With Gulshan Grover essaying a homosexual role in this week's release "Baat Bann Gayi", it must be questioned - how well is Indian Cinema representing the gay community? Let’s great straight to the point. Time and again in Indian Cinema, homosexuals are stereotyped, laughed at and patronised. Things must change. Can there ever be a space in Bollywood where homosexuals are respected and not mocked? When will Raj ever be able to meet his Raj, or Simran meet her Simran with dignity on the Bollywood screen?
Let’s begin with the question: is homosexuality ‘Indian’ enough to be Bollywood – a part of Indian culture? Or is homosexuality a ‘western import’ as some right wing Hindu organisations claim? Has ‘it’ always been there? Well, yes. Same-sex love has a long history of tolerant traditions through Indian literature dating back to the times of the Rig Veda. In fact, the ghazal that we know today originally began as a means for men expressing their love for one another. The tolerant literary traditions of same-sex love were removed or replaced by homophobia (though not entirely) as a reaction to Victorian puritanism and with the British implementing Section 377 into Indian law: the law that made homosexuality a crime. It can be argued that it wasn’t homosexuality, but homophobia that was a western import. Leaving history aside, there is also another reason why ‘it’ has been a part of Indian culture - because that ‘it’ is something called love. Something that is universal and not determined by upbringing or skin colour.
Almost five years on from the removal of Section 377 in Indian law, what space is Bollywood allowing homosexuality? In Dostana (2008), the two heroes Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham pretend to be gay to secure an apartment. Dostana should be applauded for reflecting some acceptance of homosexuals through a mother accepting her (fake) gay son, but ultimately for finally bringing homosexuality into the Bollywood mainstream - albeit comically and heavily stereotyped.
When Bollywood portrays homosexuals as comical and feeds prevalent misassumptions about homosexuality, it hinders the integration of homosexuals into society, and furthermore, the equality of homosexuals and heterosexuals. Dostana unfortunately delivered a typical assertion of misassumptions. For instance, the lyrics for the song ‘Maa da ladla bigargaya’ (Mummy’s boy has become rotten) holds connotations of homosexuality being a disease, impure, bad, unnatural- in other words, misassumptions that fuel homophobia.‘Heer na mili tau Ranjhe oothe margaya’ (He couldn’t find a woman so he ended up falling for a man) affirms the idea that homosexuality is a choice when actually, you don’t get to choose your sexuality any more than your gender or the colour of your skin.
Throughout the film, Abhishek puts on an exaggerated camp gay man persona, flutters his eyelashes and at one point says to the landlady, ‘we aren’t babas (men) but babies (female)’. This portrayal of gay men not being ‘real’ men but some other version is certainly not helping gay people to be accepted as equals. I squirmed when the cinema hall was overtaken by roars of laughter in reaction to the ‘gay’ scenes. Even more so, when some members of the audience openly shouted homophobic remarks, followed by more laughter.
Every (real) gay character in the film was extremely camp and utilised as a medium for comic relief. Fine. So some gay men are camp and there’s nothing wrong with that. But why is homosexuality stereotyped and made into a joke on the Bollywood screen? The problem begins when a stereotype is so overly used and abused that the public imagination begins to believe that this is what homosexuality is.
What about the portrayal of lesbians? Take the film ‘Girlfriend’ (2004) for example (terrible film - don’t watch it). The ‘lesbian’ chops all her hair off into this strange haircut. Then she turns into a psycho who is out on a murdering spree. The film ends with her death and her two heterosexual friends gazing sympathetically at her grave stone. Heaven forbid my daughter turns out to be a lesbian. I’d be trying every remedy from any Mr Baba and offering sacrifices for her to be straight, to be ‘normal’.
The Indian film ‘Dunno Y…Na jaane kyun’ (2010) portrayed the reality of what some homosexuals are forced to confront: the choice between being who they are and openly loving or hiding their sexuality to protect their family and sacrificing their love. ‘Dunno Y…’ brings out the conflict and emotional struggle of these choices through Ash, a married man. Ash falls in love with Aryan and is close to coming out to his family, but Aryan stops him. Aryan explains: how can we be happy after breaking so many hearts? Although this film has good intentions with portraying homosexuality, it holds shades of homosexual love only ending in doom against social norms. Bombay Talkies also explored the theme of homosexuality with a depressing ending. Fire (1996) is the only mainstream lesbian Indian film where the lovers are united - but only after having to stand the test of fire (literally).
Maybe the whole problem began with Freud creating sexual constructs such as ‘homosexual’ in the first place. Do sexual constructs automatically make people assume a stereotype and can Bollywood be blamed for falling prey to it? Let’s not play a blame game but take responsibility. Films are a powerful medium for shaping and educating society. Bollywood, it is time to step up. Stop making a mockery out of homosexuality. Not only because this fuels misassumptions and stereotypes, but it also creates serious obstacles for those who want to come out and live an honest life. Homosexuality does belong on the Bollywood screen so give it some love. And a happy ending for once please.