From LGBTQIA+ People For Comic Relief To More Positive Roles, Indian Cinema Finally Coming Of Age?

People from the LGBTQIA community have mostly been portrayed on Indian theatre screens as either antagonists, as comedic relief, or as victims. While newer, mainstream films are changing that, they too are flawed and must do better.

People from the LGBTQIA community have mostly been portrayed on Indian theatre screens as either antagonists, as comedic relief, or as victims. While newer, mainstream films are changing that, they too are flawed and must do better.

As I was researching this piece, an article came out about Bollywood’s first gay film, Badnam Basti (Hindi, 1971). If, like me, you’ve never heard of it before, it is because the movie was considered lost, and was only recently discovered and screened by The Block Museum of Art in Illinois. Surprising, as the movie is associated with famous names like that of Harivansh Rai Bachchan (who recited a poem in the movie), and Hrishikesh Mukherjee (who edited an initial 100-minute version of the film.)

As Manish Gaekwad writes about it, the movie was based on a Hindi novel of the same name, written by Kamleshwar Prasad Saxena, and was very progressive, as it follows the same themes of the novel, i.e. “it rejects outright the bounds of a conventional family and its approval, gives agency to a woman’s desire, treats homosexual love equally as its opposite, giving the central character of Sarnam Singh a conflict to choose love over gender.”

The movie should have been a frontrunner, defining how Indian cinema from thereon would portray queer love or queer characters on screen. However, that aspect of the movie received no attention from reviewers, probably because the filmmaker, Prem Kapoor, played too safe, and never clearly spelled out the romantic nature of the relationship between the two main male characters.

Instead, what we got from Indian cinema, was one portrayal after another of queer characters as largely either ‘villains’ or as ‘jokers.’

Queer people as antagonists

For me personally, the image of Ashutosh Rana, as a transwoman who is a bloodthirsty serial killer, in Sangharsh (Hindi,1999), is not one that is easily forgotten. However, that certainly isn’t the first portrayal of a transgender character as the villain in Indian cinema.

Earlier, in 1991, Sadak (Hindi) featured Sadashiv Amrapurkar as, Maharani, an evil brothel owner. The fact that it was an award winning performance, just makes it that much worse that a choice was made to present someone from a marginalized group as someone to be feared and reviled. The movie was also remade in Tamil as, Appu (2000), with the role of Maharani being essayed by Prakash Raj.

In the same year came Mast Kalandar (Hindi,1991), widely believed to feature Bollywood’s ‘first’ openly gay character, Pinku, played by Anupam Kher. The character was not only one of the antagonists of the movie, but also used for comic relief.  While the forgettable Bombay Velvet (Hindi, 2015) doesn’t spell out the sexuality of the antagonist, Kaizad Khambatta (Karan Johar), there are enough ‘hints’ to convey that he is a gay man.

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The cringeworthy Girlfriend (Hindi, 2004) portrayed Isha Koppikar, as a lesbian who had an unhealthy obsession and possessiveness with a female friend.

The Tamil film industry in particular is a habitual offender.

In Kamal Hassan starrer Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu (Tamil,2006), features a gay couple (Amudhan and Ilamaran, played by Daniel Balaji and Salim Baig) as ruthless serial killers. Furthermore, they state that the ‘animal’ within them was awoken when they were raped while in police custody by a co-prisoner who was a transwoman.

One of the worst portrayals of transwomen, is possibly that of the character, Osma Jasmine (played by Ojas Rajani), in the Tamil movie, I (Tamil, 2015). The character is shown to be a sexual predator, who seeks revenge when her advances are tuned down by her love interest, played by Vikram. Not unsurprisingly, transgender groups in Tamil Nadu protested the film’s portrayal of them.

Vikram himself, played the role of an evil ‘mad scientist,’ named Love, who even though the director denied it, is widely understood to be a transwoman, in the 2016 movie, Iru Murugan (Tamil).

This repeated portrayal of queer characters as supervillains, only serves to fuel the suspicion and hatred of them. As this article observes, “The queer aspect adds a different shade to the otherwise run-of-the-mill movie villain without the filmmaker having to put in extra effort and it gives the actor a chance to play someone he normally wouldn’t — it’s a win-win for everybody except the community they’re portraying.”

Queer people as ‘Jokers’

Even more commonplace is the use of a queer character as comic relief, by portraying such characters as being flamboyant ‘sissies’, having exaggerated effeminate/masculine mannerisms, always throwing themselves on the male lead, or as the target of ‘jokes.’  Multiple movies from Sholay (Hindi,1975) to Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke (Hindi,1993), to Masti (Hindi,2004)   to Housefull 4 (Hindi,2019), are all guilty of the same. Such portrayals occur with such regularity, that it is futile to take count. It doesn’t actually matter what the sexual orientations/genders of the characters are, because it is a stereotype that they are playing, and not a person, and such portrayals are common across languages.

