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Last month, I trekked with my partner to Falls Church, Virginia to enjoy another mindless, candy floss Karan Johar movie called Student of the Year (SOTY). I expected it to be extravagant and silly, larger-than-life with just the right amount of bromance, ishq wala love and tear-jerking moments.
When the credits rolled, I was sad.
SOTY has been branded Kuch Kuch Hota Hai 2.0, and while it is set in a college, the parallel ends there. The movie is about three students at Saint Theresa’s High School, a fictional Indian Hogwarts, where the swimming pools are Olympic-size, the students drive expensive sports cars, and wear clothes from extravagant labels. Once you get used to the fact that such a school does not exist, you need to shut your brain and reach for the popcorn.
Debutant Aliya Bhatt looks young and pale, and may not have the capacity to become the next Kareena Kapoor, thankfully enough. Debutant Varun Dhawan, playing the rich son of an industrialist, shows a lot of promise and dazzles with his dance moves. And finally, debutant Sidharth Malhotra, playing the new boy in college, is quite expressive, even though a bit awkward on the dance floor. Both boys are sure to become fan favorites. The ensemble is also lends good support to the screenplay and the leading cast.
Rishi Kapoor channels Karan Johar, better than Johar. In the movie, he plays a flamboyant and lonely gay Dean of an extravagant institution, who is in love with a straight married man, and has the privilege of making everyone dance to his tunes in order to win a coveted trophy. He doesn’t have a partner. He is slightly overweight. He has an overbearing mother who tries to get him into shape. The parallels with Karan Johar’s own life are hard to ignore.
And the blame for everything that goes wrong in the movie — namely a huge fight between the two leading male characters over another coveted trophy, a girl — is unfairly laid on Rishi Kapoor’s character. It is astonishing. Why is Dean Vashisht to blame for a love triangle between that ruined several friendships? That’s because Dean Vashisth is Karan Johar, and he is ultimately responsible for the lack of growth, sour relationships, and broken friendships we’ve experienced between Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Student of the Year. So he makes Dean Vashisth apologize to us for all that Johar has put us through over the past 15 years.
I’ve decided to come to terms with Johar’s closeted homosexuality. He’s obviously struggling to express himself and he does so in the most obnoxious ways onscreen. He has been making homosexuality into a big, fat joke, since the bromance in Kal Ho Naa Ho. While heteros are laughing at the how hilarious it is to be gay, I’m laughing at how ignorant they are so it works out. While I’m comfortable enough in my own sexuality to be able to find humor in it, his portrayal of gay men (and women!) is patently offensive in this movie.
I straddle the line between people who cannot stand Johar and those who love his movies. You can call me a disgruntled fan. He is Karan Johar. He made undeniably great movies like My Name is Khan and Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. He doesn’t need to hide in a closet and make ridiculous movies channeling his sexuality. He doesn’t need to make his actors dance to ridiculous tunes with contrived and manufactured plot-lines. He doesn’t need to reduce himself down to a stereotype to deliver a magnum opus. He can just be Karan Johar, and it will be alright. But he has decided to make money and earn fame by using his sexuality (and our sexuality) as a comic afterthought.
Yes, it is offensive, but Johar probably sees no harm in making money from his own repression. And therein lies the problem.
It will be alright for Siddharth and Varun to be gay or to display affection without making it look like they are gay. It will be alright if the tomboy is a lesbian after all and she is not parading around her post-marriage pictures to prove her heterosexuality. And goodness, it will be alright if all the leads did not look white, though that is a larger problem with Bollywood movies in general.
When I go to watch a Bollywood movie, I do not need to see the Indian version of “Glee.” We are capable of doing so much better. And so is Karan Johar.
Lets get one thing straight (pun unintended): Bollywood is going to appear super-queer to the Western eye with the extravagant musicals, vibrant colors and exaggerated acting. There are generations of homoeroticism, repressed and alternative sexualities and I am no expert, especially when it comes to anything made before 1990. For anyone interested, you can read so much queer subtext into male duos like Jai-Veeru or Shahrukh Khan’s queer masculinity that we can write a book about it.
Most of Bollywood is full of clichés, conservative and contrived melo-drama. Sexuality is so taboo that the narrative is almost a metaphor for repressed sexualities. The usual gay-themed movies like Dostana, Girlfriend, and Men Not Allowed are actually quite heteronormative. From my perspective, the queer part of Dostana was actually Bobby Deol’s straight-acting character and Priyanka Chopra’s “desi girl” rendition rather than the pathetic straight leads trying to act gay. The only thing worth watching about Girlfriend is Isha Koppikar’s gender-bending transformation into a kick-boxer mixed-gender figher and even that is stereotypical. I’m not even going into Men Not Allowed since I watched the movie in a record 20 minutes. My point is that a movie doesn’t have to contain a “gay storyline” to be necessarily queer especially when I take queer to mean transgressive sexualities, non-heteronormative portrayals of sexuality, homo-eroticism, and “alternative” sexual imaginations.
