Geeta Singh has spent 20 years covering cinema, music and society, giving new dimensions to feature writing. She has to her credit the editorship of a film magazine. She is also engaged in exploring the socio-economic diversity of Indian politics. She is the co-founder of Parliamentarian
On September, 6, 2018, when the Apex court of India gave a historic verdict related to homosexuality and 377, where it abolished the colonial-era law and decriminalised part of Section 377 of the IPC that criminalises consensual gay sex, saying it was irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary then, the immediate question was, will our reasoning towards queer cinema change too? Will these films escape from the cynical and narrow-mindedness of the film certification board? Still, the fate of all the movies showing different aspects of LGBT community lies into the shears of censor board because censor board has an extensive history of over censoring or banning LGBT films.
Recently, the Hollywood film “Love, Simon” was banned on the day it was due to release in India. This was the first major Hollywood release to tackle a gay teenage storyline. Before that, films like ‘Moonlight’, ‘Unfreedom’ and ‘Ka Bodyscapes’ had exhausting fights with CBFC for their release.
In Hindi films, homosexuality is usually shown in either ridiculous or homophobic ways. The gays are depicted either as a stereotyped comic role like that of dancer Natrajan’s character in a movie ‘Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke’ (1993) or Gulab Singh in ‘Raja Hindustani’ (1996) or through cross-dressing of a hero for immoderate antics like to enter the heroine’s hostel. Remember films like ‘Lawaris’ (1981) where Amitabh Bachchan dressed as a woman and sang the song Mere Angane Main, or Aamir Khan in the film ‘Baazi’ (1995).
Crossdressing came in a big way in ‘Rafoo Chakkar’ (1975) where hero Rishi Kapoor along with Paintal dressed as girls to enter the heroine’s hostel. More interestingly, ‘Rafoo Chakkar’ can be considered as the first Bollywood film where the concept of homosexuality was shown in a ludicrous way. In the film Paintal as a cross-dresser portrayed same-sex love with Rajender Nath, but in a comic way. For depicting homosexuality in a funny way in films somehow challenges the narrow understanding of the censor board. Rajesh Srinivas, Kannada director and an LGBT activist, who heads a social group called Sangma said, “It is ridiculous that films that make fun of gay people and are stereotypical routinely get cleared at CBFC, while hurdles are being created for a movie that has dealt with the subject in a sensitive manner.”
Except ‘Bombay Talkies’ (2013), an anthology of four films in which ‘Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh’, a story on homosexuality, directed by Karan Johar, Bollywood’s most powerful producer, director and anchor who has been grappling with his sexuality, showed queerness in a slapstick way and engineers homophobia towards these gay characters in his films ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’ (2003) ‘Dostana’ (2008) and ‘Student of the Year’ (2012).
The gay community has been criticising Karan Johar for not formally “coming out”. Notwithstanding, last year at the release of his autobiography ‘An Unsuitable Boy’ Karan finally opened up. He talked about the homophobia and the daily abuse he faces on social media. “Everybody knows what my sexual orientation is. I don’t need to scream it out. If I need to spell it out, I won’t only because I live in a country where I could possibly be jailed for saying this. The reason I don’t say it out loud is simply that I don’t want to be dealing with the FIRs. I’m very sorry. I have a job, I have a commitment to my company, to my people who work for me; there are over a hundred people that I’m answerable to. I’m not going to sit in the courts because of ridiculous, completely bigoted individuals who have no education, no intelligence.” After the SC judgement, Karan Johar responded on Twitter to express his joy: “the country gets its oxygen back”.
However, though Karan Johar is the most prominent face of Bollywood, he did not dare to disclose his sexuality but on the other hand, noted Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh had been credited as a first filmmaker who came out and revealed his homosexuality.
Moreover, it is also true that when he revealed his sexuality and started wearing woman attire along with undergoing surgeries in the later few years, Rituparno suffered isolation from his family and friends. He interpreted sexuality, gender politics and its freedom very well through his films. His films – ‘Arekti Premer Golpo’ (2010), ‘Memories in March’ (2010), ‘Dosar’ (2006) and ‘Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish’ (2012) portrayed the insights of sexuality sensibly. But he also faced homophobic bashings in Bollywood. Subhash K Jha, film critic and close friend of Rituparno, remembers some incidents that used to hurt Rituparno in his memoir. He writes: “Once Rituparno went to meet this iconic superstar at his iconic residence where his bratty son came right up to Ritu, and within superstar dad’s hearing, smirked: ‘Should I call you Ritu uncle or Ritu aunty?’ Such incidents used to hurt Ritu not because he was embarrassed by his sexuality but because he was afraid that his acceptance of his own sexuality had not got a similar acceptance from the industry.
Like Rituparno Ghosh many other filmmakers in the regional cinema: Buddhadeb Dasgupta in Bengali film ‘Uttara’ (2000) and Malayalam film ‘Sancharram’ (2004) directed by Ligy J Pullappally, also essayed to display the same-sex relationships on celluloid in a serious way, but could not find support, either from industry or from the audience.
Director Onir portrayed the sensitive aspect of the community through his film ‘My Brother… Nikhil’ (2005), that bagged him two national awards. It was the first queer film in India that was made with people’s money. Onir, who himself belongs to the LGBT community, took the help of crowdfunding where money was collected directly from 400 people from 35 cities using social media and by word of mouth. The idea of crowdfunding came from actor Sanjay Suri who acted in ‘My Brother… Nikhil’. As Sanjay recalls: “We started a group on Facebook asking people to contribute in any way they could. Some volunteered as production assistants while others contributed financially to the film.” Onir collected around Rs 1 crore and the film was made with Rs 3 crores, rest of the amount was by Sanjay Suri and his production house Anticlock Films.
