Evolution of Queer Representations In Indian Cinema

Evolution of queer representations in films (from the movie Fire to Kapoor And Sons) , and what does that say about what to expect in the future. You could identify some key milestones of queer movies in the mainstream cinema and draw your understanding from those.

In the 1960s, with the introduction of the birth control pill, sexual revolution swept through the Western World. The new found sexual liberation made it’s way into popular culture and literature. In the 7Os, the worldwide gay rights movement opened the eyes of filmmakers and soon alternate sexuality became a commonly explored theme. It took another 40 years for Indian filmmakers to even begin hinting at the idea of homosexuality.

India is the largest film producing country in the world. The Indian cinema is not only viewed within the nation, but also among the expanding network of diaspora communities across the world. Cinema is the most mainstream, popular and most accessible form of art, making it one of the most powerful in terms of its ability to influence people. Given its reach, it is surprising that the industry has done very little to understand the queer culture.

Of course, back in the 60s, the Indian cinema was going through a shift of its own, bringing to its audience more realistic family/ romantic movies. In a country where sex continues to be a taboo topic, no one dared to explore themes of same-sex relationships. In the past several years, even while continuing to perpetuate stereotypes about homosexuality, the Indian cinema has opened up the conversation about the same to the public.


The Macho Heroes vs The Wimp of The 60s and 70s

Actor MG Ramachandran
Actor MG Ramachandran

In the early years, when the leading men, be it Pramathesh Barua, Kundan Lal Saigal or MG Ramachandran, were still trying to find an identity in an industry that was in an experimental stage, it was normal for the heroes to be genteel. Mannerisms on celluloid had still not been influenced by the American popular culture. It was in the 60s and 70s that the heroes forgot what the stage had taught them and began adopting urbane ways of self-expression. A hero became a man who wouldn’t shy away from action and bloodshed. Then, Amitabh Bachchan entered the industry and made ‘the angry young man’ the look of the century, thereby introducing machismo as a characteristic of every male hero. The genteel charm that was once the defining feature of a hero was used to create a whole new set of characters —the wimp.

It was only in the last twenty years or so that creators started exploring the theme queer identity seriously. It was a bigger struggle for filmmakers, who have been constantly forced to choose between what is morally acceptable and the need to keep with the changing times. While filmmakers shied away from portraying same-sex relationships, they made an attempt to explore and understand the third gender. Santhosh Sowparnika’s ‘Ardhanari’, Santosh Sivan’s ‘Navarasa’ and David Atkins’ ‘Queens! Destiny of Dance’ were seen as some later attempts to step away from the stereotypical image of a hijda invading the house of a new mother. In the 90s there seemed to be a more concerted effort from the filmmakers to empathise the plight of transgenders. For the first time there used for more than cheap laughs, instead, choosing to highlight them as a secretive community with no morals or social system. Mahesh Bhatt’s ‘Tamanna’, the Tamil film Appu (2000), Shabnam Mausi (2005), Shyam Benegal’s ‘Welcome to Sajjanpur’ (2008) and Marathi film ‘Jogwa’ (2009) were some of the first few movies that saw members of the third gender enjoy a longer screen time.


Many believe that ‘Rafoo Chakkar’ (1975) which showcased the relationship between Rajinder Nath and Paintal (who was dressed as a woman) is one of the first references to homosexuality in a Bollywood movie. By the end of the movie, even after the truth is revealed regarding his gender, you see the characters accept that fact that ‘no one’s perfect’. Mast Kalander (1981) featured Bollywood’s ‘first’ out and out ‘gay’ character, Pinku. He was both a comic and a villain. He appeared in the movie clad in flaming yellow or pink suits. When Pinku isn’t plotting fell murders and kidnappings, you see him chasing men. Any ambiguity that could have cropped up in the minds of the audience, with respect to his sexual orientation, is dismissed in the opening scene itself. You see him running his fingers over his father’s brawny body and asking ‘Daddy, hamara body aapke jaise strong aur muscular kyoon nahin hai?’ (‘Daddy, why isn’t my body as strong and muscular as yours?’)


Crossdressers and Hijras

Amitabh Bachchan in the song “Mere Angane Mein” from Laawaris (1981)

When discussing the culture of queer representation in Bollywood cinema, we have to talk about its long tradition of comic sequences and/or songs featuring cross-dressing stars. Think, Amitabh Bachchan in the song Mere Angane Mein Laawaris (1981).