Everyone knows or should know about Fire, Mango Souffle, Pink Mirror, Tamanna, Touch of Pink, Bombay Boys, Bend It Like Beckham, The Journey and East is East. This is not meant to be a list of queer Bollywood movies and I am far from an expert on cinema. I just happen to read or identify queerness in these movies.
Onir is a film-maker. He happens to be queer. So are a lot of his characters and none of them are stereotypically gay or even perfect. He’s given us a sensitive portrayal of a gay athlete with HIV, prison rape, a step-father raping his step-son while his mother stays silent, queer love-making onscreen. Onir is not afraid to depict bold scenes, queer relationships, wounded protagonists and transgressive story-lines. Also, these movies have delightful melodies, especially Bas Ek Pal.
I remember actually having to fight an Indian shop-owner to rent a copy of I Am quite recently. He kept telling me it was not for kids and not for family viewing. My mother had to cut in before it escalated into a fight and tell him to give me what I wanted. It’s funny how no one gives a damn about “kids” watching violent content but queerness is somehow only for “mature” audiences.
Madhur Bhandarkar makes movies with a lot of queer sensibility. You will find the same sort of sensibility in Page 3 and Corporate as well, which also have queer characters. With Fashion, Bhandarkar takes us into the glamorous and dark world of the Indian fashion industry. I adore Sameer Soni, who plays a closeted gay-character in this movie and even dared to share a lip-lock with his onscreen boyfriend. I also secretly enjoy the fact that he was chosen to play “Karan Johar” in I Hate Luv Storys but I digress. There are other parts of Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion that lends itself to a queer interpretation, especially the love-hate relationship between the lead female protagonists.
No One Killed Jessica
I am still swooning over this movie. There’s something to be said about the way in which Rani Mukerji and Vidya Balan went about promoting the movie with their new dostana. Yes, it is stereotypical and offensive on some level but I admire their conscious realization that the movie is queer, if only because it has two female leads and no male protagonist.
I read Vidya’s character as the repressed part of the narrative — the character that needs to take the journey of coming out. She’s queer and repressed to the point of asexuality. Her silence and quiet demeanor is a metaphor. Rani plays her complete opposite and the perfect foil to her repression: Meera Gayti. I love her gender-bending clothes in the movie, her hot-blooded, loud and overtly foul-mouthed character who embraces the word ‘Bitch,’ her non-traditional portrayal of female Indian sexuality when she tells a guy to “fly-solo” when she has to leave in the middle of sex. In some ways, she may be a caricature, but I loved her and the way the two characters play off of each other.
DCH is an iconic movie about three young college friends. It re-defined Bollywood with a fresh look at relationships and male-bonding. The homoerotic brotherly love between Akshaye Khanna and Aamir Khan is worth a watch with plenty of gay subtext. You can read a lot into Akshaye’s shy and repressed character, Aamir’s “Tanhayee,” their fall-out and how they come back together. Another must-watch that follows from this genre is Rock On and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.
Karan Johar makes terribly queer movies in a twisted way: his narrative overtly and offensively uses queerness as comedy and almost veils the homoeroticism in his movies such as Kal Ho Naa Ho, Break Ke Baad and I Hate Luv Storys. I’m not about to get into his sexuality. You’ve to read KANK as queer to thoroughly enjoy it. It doesn’t have your typical Bollywood ending. It destroys the heteronormative institution of traditional marriage. Rani’s character Maya is a woman who doesn’t enjoy sex with her husband and you’ve to wonder if Karan Johar is really hinting at her repressed sexuality. There’s a part in the movie where Dev, played by Shahrukh Khan, jokingly tells her that she is a lesbian. Her femme-dom scene is a complete joy even if it plays to a stereotypically straight cis male audience. Preity Zinta plays the strong, independent woman caricature who is the head of the household and you can read her as a power-dyke to enjoy her more. I actually love Preity Zinta and Rani Mukerji together but I won’t get into that right now.
At the same time, it is interesting to watch Shahrukh Khan’s Dev constantly re-assert his “lame” masculinity by being a jerk to his son who loves to play the violin. Funnily, there’s a deleted scene of him kissing a guy in the movie as he starts healing from his trauma. It is certainly not perfect but I’m not ashamed about loving this movie, which is so thoroughly hated by a large segment of the Indian population. It makes people uncomfortable. It is queer.
Note: Bollywood is just a name given to the Indian film industry based in Mumbai. There are many other movies industries within and outside India where one can access both a South Asian and queer sensibility. I admittedly don’t know much about them and that really was not the point of this post. Watch Chutney Popcorn, Finding Kamal, Chicken Tikka Masala, I Can’t Think Straight and The World Unseen. They aren’t Bollywood movies but they have South Asian actors or story-lines. Mira Nair’s Amelia was also quite queer and she’s working on a new movie called “Migration” that seems to have a queer outlook.
I don’t like the first look. I wish Karan Johar left out the red-white-blue tricolors or made it significantly lighter–much like a backdrop. The movie is already screaming ‘NRI’ (Non-Residential Indian) with a post-9-11 theme.