From being comic reliefs and burlesques to being entirely erased, the Indian LGBTQIA+ community became victims to these ideas. One of the earliest shown gay character shown in a Hindi movie was in Mast Kalandar (1991), played by Anupam Kher. The character was a disgraceful, effeminate and predatory homosexual man called Pinkoo. The film tapped right into the general revulsion towards alternative sexual orientations and mocked them. Pinkoo was a source of shame for his villainous father, a stark contrast to the virtuous protagonist and a sleazy predator with pink hair.
Pinkoo’s character arc, and the creative decisions behind him, highlight the damaging stereotypes attached to Indian gay men. This comedic relief disappears in actual cases of harassment that homosexual and transgender men in India endure due to being perceived as effeminate and prurient. These portrayals perpetuate the inherent homophobia and celebrate it. Caricatures, stereotypes, misinformation and inappropriate humour are employed to deride and represent gay men in a majority of Hindi-language movies. A popular way to discredit criticism is equating misrepresentation with the political incorrectness prevalent in the previous century.
However, another mainstream movie applauded for its supposed gay representation is the 2008 movie, Dostana. The film received positive reviews and became one of the highest-grossing films of the year, crossing Rs. 871 million in revenue. It had heterosexual, cisgender men Kunal and Sam pretending to be a gay couple to find housing, and a burlesqued gay man, Murli. All the gay characters – or those pretending to be gay – are portrayed as effeminate and caricatures while also being predators towards heterosexual men. Kunal and Sam, played by John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan, play into promiscuous and exaggerated stereotypes in their idiosyncrasies, conversation and outfits. Kunal is further apprehensive and fearful of gay men, while being embarrassed about having to act like one.
These creative choices are often lauded for their awareness, while their harmful aspects get overlooked. The stereotypes and humorous acts are seen as acts of categorisation and stifling of individuality. These associations enable the identification of the community and their reduction to heteronormative binaries of feminity and masculinity. Homosexual men are seen as feminine and lesbians as masculine “tomboys” due to the societal binaries attached to sexual orientations.
Furthermore, this identification and categorisation become harmful for homosexual men outside movies. Homosexual men become subjects of hate crime, harassment and ostracisation due to these associations.
In addition to the stereotypical portrayal, Dostana had a humorous song demonstrating a hidebound mother attempting to exercise conversion therapy on her gay son. Conversion therapies, like the ones shown, are commonly practised by traditional families on LGBTQIA+ children. Conversion practices often involve shock therapy, surgery, exorcism, antipsychotic medications and corrective rape by family members. To further trivialise LGBTQIA+ issues, the song is one of the most popular wedding songs. Most weddings have mothers or friends of the bridegroom dancing and imitating Kirron Kher’s choreography. This popularity demonstrates the reaffirmation of stereotypes, trivialisation of traumatic issues and the commercial aspects of misrepresentation.
This mistreatment is not a one-off topic; there are many predatory gay characters like Dean Vashisht from Student Of The Year (2012) that enforce a dangerous narrative. Erasing dignity and respect from representation does more harm than good. In terms of transgender characters, during the Golden Era of Hindi Cinema, characters were deliberately cross-dressing as a humour tactic. There have been several comic sequences and songs featuring male actors dressed in feminine items. Govinda’s filmography is littered with his characters cross-dressing (and harassing) in David Dhawan movies. Similarly, Mere Angane Mein from Lawaaris (1981) showed Amitabh Bachchan cross-dressing to perform as a eunuch, perpetuating the stereotype that transgender women are predatory men who wear dresses to lure cisgender women. These portrayals violate the empathy behind gender identity, sexual orientation and mental health of the community members.
One of the biggest offenders is Suresh Menon – his acting career is littered with him playing the predatory gay character who is a sleaze and has the most atrocious fashion sense. Donning bright pink shirts and a ‘feminine’ tone, he has trivialised and recycled the same character in Masti, Grand Masti, Mastizaade and Partner. He succumbs to the ‘gay best friend’ trope where the only character trait is his sexuality/gender identity and being at the heroine’s arm at all times while being judgemental or predatory towards men.
Numerous LGBTQIA+ children observe the burlesques in the name of representation and develop internalised homophobia. Additionally, they grapple with remaining closeted and dysphoric for years. Moreover, cisgender, heterosexual children grow up watching the destructive delineation that reaffirms stereotypes and bigotry. These children often further the cycle of social exclusion, hate crimes and irreversible trauma. Society extols characters that reiterate the historical doctrines of gender, sex and sexual orientations.
The seemingly modern industry is still inherently exclusive in its portrayals of minorities. The defects in on-screen representation operate in parallel with the off-screen conditioning that its target audience receives. For every community to get appropriate representation, the culture must be inclusive. Therefore, in this quest for performative activism that pleases both the conservative and liberal sections, Bollywood has resorted to stereotypes instead of suitable representation.