In Hindi cinema, for example, such roles are usually essayed by actors like Pakhi Sharma (a transwoman herself); actor and Kathak dancer, Veeru Krishnan, or actor Suresh Menon. In Telugu cinema, it was the late Venkateswara Rao, who used to play such roles, and after his passing, the role has passed to actor Ali Basha.

Even the suggestion of queerness, even when the actual characters are straight, is used to induce laughter, as in the movies, Dostana (Hindi, 2008) and Kal Ho Na Ho (Hindi, 2003). Even the 2019 Ayushmann Khurrana movie, Dream Girl (Hindi), resorted to such cheap homophobia, via the character played by Nidhi Bisht, who wants to ‘try’ being a lesbian after a string of bad relationships with men.

The idea of dressing in drag, or in clothes not typically associated with a gender, are also played for laughs. In the hugely popular Raja Hindustani (Hindi,1996), Navneet Nishan, plays Kammo, a ‘masculine’ woman, who prefers wearing men’s clothes, and this characteristic of hers is made fun of, and shown as an aberration. Obviously, by the end of the movie, she is ‘fixed’ and she is shown wearing women’s clothes. Similarly, in multiple movies, the idea of men wearing dresses is used to elicit humour, and sometimes even to further the idea that men wear dresses to invade female spaces, like in the movie Khiladi (Hindi, 1992). Given that it is an accusation regularly levelled at transwomen, it becomes even more damaging.

Other queerphobic/ problematic portrayals

Page 3 (Hindi, 2005), Life in a…Metro (Hindi, 2007), Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. (Hindi, 2007), Karan Johar’s short, part of Bombay Talkies (Hindi, 2013) My Life Partner (Malayalam, 2014) also presented queer characters as being immoral, or untrustworthy.

The Malayalam movie, Randu Penkuttikal (1978) about a woman, Kokila, who is in love with a dancer, Girija, ended by suggesting that the attraction was ‘just a phase.’ Deshadanakili Karayarilla (1986), which came a few years later, is also considered to have homoerotic subtext. However, the relationship between the two female protagonists, Sally and Nimmy, was never spelt out and it ended with both of them dying by suicide.

Mumbai Police (2013) is regarded as path breaking, because not only did it have the male lead, played by one of the top actors Prithiviraj, play a gay man, but also avoided portraying him as effeminate or weak. Instead, he is an embodiment of toxic masculinity in the movie. The movie however, was also criticized for making it look like the character regrets being gay.

141 (Kannada, 2015), that focused on the romantic relationship between an American woman (played by a Russian actress) and an Indian woman, ended with them sacrificing their love so that the Indian woman could marry a man, because “Indian culture.”

In 2018. LGBTQIA activists protested against the Tamil movie, Iruttu Araiyil Murattu Kuthu, because it, “objectifies the LGBT community as sex objects and portrays virgin women as cheap sex-starved beings.”

Even the critically acclaimed Deepa Mehta helmed movie, Fire (English,1996), has been criticized for portraying the love between two women as being the outcome of their unsatisfying, failed relationships with men.

If one starts to count the ways in which movies in India have been unjust and unfair to members of the LGBTQIA community, the list would be extremely long.

Perhaps then, it is better to focus on the movies that got it right.

More sensitive portrayals

Playwright Vijay Tendulkar’s 1981 Marathi play, Mitrachi Goshta, was later made into a movie. It was pathbreaking for its portrayal of a woman who is unapologetic about her lesbian identity. The following year, he also wrote the movie Umbartha (Marathi,1982) in which the lesbian relationship between two women in a remand home was a major plot point. The movie as also made in Hindi, as Subah, with the same cast. Other movies, celebrated for their portrayals of lesbian relationships are Uttara (Bengali, 2000) Sancharram (Malayalam, 2004).

Kaizad Gustad’s Bombay Boys (English,1998) and Dev Benegal’s Split Wide Open (English,1999), also have been praised for having non-stereotypical and complex queer characters, in a time when there wasn’t much layered or nuanced representation at all.

Also worth mentioning is, BOMgAY (1996), an anthology of six short films based on gay culture in Bombay; and the short film, Surviving Sabu (English, 1997) about a gay filmmaker and his relationship with his conservative Muslim father, who collaborate on a short film about the 40’s film hero, Sabu.

Tamanna (1998), Navarasa (Tamil, 2005), Shabnam Mausi (Hindi, 2005), Jogwa (Marathi, 2009), Queens! Destiny of Dance (Hindi, 2011), Ardhanari (Malayalam, 2012), Naanu Avanalla Avalu, (Kannada, 2015), Aruvi, (Tamil, 2017), Njan Marykutty (Malayalam, 2018), Aalorukkam (Malayalam, 2018), Aabhasam (Malayalam, 2018), Super Deluxe (Tamil, 2019), Udalazhaam (Malayalam, 2019), are movies that have better, more sensitive representation of transwomen.

