Glitz, Glamour and Homophobia

100 minutes into Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine, Shahana Goswami proclaims with blithe arrogance, “I mean, for god’s sake, I am not a lesbian.” And in the wee hours of dawn, I am thwarted by the force of a realization. The entertainment industry that has encumbered me since my earliest memories of a sun-kissed childhood has been patronizing homophobia for decades, sometimes with casual mockery wrapped in rib-ticklers, and sometimes rather insidiously.

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Bhandarkar’s Heroine, where homosexuality was openly insulted.

Oh Bollywood! So pretty with your sparkling clothes, your larger-than-life stories and those fantastical songs that have led to every other citizen in this country to dream about romancing with their Prince Charming or Dream Girl in the exquisite beaches of Santorini or in the snow-laden mountains of Switzerland. And like every other parched romantic soul, I too have grown around the colors of Bollywood, having spent a childhood merrily dancing to Sri Devi’s “Hawa Hawai” and Karisma Kapoor’s “Le Gayi”. But the minute when all the pretty facades crumble into dust, its flaws are left for all to be seen, or mostly in our case, sadly unseen.

Take for instance the tear-jerking blockbuster that Karan Johar produced in 2003. Kal Ho Naa Ho was heralded as the film of its generation, with its dreamy montages of New York and the Brooklyn Bridge, Preity Zinta in her pretty red dress, and a charismatic Shah Rukh Khan, as always, stealing the thunder from everyone else as he essayed the role of Aman. However, rip all the fanfare, and you remember a forgettable character that went by the name of Kaanta Behen, the maid at Saif Ali Khan’s apartment, who was openly homophobic. Presented as nothing but a comedic subplot, this woman kept misunderstanding the two men as lovers, and when the homosexual DJ came by in the song “Maahi Ve”, I remember quite clearly the horrible shove she gave to the poor fellow when he was merrymaking with the others. And to think that Johar, an openly gay man at present, would endorse such an instance of blatant homophobia in a film he produced. You can always say that times were different in 2003, but when is the right time to endorse homophobia?

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Johar’s Kal Ho Naa Ho, where homophobia was insidiously promoted as a comedic subplot.

Now fast-forward half a decade into 2008, when Johar’s next venture, Dostana, released. Unlike its sentimental predecessor, Dostana was a slice-of-life comedy where two young bachelors (played by Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham) are looking for an apartment to settle into in the thriving city of Miami. In a “hilarious” twist of events, they finally rent an apartment with the film’s oblivious female lead, played by Priyanka Chopra, where they pretend to be homosexual lovers, while incessantly trying to win the affections of Chopra in reality. This, perhaps, seems a normal plot for a romantic comedy, until of course Kirron Kher, who plays the mother of Bachchan, appears on the screen. An openly homophobic character, her caricature is presented with item numbers where she sings of the torment that she is cursed with as her son is supposedly homosexual in “Maa Da Ladla Bigar Gaya” (trans: Mommy’s Boy Got Spoiled). And suddenly, the entire theater joins in to this so-called laugh riot of normalizing homophobia.

Perhaps such examples appear almost minuscule, however, the latent truth underneath is petrifying. Bollywood is one of the most thriving industries in India, and its socio-cultural reach and influence is unrivaled by any other. As a peddler of art, I understand that mainstream cinema is the strongest weapon of expression of thought in contemporary society. From its widespread reach of audience to its presentation, cinema heralds a double-edged sword of influence upon the human mind. Identities are often constructed on the cornerstone of its aesthetics. Generations after generations are thus influenced by mainstream cinema in more ways than one. And desensitizing the mass toward blatant homophobia is nothing short of a harrowing blunder in the part of the entertainment industry. Remember that time when Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai released and suddenly all the barbers where busily snipping away to make sure all the boys looked like Hrithik Roshan? Or the time when Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela hit the theaters one winter morning, and suddenly, all the shops were bustling with the hoards of cacophonous women, young and old, in their bids to buy the “Leela” earrings that Deepika Padukone wore in the film? That’s the extent of influence Bollywood holds in our daily lives. From the bell-bottom pants that can still be found in the concealed corners of almost every middle-aged man’s wardrobe, thanks to Amitabh Bachchan in the 70s, to that hideous turquoise bracelet that adorns the wrist of every other neighborhood bad boy, thanks to Salman Khan, Bollywood stays inoculated in every contour of our daily lives. So when such a colossal industry endorses, and in some cases repeatedly validates, something as toxic as homophobia, the consequences are grievous indeed.

