Movie Theatres: A Safe Space For Expression Of Queer Identity In R. Raj Rao’s Novel Hostel Room 131

For two young men in pre-Independence India, going to the cinema gave them a freedom to act on their whims – some casual such as smoking and chewing betel-nut while others more suggestive like reveling in each other’s company in a dark and confined space and gossiping about matters of the heart.

Anyone who has read R.K. Narayan’s novel The Bachelor of Arts (1937) can vouch for the inseparable friendship of Chandran and Ramu. Apart from being mates involved in a motley group of activities, their movie-going ritual to ‘Select Picture House’ is an act discussed in leisurely detail by the author. For Chandran, in particular, going to the cinema is an ‘aesthetic’ experience and the presence of Ramu complements his carefree attitude. In Narayan’s words –‘Ramu’s company was most important to him’. They are in a world of their own within the vicinity of the cinema theatre. For two young men in pre-Independence India, going to the cinema gave them a freedom to act on their whims – some casual such as smoking and chewing betel-nut while others more suggestive like reveling in each other’s company in a dark and confined space and gossiping about matters of the heart. It might (or might not) be a hyperbolic task to read too much into their friendship but together they unwittingly become the perfect predecessors to the young gay lovers Siddharth and Sudhir in R. Raj Rao’s novel Hostel Room 131 (2010). They too enjoy their regular trips to the cinema theatre, as it gives them a space of their own, away from the prying eyes of the society, to be themselves, without giving a second thought.

Cinematic references are a way of life for Siddharth who forms one half of the lead couple in R. Raj Rao’s novel Hostel Room 131. Early on, in the novel he compares his proudly femme boyfriend Sudhir to Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram for his delicate walking style. However, when they went to see the movie at Deccan Talkies, they engaged themselves in the act of fellatio and Zeenat Aman’s sex appeal paled in front of their burning desires.

Siddharth unflinchingly believes that the song Yeh Dosti from theiconic movie Sholay is an inconspicuous gay anthem, replete with double-meaning lyrics. In fact, it won’t be wrong to say that he has a thing for Amitabh Bachchan, in particular. He deliberately tries to subvert Bachchan’s angry young man image by lending a homosexual narrative to his onscreen persona. It is his way of making a cinematic icon relatable to himself – a gay man in his early 20s, living in 1970s India, whose only safe haven is his mind and the interiors of a movie theatre where his thinking takes flights of fancy.

According to Siddharth, Bachchan is in love with Shashi Kapoor in Shaan and he calls Amar Akbar Anthony a film about threesomes. So, when he goes to watch the Bachchan starrer Muqqaddar Ka Sikander with his lover Sudhir at the Mangala theatre, he can’t refrain from commenting that the reigning superstar of Hindi cinema is, in fact, in love with his equally macho co-star Vinod Khanna rather than with the leading ladies of the film. During the show, after the lights go out, Siddharth gets frisky with an equally turned-on Sudhir. Now, from a heterosexual point of view, this is nothing out of the ordinary. The darkened spaces of movie theatres have always been providing a safe space for straight horny couples to act out their carnal desires. However, from the point of view of two young Indian gay men, indulging in sexual activity inside a movie theatre is nothing short of a conscious act of rebellion. Come to think of it, a movie theatre is not exactly an isolated public space but it, however, gives the illusion of isolation and the feeling of being far away from the clutches of the moral policing of a largely heterosexual society. Siddharth and Sudhir are aware of this and they always make the most of such situations.

One thing is for sure, that the hangover effect of cinema gives rise to discourses. And Siddharth loves to deconstruct the Hindi films songs of Bachchan starrers and give them preposterous homosexual twists. After forever ruining the Yeh Dosti song from Sholay for the heterosexuals, he harboured similar plans for the song Yaari hain Iman from Zanjeer. To quote the author R. Raj Rao here – Amitabh looks so coy as the manly Pathan sings to him. The Pathan in the song is played by the veteran actor, Pran.

In another novel of Rao’s, The Boyfriend, the two lead characters Yudi and Milind after participating in a fake gay wedding ceremony, just for the heck and fun of it, decide to go and watch Baazigar at a nearby theatre called Bajrangbali, for their ‘honeymoon’. Here the celebratory occasion of a honeymoon period is juxtaposed with the act of casualness of cinema-going. The darkness of the cinema theatre provides them the privacy and opportunity to officiate their marriage.

For R. Raj Rao, the movie theatre and its vicinity provides a double-edged sense of freedom and rebellion. The names of the movie theatres are no less than minor characters in his novels. Natraj, Mangala, Alankar, Alexandra, Regal and Bajrangbali all have one thing in common – they are all complicit in nurturing the ‘forbidden’ love of two young gay men. So, when Siddharth and Sudhir go to watch a night show of Kaala Patthar (starring Bachchan, of course) at Alankar theatre, they mirror their flamboyant predecessors Chandran and Ramu. They are separated by time and space but are united in their mission of normalising unabashed display of male-bonding; homo-erotic or otherwise.

About the author

David Lagachu

Constantly trying to strike a fine balance between my love for academia and pop-culture. I hate labels as they are very limiting. I genuinely believe this is the era of queer people and the best is yet to come.