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.

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?

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.

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.

66660-Fashion (2008)
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).

Untitled design (5)
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.

Pride Walk 2017
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.


Padmavati: Death of a Childhood

I was seven years old when my father had brought us the DVD of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Films, a privilege in my childhood, were something left to be seen in an unforeseen future, thanks to the strict instructions of my mother. So when the family would find a temporary haven in the various towns my father would be posted in due to his profession, the textbooks were imprisoned in the cupboards, and the fascinating “color” television, with its cable connection, would be the showstopper every evening.

In such an evening, I watched my second Bollywood film (the first being Taal) with my sister. Truth is, I didn’t much care about the story then, perhaps because at seven I was ill-equipped to understand it, or perhaps I was too intrigued to swallow in the visual art of every frame in a Bhansali movie. But even at seven, I knew that Aishwarya singing with a sitar on a palatial marble terrace in ‘Albela Sajan’, or a lovesick Salman chasing a lehenga-clad Aishwarya across the amber courtyard in ‘Aankhon ki Gustakhiyan’ were frames to remember.

Days later, I would find myself in silent afternoons, dancing to ‘Nimbooda Nimbooda’ and ‘Dholi Taro Dhol Baje’, my mangy bob-cut hair never stopping me from reveling the essence of my then-untouchable womanhood. That was the power of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, it could even bring a wild child to desire of waist-length hair, doe eyes and blooming crimson lips, all wrapped in the silk of monochrome sarees.

Of course, I grew up after. I realized that a woman can be just as much a feminine goddess in a bob cut as she was in her flourishing raven mane, her unending braid twirling with every bounce of her hips. Of course, I grew up to know that every single one of these images in my head are just constraints that social standards set women to fit into, to box into, in order to comply individuals into set identities.

But then again, how can you ever outrun childhood?

How can you outrun the stories you read as a child?

In our little ways, we always find our way back into the altar of our childhood. A certain song, the lines of a poem we had read oh so long ago, perhaps even a quote from our favorite childhood novel, and suddenly the world around us deconstructs itself to reveal the pictures of our days of yore. After all, we are just children hiding under the masks of adulthood.

Padmavati 2

So when I saw the trailer of Padmavati, Bhansali took me down memory lane. Perhaps it was the hauntingly beautiful background score, perhaps it was Deepika Padukone gracefully walking in those decadent Rajasthani sarees as the jewelry weighed her down, perhaps it was Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji, roaring and laughing menacingly, and sending the subtlest shivers down my spine; whatever it was, the stories that my mother would read me by my bedside enlivened before my eyes once again.

I remembered the nights when Mother would read about Rani Padmavati, a fearless Rajasthani queen who burned herself alive with her hundred handmaidens, in order to escape a brutal fate in the hands of the Sultanate emperor Alauddin Khilji. Mother had described to me jauhar, the custom of immolating oneself alive in the name of honor, she had told me about sepaku, the custom of the Japanese samurai, and I remember how petrified I had been that night. I remembered my dreams of faceless women jumping into pyres, of men stabbing themselves with their swords before surrendering to their enemies. And I had held onto my mother’s arms in my dreams, and she has protected me ever since.

I do not know if Rani Padmavati truly existed in reality. In my adolescence, my cynical self had gone on to read a translated version of Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem Padmavat and almost laughed at the descriptions of magical talking parrots and women so courageous that their ideals seemed borderline delusional. And in my adulthood, I had realized that Padmavat, if not anything, was a brilliant piece of Sufi literature, and a pioneer in the genre of magic realism (and here you were thinking that only Marquez in the West and Murakami in the East were scribbling about talking cats and worlds with two paper moons).

But the past month, I had waited eagerly for December 1, when Padmavati would grace the theaters in my city. I was already assured about the the thousand criticisms it would receive, how every one of the magazine critics would fall upon the film’s cadaver like ravenous hyenas and cut it open with a milieu of complicated phrases. Yet, the child in me could not wait to see her most memorable folktale come live on screen.