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Man-hating lesbians and objectification, as promoted by B-grade films like Girlfriend

In 2004, a B-grade film called Girlfriend, starring Isha Koppikar and Amrita Arora, released in India. Perhaps the inconsequential plot was written solely to promote generic hatred for the opposite sex and objectification of a lesbian relationship. The film, although a box-office dud thankfully, has stayed in the minds of the thousands of folks who tune in to channels such as Zee Cinema or Set Max for a lazy afternoon of watching films on television, thanks to its repeated telecasts. In the film, Koppikar’s character is a man-hating possessive homosexual who is hell-bent on destroying her lover’s heterosexual relationship. Hitherto less known about the concepts of homosexuality in mainstream cinema, this film set certain devastating and downright delusional standards about the on-goings of lesbian relationships. Furthermore, the trivialized objectification of women, and thus lesbians, led to a generation of men and women conceptualizing lesbian relationships as nothing but a toxic and lust-driven experimentation between two women. And thanks to its constant telecasts, this insidious delusion still finds its audience in television almost every other week.

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Bhandarkar’s Fashion promoted a delusion that most of all male fashion designers are closeted homosexuals who publicly promote a heterosexual relationship in order to cover up their sexual orientation.

Bhandarkar’s blockbuster venture Fashion (2008) cemented Priyanka Chopra’s position as the most sought-after actress in Bollywood. However, the film also planted the seeds for the pathetically concealed homophobia that Bhandarkar kept promoting in his following directorial ventures. Aside from the fact that the film’s female protagonists instigated their partners to begin homosexual relationships with the designers they wished to work with, the film’s third lead Mugdha Godse had a disastrous plot where she married a fashion designer, who was a closeted homosexual, in order to publicly maintain his appearance as a heterosexual man. In a country like India, with its easily impressionable audience, this acted as the last nail to cement a delusion in the minds of the common man that most of all male designers who worked in the fashion industry were actually homosexuals. This stereotype also led to the shallow portrayals of multiple homosexuals who acted as supporting characters in the film to be presented as effeminate men for the sake of comic relief. In that context, every third Bollywood film in the 90s finds a mention as the go-to comic relief in that era was an effeminate man or a masculine woman (think Raja Hindustani).

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The New-Wave Bollywood Cinema: Aligarh, Margarita With a Straw, Kapoor & Sons

But somewhere, I still believe that all hope is not lost. Our present generation, although influenced by a thousand Bollywood stereotypes, are not as desensitized as their predecessors. Perhaps Dylan was correct, perhaps “The Times They are-a Changin'”, even if the cynical side of my psyche refuses to stake her hopes upon such romanticism. Because for the past half a decade, Bollywood has been flooded by films that speak otherwise. And ever so gradually, they are seeping into the undercurrents of mainstream cinema. Although considered art-house films by word of mouth, these films are finding their youthful audience silently, no longer considered as ostracized celluloid such as Fire (1996). Films such as Margarita With a Straw (2014) or Aligarh (2016) are gradually coming into the limelight, if not immediately, but gradually just the same. There is surprisingly a new-generation audience that is ready to accept films such as these, and they are not shelved into the moth-eaten corners of forgotten films immediately after their screening at some film festival. Even a mainstream jewel such as Kapoor & Sons (2016) starring Alia Bhatt, Fawad Khan and Siddharth Malhotra, where Khan portrayed a homosexual author, received accolades in mainstream award ceremonies such as the 62nd Filmfare Awards.

Of course there is always a backlash, as is always wont to be. Films such as Unfreedom (2014) that was based on Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem “Ye Dagh Dagh Ujala” bit the dust when the Indian Censor Board staunchly refused the release of this film . Similarly, Aligarh, based on true events, faced its fair share of censorship and counterblast because of its content about a closeted homosexual professor (Ramchandra Siras) of Aligarh University whose privacy was compromised when two men forcefully entered his premises to catch him having consensual sex with a man. After all, the journey was never meant to be easy. And change always comes at a price.

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Kolkata Pride Walk 2017, captured by Zoya Khan. Saintbrush

Cinema is the mirror that reflects the lives we lead, the choices we make, the desires we possess. And as we choose to change, perhaps it does too. We have come a long way from apologizing for villains, abusive relationships and stalkers from the 90s (looking at you, Shah Rukh Khan), and yes, the journey keeps getting harder by the day. Women with dusky skin are still considered outcasts in the Indian entertainment industry more often than not (Tannishtha Chatterjee, here’s hoping I see you in another wonderful film after Parched), the search for the fairest and the skinniest heroine still continues, and sexual objectification still churns the easiest money at the box-office (Mastizaade, Jism 2, Hate Story 3, the list goes on). You see, there are a lot of problems, and we are only beginning to think of possibilities of a solution.

But the times perhaps change, the faces change, the cities change, and life goes on. And suddenly, you wake up to a reality where hundreds can march proudly in the city streets, the colors of the rainbow raised high for all to see, unashamed, undaunted, and free. And yes, it is not easy, there are still those eyes that look at you with disdain, but revolutions weren’t won in a day and all you have is your choice to still believe. Perhaps that very faith keeps me going on as well. And so I write a thousand words, hoping to connect to every person who reads them, and give this world whatever little I can.

A Year of Words, Love and Melancholia

Dear Reader,

There are so many things I wish to tell you and for some reason, I feel I have run out of words today, at least the words that carry the weight of my thoughts at this moment.