Most of Bollywood’s representation of the LGBTQ community has come in the form of characters that defied gender stereotypes. Take for example, Kammo and Gulab Singh in Raja Hindustani (1996) or even Aamir Khan in Baazi (1995). In Baazi, you find Aamir Khan take up the persona of a woman, to seduce and thereby, trap the villain of the movie, At the climax, you see him strip his attire and beat up the villain, in an excessive display of aggression, almost as if try to redeem himself for acting queer. On, the other hand, we have also seen strong women, such as Fearless Nadia and Vijaya Shanti, who step aside from the demure, glamorous girls as well as the masculine women stereotype, to show that women can be tough and glamorous. But, what has often been observed that effeminate characters, much like Gulab Singh are often dubbed as Hijras, while the idea of a strong women as a star is only accepted if they managed to stay glamorous and continue to exhibit feminine traits.

Actor Sadashiv Amrapurkar in film Sadak (1991)
Actor Sadashiv Amrapurkar in film Sadak (1991)

The actual representation of the transgender community in Indian cinema, however, has always been a bone of contention for LGBTQ activists and members. They are often always portrayed as an aberration. ‘Saadak’ (1991) starring Sanjay Dutt and Pooja Bhatt, for example, portrays a transgender character that is given a small screen time, and is depicted as completely evil. It is mostly after the decriminalisation of Article 377, that movies like Arekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love story) (2010) and Ardhanaari that tries to portray the real-life issues of the community and educate its viewers.


The BFF Conundrum: Best Friend or BoyFriend?

Movies made across the country have always given a special place to friendships. From Chaudvin Ka Chand and Sholay to Dil Chahta Hai and Kai Po Che, filmmakers have always tried representing an honest, loyal friendship between two or more men. In some such movies, the female character serves as a love interest for both the characters, and very often the men decide to leave the heroine, and save their friendship; or you find one of the characters making a sacrifice, because the happiness of his friend is more important.

Then, there are movies like Andaz (1949) and Sangam (1964) that follow a love triangle, where the real love story is friendship between the two heroes and the female lead exists only to lessen the homosexual sting.

Actors Amitabh Bachchan & Pran in film Zanjeer (1973)
Actors Amitabh Bachchan & Pran in film Zanjeer (1973)

The 1973 movie, Zanjeer, shows cop-turned-vigilante Vijay (played by Amitabh Bachchan) befriending Sher Khan (played by Pran). In the movie, you see their relationship being depicted with a hyper-romantic flare. The fact that Pran dances around Vijay while singing Yari Hai Imaan Mera, which is an ode to their friendship, has been interpreted by many as a declaration of his love. The fact that Vijay gives more importance to Pran over his relationship with Mala (Jaya Bachchan) is worth noting. The proclamation of their undying friendship through songs became a popular trend in Indian cinema– Yeh Dosti, the title track of Dil Chahta Hai being some of the popular examples.


Lesbianism in a man’s world

While Bollywood was still coming into terms with the existence of alternate sexuality, regional cinemas boldly portrayed same sex relationships early on. However, it is interesting to note that most often the same-sex relationship that was portrayed in these movies, involved two women, and never two men. In 1981, Vijay Tendulkar wrote Mitrachi Gostha (A friend’s story) which was made it to a movie, following the story’s success as a play. The next year, he wrote the Marathi film ‘Umbartha’ that hinted at a lesbian relationship between two inmates of a remand home released.


Ligy J Pullappally’s film Sancharram (2004), Buddhadev Dasgupta’s Bengali film ‘Uttara’ (2000) are other examples. The earliest references to gay theme in Malayalam cinema was ‘Randu Penkuttikal’ (1978), which follows the story of Kokila who loves, almost obsessively, the elegant and beautiful danseuse, Girija. While the ending of the movie, suggests that their relationship was just a phase that could be ended with the intervention of the society, credit has to be given for being one of the earliest movies to discuss the possibility of homosexuality in heteronormative society. You also find homoerotic references in ‘Deshadanakkili Karayaarilla’ (1986), Rithu (2009) and ‘Paranja Katha’ (2010).

This was a refreshing change from the otherwise negative portrayal of same-sex couples across Indian cinema, like in Girlfriend (2004). That being said, several movies that did come out from the Bollywood industry did try to shed light into female same-sex relationships. What’s interesting is, most such movies were set in women-only spaces, such as brothels, women’s prisons or even girls only schools. Utsav (1984), for example, is set in a brothel. The movie shows us Vasantasena, a prostitute, who falls in love with Charudutt, a merchant. However, halfway through the movie you see Charudutt moving into the background, and being replaced by his wife, Aditi. You see Vasantasena exchange clothes and jewelry, and singsongs– of which alludes to a sexual relationship. While this movie gives the presence of female homoerotic desires great importance in the narrative, as opposed to just being an interruption to heterosexual relations, several analysts have critiqued the movie for merely “playing out the ultimate male fantasy.” The entire relationship between Vasantasena and Aditi, according to them, only exists to absolve Charudutt from the guilt of being unfaithful. Subhah (1981) takes place in a women’s reformatory. In Subhah, you see Savitri struggle to leave the middle-class domesticity that was forced upon her. She joins as a warden of the reformatory, where she finds love, and in the end you see her embarking on a train journey alone. What sets the movie apart is the fact that this was one of the first movies to define the homosexual relationship using the term “lesbian”.