Padmavati 4.png

And then the media hit with the news of the film’s ban, all at the behest of a religious extremist right-wing group called Karni Sena, who seem to be under the belief that by banning this film, they would be protecting the respect and honor of women. Suddenly, the newspapers, the news channels, even my Facebook news feed, are littered by the updates about an extremist group wanting the heads of Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Films, at the end of the day, are the expressions of art, and my country, as much as I love her, has imprisoned art. Suddenly, the censor board is no longer the only patriarch in judging the quality of films. Suddenly, sentiments of every extremist group need to be satiated for the release of a film. Suddenly, art is an adulterous woman being stoned to death in a field of sand and blood.

An anecdote here, India has no dearth of raunchy, borderline sexist, slapstick sex comedies that are home to a hundred double entendres. Most of them do not even include a single ‘A’ certificate. Yet, the minute when a film is aligned by any form of political agenda, it bites the dust, a recent example of that being 2016’s Udta Punjab.

And this petrifies me. For I am a peddler of art, I live in words, I find stories in between the lingering silences of conversations and I dwell between the precipice of dying utopias and merging realities. So today, something has died inside of me. Maybe it is the memory of the lilt in my mother’s voice as she described Rani Padmavati’s beauty, maybe it is the image of a seven-year-old me dancing to ‘Nimbooda Nimbooda’ in one maudlin summer afternoon; whatever it is, I know a fragment of my childhood was still here until this moment. And now, it is gone.



When I was eight, Mama taught me that in our world, there was power in words no more.

When I was nine, and he had dug his nails in my backside, I screamed and told Mama, and Mama told me that in our world, there was power in words no more.

When I was twelve, and confused between angels and demons, praying for sinners and falling in love with sins, I stayed silent and prayed for mercy, because Mama told me that in our world, there was power in words no more.

When I was sixteen, and in love with wraiths, a hand clasped my mouth and showed me darkness, the abyss that awaited only for me, and when Mama’s words rung like church bells in an empty altar, I leaped into an endless chasm, because in our world, there was power in words no more.

And life traveled at her own pace, passing days in hours and moments in lifetimes, and the world grew darker and brighter, the demons danced with the angels, and the angels made love to the devils.

Time danced in her little cage, welcoming me into her gilded prison, as she sung sweetened songs of mercy to my ears. My pretty young heart beat to her swan-songs, to secret dreams and unfulfilled hopes. And for a minute, Mama’s words sounded truth no more.

And the world moved on, the seasons changed, yellow turned into saffron and saffron welcomed the grey mornings of winter, and somewhere in between, I was a child no more, I had a voice no more.

Until one morning, the fires burned again, and the world discovered that we could speak, and the angels began searching for their broken wings, and the demons no longer danced in secret in their souls at night.

Slit throats sewed in severed heads, only this time, a feeble swan throat no longer bore the burden of pretty broken faces, now the lionesses roared and the she-wolves howled, their broken bones, their scarred faces, their crippled paws in display for the world to behold.

They wanted to look away, oh they wanted to look away, color themselves blind and the devils gave them their masks, their masquerade almost as grand as the art we made of our shattered bones, our severed wings, our lone feathers still drifting somewhere across the sea.

And so I walked to Mama, and Mama is old now, she walks with a cane and she breathes with effort, the fumes of the past choke her still, silence her still, and when she thinks I have come for my lessons, she opens her dried mouth to say, Oh child, in our world, there was power in words no more.

And I use my softened palms, so very different from world-worn roughened ones, to cup those cheeks that carry the battle-weary lines of time, like half-scribbled sketches etched upon her skin, and I say, No, Mama, no more, no more.

She closes her eyes, the softest glimmer of a tear seeps out from the corner of those half-shut eyes, and her smile seems juxtaposed, as if stolen from the lips of a child and gifted to the mouth of an old remnant of the past.

And then she mumbles, oh, she mumbles, a cornucopia of secrets between two women across the shadows of time, and I hope she believes in words, once more, once more.