My father would always tell me, “When you do not know how to tell a story, start at the beginning.” So the story of the The Indian Bibliophile started when on this day last year, my colleague and my full-time-nonsense-tolerating friend cajoled me into opening this blog. And now, here I am, wiser and stupider over the passage of 365 days, scribbling something she knows nothing about in this letter.

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Writer: A creature that scribbles things witlessly while its brain travels light years into inconceivable universes.

Stilted winter sunlight, the scent of old books, the touch of a warm cup of tea on your lips, the feel of newly-worn socks, and the sound of words—The Indian Bibliophile began as a home to all these images wrapped into one concoction of imperfection a year ago. Perhaps it began with my desire for a shelter, or perhaps it started because I wanted to scribble witless sweet-nothings for this boy I had once loved. Winter does make you believe in love and her thousand possibilities, does it not? Whatever it was, it grew into something more than shelter, something akin to home instead.

There would be words of appreciation for the poems I scribbled in the beginning, even so I could not help but believe that something lacked in them, as if the very soul of the words had long since bid adieu and now only the bittersweet lull of their sounds remained. And in search of their souls, I had traveled miles upon the meandering roads of the city that I had once loved, and now grown to un-love. But as time passed, and as is wont to Time himself, the words came by and the words went by, until the soul became a part of me, and inked only to bleed in bits through whatever I tried writing.

It was personal, this blog has always been so. Some held the memories of a love story that could only happen in another reality, while the others sheltered the fragile embers of a has-been. Whatever it was, it carries the scent of me, meager and unwound as it is, in this constructed and deconstructed world that we bear upon our shoulders as the weights of our respective realities.

They say it is nigh impossible, to open your doors and let the world view your elusive secrets when your blog is a reflection of the words you would often scribble only in the dark envelops of the nights. Yet melancholia teaches you, does it not? That whatever you hold as your own never truly belongs to you in the end. There is no I, nothing is about you, and your words are here to be given, until only they stay even after you have long since turned to dust.

So why does this sentimental, and somewhat childish, need to possess them still remain? Why is there still an itch to be answered, to be appreciated, to be needed, to be wanted, to be adored enough, so that my desire of acceptance is satiated in one form or the other? Because this is not just “my” blog, this is also an impression of the woman I have tried to become.

The Indian Bibliophile is not just me, or you, or the words between us. It does not comprise of the time it took to come to the crossroad where I can pen something that unravels so much of me that I now only have my meager hands to cover whatever I still wish to remain unseen. Whatever it is, it is a story nonetheless. And I promise, this one is just beginning.

So I thank you for reading my words, I thank you for loving my words, and I thank you for piecing me together until the woman I was on December 2016 now only stands as an unrecognizable poltergeist somewhere in the precipice of the past and present.

So I go on, somewhere in the recess between two consecutive waves, in a land where strangers become lovers, and lovers become strangers, until I reach the shores of another year once again.

Love,

The Indian Bibliophile

Alice in Winterland

The morning comes with the hues of gray,

A silence pervades.

Alice wakes up, somewhere between the dying night and a birthing dawn,

And pulls at the shades.

 

Piping hot tea, or was it a cup of hot chocolate?

The foggy mornings eat away at the memories,

Voices come and go, some happy, some sad,

Each smothered in a sheath of bittersweet dreams.

 

There is no rabbit hole anymore.

The snows have made sure to hide the gaping hole.

No Mr. Rabbit scurries away,

No Mad Hatter comes by to offer a cup of tea,

Even the Queen of Hearts has been blown off somewhere,

Perhaps by the winter winds, perhaps she was never here.

 

The evenings resemble the nights now,

And the nights become the final verses of lost evenings.

Crackling fire impregnates endless silences,

Somewhere, a bonfire rages.

 

The scent of Wonderland is lost now,

Magic dies a sad, sad death.

The Caterpillar no longer blows wisps of smoke,

The moon no longer reminds her of her favorite feline,

And the Cheshire Cat smiles between his riddles in another land.

 

So Alice traipses in reality,

Tweedledee and Tweedledum no longer in toe.

Colors no longer burst like blossoms in springtime,

The fireflies glitter no more.

 

The story has ended now,

Endings, after all, are just endings,

Happiness and sadness entwine like cumbersome strings,

And the Jabberwock no longer bats his dreary black wings.

 

 

Storms and Scars

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And in this moment, I become the storm.

The Story Called Childhood

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I become the storm. And I embrace all that I am.
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Speak

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Sing a Little Song for Me

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We found our song in the colours.

Ode to a Love Lost

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Sing me a song lost in the church bell’s chime.

Fire

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I am no longer the moth in a daze. I am the fire that shall set all ablaze.

A Merry Little Christmas

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Because Christmas is all about romancing melancholy, touching love and finding hope. And so you see, I hope we find a merry little Christmas, for you and for me.