Another movie that openly dealt with lesbians is Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) that went on to gain a lot of attention, despite its rather bold topic. You see two women who have similar issues with their spouses, bond, and eventually fall in love. However, once again, as in Subhah, you find that their relationship comes out of their frustration with their respective heterosexual relationships, giving the impression that their relationship, and as a result, every same-sex female relationship, is a result of a failed relationship. Anjali Gopalan, founder of Naz Foundation, once said in an interview, “What can be more challenging to patriarchy than women saying they don’t need men? The issue of lesbianism hasn’t been accepted like male homosexuality. Unlike men who are gay, women who see themselves as lesbians… are still at the bottom of the totem pole. The film helped because a lot of people who were thinking of rights got together to… talk about inclusiveness.” Add to this mindset, movies like Girlfriend that portrays homosexuality as a mental illness, and we set ourselves back.


Mainstream will make you scream

Most mainstream movies have continued to have a skewed portrayal of homosexuality. While trying to be sympathetic to the plight of sexual minorities, they continue to propagate the same stereotypes that have been associated with them, since time immemorial. Madhur Bhandarkar’s ‘Page 3’ (2005), Anurag Basu’s ‘Life in a… Metro’ (2007), Reema Kagti’s ‘Honeymoon Travels’ (2007), and Parvati Balagopalan’s ‘Rules – Pyar Ka Superhit Formula’ (2003) are examples of how the mainstream celluloid let down queer cinema.

Several directors took to making documentaries so that they could do what the mainstream cinema couldn’t achieve. Nishit Saran filmed ‘Summer In My Veins‘ (1999) on a mother coming to terms with her son’s sexuality. Kaizad Gustad’s ‘Bombay Boys’ (1998) and Riyad Vinci Wadia’s ‘Bomgay’ were the breakout films of this time to openly discuss homosexuality in the context of urban living. Dev Benegal’s ‘Split Wide Open’ starring Rahul Bose and Laila Rouass, and Ian Iqbal Radhika ‘Surviving Sabu’ – a film about a father and his gay son’s abrasive relationship – are some or the other significant narratives on homosexuality.

Film My Brother Nikhil (2005)
Film My Brother Nikhil (2005)

The aim was to educate and enlighten the public through short films, documentaries and features. ‘Tedhi Lakeer’ (2004), ‘Teen Deewarein’ (2003), ‘My Brother Nikhil’, Marathi film ‘Thang’ (2006), ‘Touch of Pink’ (2004), ‘Stag’ (2001), Water (2005), Yours Emotionally (2006), ‘Piku Bhalo Aachhey’ (Bengali, 2004), ‘Happy Hookers’ (2006), ‘I Can’t Think Straight’ (2007) and ‘Luck by Chance’ (2009) were all made as part of an effort to understand the cultural phenomena of the queer movement.

Several gay rights activists and filmmakers, such as Sridhar Rangayan, Onir and Rituparno Ghosh, entered the realm of filmmaking to change the discourse. Rangayan has made many successive films such as ‘The Pink Mirror’ (2006), ‘Yours Emotionally’ (2007) and ’68 Pages’ (2007). Onir’s ‘I AM’, an anthology film consists of four short stories.


Meanwhile mainstream Bollywood tried in its own way to reconcile to the gay theme, but even with examples from several non-commercial, and regional movie, filmmakers still can’t seem to find a way to create a proper dialogue on the theme. Films such as ‘Dostana’ and ‘Student of The Year’ tried to introduce homosexuality in the plot but did nothing to shed any amount of insight into the life of someone who falls within the queer community. Both the movies made money by spoofing gay men. Even today, when larger questions of homosexuality such as the freedom to marry are being spoken about, the larger and influential section of the industry continues to stay aloof.


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Armed with a B.A in English Literature from St. Xavier's college, Mumbai she set out to become a writer about a year ago. When not binge eating and watching reruns of any show she can get her hands on you will find her talking animatedly/ day dreaming/ glued to a book.
Krupa Joseph

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