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.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.