they dwelt on the challenges of being gay in India. So much for serendipitous meet-cutes and playful banter.
Two more years pass before, in 2018, the Supreme Court of India finally does away with the problematic provisions of Section 377, decriminalizing homosexuality. A nation exhales. Pride marches blossom in different Indian cities. A rainbow-colored milestone suddenly illuminates a grey road. My parents and friends call me to share the news. It’s no longer a crime to just be me. I’m sitting in a cafe next to my campus and I pause to look outside the window at an impossibly blue Midwestern sky. My forehead wrinkles as I try to recall the fear and frustration that I had carried as invisible baggage for most of my life before I came to the U.S.
I started coming out less than a year after arriving in the States as I realized that I could live my life as an out gay man here. It was a long journey and one that’s still ongoing; replete with whirlwind crushes, coffee dates, drag shows, gay bars, dating apps, lavender graduations, firm friendships, gentle heartbreaks, first meetings, second thoughts, and boatloads of Pride. I started wearing shorts for the first time in my life after middle school. I became part of a gay men’s weekly volleyball group. I had my first real kiss in a small gay bar in Seattle. I recently volunteered at a local Pride event for the first time. I’ve even begun toying with the crazy idea of wearing pink on Wednesday to honour the legacy of Mean Girls.
The closet in India feels like a lifetime ago.
I click on the link. The trailer is funny, fearless, and oh-so-Bollywood-esque! Vibrant colours, choreographed dance numbers, a lavish wedding, theatricality, melodrama, monologues, and humour. I can’t stop myself from smiling and hope that it gets released in the little city that I now live in, a place that reminds me a little bit of my hometown with its quiet pace of life. I imagine myself going to the theatre here, with its sleek ticketing kiosks, brightly lit foyers, richly carpeted floors, and bountiful snack counters bursting at the seams with hot popcorn. I imagine myself standing outside one of the many auditoria within the multiplex, the digital display informing me that the movie is about to start in a few minutes.
And I know that I will think about growing up in India and going to the movies.
About how my love for Bollywood made its persistent refusal to acknowledge my sexuality in a mainstream movie so much more hurtful.
About how this movie will hopefully be the first of a long line of Bollywood movies which will not only normalize the depiction of LGBTQIA+ Indians but also provide cultural touchstones for generations of queer Indians who will finally be able to see people like them represented in cinema, perhaps the most magical medium of them all.
And I imagine taking a deep breath and walking into the theatre.
Because, after waiting for nearly three decades, I’m finally going to see a leading man serenade another leading man.
And I can’t wait to imagine myself in his place.