Transmen, somehow, are still largely invisible in Indian cinema. Similarly, the ‘A’ in LGBTQIA, i.e.the aro-ace spectrum (Asexuality and Aromaticism) has not been addressed openly in movies either.

Positive representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in Indian cinema has been greatly aided by the work of gay rights activists and filmmakers, such as:

Sridhar Rangayan (The Pink Mirror (Hindi, 2006), Yours Emotionally (English, 2007) and 68 Pages (Hindi, 2007);

Onir  (My Brother Nikhil (Hindi, 2005), I AM (Hindi, 2010) and

Rituparno Ghosh (Chitrangada –The Crowning Wish (Bengali, 2012), Memories in March (Bengali, 2010), Arekti Premer Golpo (Bengali, 2010)).

In recent times, movies like Margarita With a Straw (Hindi 2014), Aligarh (Hindi, 2016), Dear Dad (Hindi, 2016), and Moothon (Malayalam-Hindi bilingual, 2019) have garnered much praise for their sensitive and progressive portrayals of queer people.

It is important to note that this list is by no means exhaustive.

Mainstream movie-making and the way forward

There is an added complexity in trying to present queer narratives in the Indian context.

For example, for people on the aro-ace spectrum, the cultural taboos and expectations around sex can be quite damaging. As Grace Singh, the Founder of Indian Aces, writes, “They go through their life feeling abnormal about what’s a 100% natural to them. They might not have the term for their orientations, but they’ve struggled with it for long enough to know it’s beyond control. While a few are able to find a partner like them, most tend to force themselves in sexual relationships in an attempt to ‘normalize’ themselves, putting themselves in dangerous situations. Eventually, they end up getting pressurized into marriages with partners who expect them to be sexual and bear children with them.”

Similarly, given the societal pressure to get married and have children, there are many lesbian and bisexual women, or even gay/bisexual men, who live seemingly ‘happily married’ lives with people of the opposite sex.

Most of our movies have not even attempted to address these complexities, and more often than not, the nuances get lost in trying to present these queer experiences and stories on screen.

Mainstream Bollywood, particularly, is watched by a large population of people, both within and outside India, which is why it is especially important to consider what the industry is doing with regards to representation.

Kapoor and Sons (Hindi, 2016), had Fawad Khan playing a gay character. It is important to note that his sexual orientation, while important to the plot, did not revolve around it. While the movie can be praised for presenting it in a ‘matter of fact’ manner, and encouraging empathy towards the character, it must also be critiqued for choosing to use his sexuality as a ‘surprise twist’ in the tale.

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga (Hindi, 2019) and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (Hindi, 2020), are both forerunners in bringing LGBTQIA+ relationships onto the mainstream. However, both the films have been criticized, for among other things, having straight actors play the roles of lesbian/gay characters, and for staying within the normative ‘family approved’ and ‘marriage goals’ boundaries.

The immensely popular 2019 action-thriller War, didn’t spell out the relationship between the male leads, though there was so much homoerotic subtext, that many, including me were left wondering and ruing the missed opportunity!

The upcoming Lakshmi Bomb, a Hindi remake of the horror comedy, Kanchana (Muni 2) (Tamil, 2011) has an important character who is a transwoman. Unfortunately, in both the movies, the role is played by a straight actor.

This overwhelming tendency to use straight actors for queer roles, reeks of performative allyship, and indicates a certain amount of laziness on the part of film makers who want to cash in on the fact that Section 377 has been repealed, but don’t want to put in the effort to discover and groom actors that belong to the LGBTQIA community. The argument that the movie will not make money is always brought up.

Which is why it is extremely refreshing, to see actor Anjali Ameer, who is also a transwoman, play the role of a transwoman in the movie Peranbu (Tamil, 2019), which received both crtical and popular acclaim.

May we hope that everyone else in Indian cinema will take note as well?

Authors’ notes:

The writer of this piece is a heterosexual, cis-woman and this piece merely contains her observations as an ally. This piece is not an attempt to disregard, misrepresent, or speak over the opinions or views of people from the LGBTQIA community, nor is this an attempt to appropriate their voice or space.

She recommends that anyone wanting to understand the issues of  LGBTQIA representation in Indian cinema at a deeper level, please seek out writing from people who belong to the community, as it is their opinions that actually matter.

The writer remains open to feedback and learning about any aspect of this piece.

The word ‘queer’ has been used multiple times in this article for ease of writing only. It should not be seen as an erasure of any specific identity of the LGBTQIA community.

June is Pride Month, and we’re having a series of articles to mark it, celebrating the voices of those from the LGBTQIA+ community and their allies, including those from the Women’s Web community.

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