Brave New World
Another gay activist, Sridhar Rangayan’s illustration of the gay community in his films like ‘The Pink Mirror’ (2003) and ‘Yours Emotionally’ (2006) is mould-breaking. He has directed films with a distinct plot on homosexuality. ‘The Pink Mirror’ has been banned by the censor board. Besides this in Hindi, ‘Adhura’ (1995) and ‘Bomgay’ (1996) could be considered as two films of the 90s that brought out the topic seriously.
Had ‘Adhura’ been released in 1995, it would have been the first Hindi film that has shown homosexuality in an insightful manner. ‘Adhura’ revolves around an industrialist and a journalist involved in a gay relationship. Famous actor Irrfan Khan played the role of gay along with Ashish Nagpal, who also directed the film. But the censor board refused and did not give the certificate to ‘Adhura’ due to its bold topic, as a consequence the film remains in the cans forever. ‘Bomgay’ acted by Rahul Bose, was a first hardcore short gay film. Art cinema and theatre also tried to explore the theme. ‘Mango Souffle’ (2002) is an example.
Author Mahesh Dattani adopted his own successful play ‘On a Muggy Night in Mumbai’, and ‘Mango Souffle’ was also directed by him as well. The film stars Atul Kulkarni and Rinke Khanna (daughter of Rajesh Khanna) in lead roles. It worked well with the audiences because of its comic feel and didn’t face any opposition. Directors of new wave cinema have shown the LGBT community mostly through transgenders or eunuchs, whereas mainstream films explored the topic but in a horrific way. Characters like Lajja Shankar of ‘Sangharsh’ (1999); the cruel pimp of film ‘Sadak’ (1991) and villain of ‘Murder 2’ (2011) depicted the transgenders in a demonic way.
In 1996, noted actor and filmmaker Amol Palekar boldly put forward the topic of natural bisexuality through his film ‘Daayraa’ (1996) starring Nirmal Pandey and Sonali Kulkarni. But the film provoked outrage. After ‘Daayraa’, Kalpana Lajmi directed ‘Darmiyaan: in Between’ (1997) that presented the issue of a eunuch son. It is believed Kalpana wanted to cast Shahrukh Khan in the film but he denied. Probably he did not want to put a break in his jet-setting career. Afterwards, actor Arif Zakaria played the role. In later years, films like ‘Tamanna’, ‘Shabnam Mausi’, ‘Welcome to Sajjanpur’ and ‘Jogwa’ in Marathi were some of the few movies which put the third gender in a better light.
The film ‘Aligarh’ (2015), directed by Hansal Mehta, tells a real story of professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, who faced violence and was thrown out of the Aligarh Muslim University for being gay. In the film, Manoj Bajpayee played the role of the professor. ‘Aligarh’ was not a homosexual film like ‘Ka Bodyscape’, but it deals with the homophobic culture of Indian society. It throws light on the loneliness and mysterious death of Siras, but the censor board was suitably unkind. The board awarded the film as well as its teasers A certificate and restricted its shows.
The cynical and much derided former chairman of the board Pahlaj Nihalani said, “It is not a family film. It deals with a subject for which the country is not yet ready.” ‘Aligarh’ was not the only such film that was a victim of conservativeness.
‘Sisak’ (2017), directed by Faraz Arif Ansari, became the first silent queer short film of India that narrates the story of two people who used to commute in Mumbai local trains and fall in love with each other, but they do not talk. Nowadays gay films and web series like ‘Drawing the Line’ and ‘Sacred Games’ are somehow coming up with a different perspective on the LGBT community and yet one aspect of LGBT lesbianism is still in the closet. To a greater extent, lesbianism is that facet of LGBT most neglected in Indian films. Although we see a few examples in Marathi, Bengali and Malayalam films but in Bollywood filmmakers shy away from dealing with it.
‘3 Kanya’ (2012) is a Bengali psychological thriller film directed by Agnidev Chatterjee. The film tells a story of the lives of three women. The characters are played by Rituparna Sengupta, Ananya Chatterjee and Unnati Davara. It shows a lesbian flirtation between two of its three female protagonists. On the other hand, Bollywood is known for exaggerating the theme. Except for Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ (1996), filmmakers put a female same-sex love story in a cheesy way.
Interestingly, the censor board certified it A without any cut, but the right wing fascists expressed their anger on roads. For the moral police, lesbian relations have been considered as a sin. Before its release ‘Fire’ triggered controversy. The film faced the ire of the moral police led by the saffron brigade. They protested against the theme of the film, which they felt was alien to Indian culture. Though the film was not exhibited in many theatres, yet it is still a favourite in international film festivals. Ironically, two years ago, ‘Fire’ was included as one of the top 10 feminist films lists of British Film Institute. On Indians’ homophobic attitude actor and director Nandita Das, who acted in ‘Fire’, said, “People hadn’t seen such a film — sadly, in these 20 years, hardly any films have been made on same-sex relationships. For India, it is definitely a landmark film.”
In the last 20 years nothing much has changed. However, queer film festivals like the Kashish Mumbai International are somehow promoting their issues since 2010, but the moral policing, protests, bans and censoring still exist. For the acceptance of the ‘rainbow’ in our diversified society, we need to open up through our cinema too.