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Queer Contemporary Bollywood: A Work In Progress
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.
My Brother Nikhil, Bas Ek Pal, I Am
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.
Dil Chahta Hai
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.
Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna
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.