2021 Queer Roundup: Unassuming gayness of ACP Khan in Aarya over laboured representation in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui

My hope for queer storytelling as we step into a new year is to be more irreverent, to see more easy queerness, more desire, and more queer authorship as opposed to only queer characters.

Prathyush Parasuraman December 28, 2021 13:28:19 IST
2021 Queer Roundup: Unassuming gayness of ACP Khan in Aarya over laboured representation in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui

Vikas Kumar as ACP Khan in Aarya

Queer Gaze is a monthly column where Prathyush Parasuraman examines traces of queerness in cinema and streaming — intended or unintended, studied or unstudied, reckless or exciting.

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While helping research the author Parmesh Shahani’s part-memoir, part-manifesto Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion At The Indian Workplace, I had interviewed a few working gay, lesbian, and trans people, one of whom — and I wish I could remember the person — had told me something candid and profound. 

That heterosexuals signal their heterosexuality in the workplace all the time with a casual thoughtlessness — be it through the photos of wives and children they keep on their desks, the mangalsutras, the rings, the Karva Chauths, the casual references in conversations, the watercooler chats on one’s dating life, or even the hickeys one tries to conspicuously hide, hoping to invite questions.

But to talk casually about your queer partner in a workplace is to both talk about them, but also talk about yourself, announcing your queerness. It is suddenly a statement, a political gesture, even. The point the person was making was that to be in a truly queer-inclusive workplace — a hypothetical ideal, one that is cruel by virtue of it being impossible to achieve — is to reach out towards a world where one need not announce one’s sexuality, either explicitly or incidentally. 

Extending the same idea from the workplace to the silver screen, it seems natural that we aspire towards queer characters who do not announce their queerness but instead inhabit it with the same casual thoughtlessness. This would unburden them too, giving us characters, and not feeble caricatures of despair with a microphone; to not be characters always looking outside the screen, at the gaping audience it treats like a student, instead, being busy untangling the felicitous mess of their lives.  

Because when you tell stories of queer, despairing caricatures, queerness begins to sound like a moral choice. In The Married Woman, an ALTBalaji show that came out in March this year, a cloistered housewife in post-Babri Delhi falls in love with a free-spirited artist. Queer love is seen as emancipatory. Similarly in His Story, another ALTBalaji show this year, the word “khushi” used in the context of queer love, had a spiritual, almost transcendent sheen. In trying to make queer love palatable, they have made queer love unrecognisable.

When entertainment kneels at the altar of education, the cracks show in the dialogues, where the conversations begin to sound like scripted manifestos. Even Neeraj Ghaywan’s striking short film Geeli Pucchi, on inter-caste lesbian affection, suffered from this kind of laboured writing, which even Ghaywan acknowledged, “In the interest of bringing things to light, I guess we have to compromise on some nuance. Sometimes it is inevitable.” Look at the choice of words — "bringing things to light." An assumption of education in a society where education itself is an imposed condition. To turn the theater into the classroom is to mistake education for emancipation. 

2021 Queer Roundup Unassuming gayness of ACP Khan in Aarya over laboured representation in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui

Konkona Sensharma and Aditi Rao Hydari in Geeli Pucchi

Take the character of ACP Yunus Khan (Vikas Kumar) in the Disney+ Hotstar show Aarya, an example of a gay man whose gayness is not mounted on a pedestal. His queerness was not used as a comic prop, a sensational tool, or a moralising mic. It was, as it usually is for someone who has lived with one’s queerness long enough, broken, reluctant, bleeding into his personality, taking its form, like water to a vessel. 

Even the way his queerness is introduced has no accompanying noise. The ACP is pacing around, trying to crack the drug cartel open in frustration, when a constable walks in and tells him Ajay has come, bringing him dinner. Who is Ajay? Why is he bringing the ACP dinner? Khan steps out, smiles, and the two break bread together at the station. It is a moment we realise that the hard-nosed ACP has an interior life, and inhabits a world of desire. That this desire is queer makes it none the more exceptional. 

Of course, this does not mean that queerness is interchangeable with heterosexuality. Sly digs, off-white comments, sidelong discomfort will dot the experience — as it does in Aarya — but not as provocations to proselytise, but pinpricks to archive our society’s homophobia. This is, after all, not the world of Schitts Creek, where a careful effort was made to curate a world without bigotry or slurs. Even in the second season of Aarya, that came out this year, the makers doubled down on this casual approach, even if it was at the cost of Ajay becoming a badgering doll. 

The beauty about this character was that he wore his queerness so casually, that even his violent impulses, the jolts of injustice that he throws, becomes character flaws, not stereotypes of gay men. When you have a queer character whose personality is entirely defined by their queerness — like the evil trans women from Sadak, Sangharsh, and Tamanna — it is easy to assume their flaws are not specific to them as characters, but general to transness. 

2021 Queer Roundup Unassuming gayness of ACP Khan in Aarya over laboured representation in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui

Akshay Oberoi and Ankur Rathee in Inside Edge Season 3

But subtlety and sophistication in character building are missing in most productions, anyways. Where do queer characters stand, then? Take the third season of Inside Edge when Allen Menezes, played by a limp wristed, expressionistic Ankur Rathee, the secret boyfriend of the cricket captain (Akshay Oberoi), is introduced as an activist who fought for the 2018 repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which crimininalised gay sex. Their conversations are entirely about visibility, representation, pride, and shame. To be queer here is to inspire other queer people by being unapologetically yourself. The sledgehammer approach makes queerness sound boring, entirely political, the kind of person whose thoughts you would retweet, but whom you would avoid at a house party.

Where is the burning desire that is the centerpiece of one’s sexistence? The chemistry, the cackling, the hypocrisy, the longing that is all essential in any love story.  

This is not to say queerness cannot be political. In fact, it should. Queer activists have often fought to make the movement broader, to not just fight for the rights of a people to desire and express desire the way they want, but for all people to live in a world without the three constraining, institutional Ms — marriage, market, military. (That we have used the law to precisely integrate queer people into marriages, corporate workplaces, and military barracks is another question.) But where is the space for this kind of political nuance in our queer stories? It has been three years since the repeal of Section 377, and the politics of a gay character cannot look beyond this monument. It has begun to feel like a convenient signal to express progressive values, without activism or action to gird it. It is lazy.

Then, there is the thorny, myopic question around representation. This came to the fore with Chandigarh Kare Aashiquiwhere Vaani Kapoor played a transwoman. In response to the film, transwomen have penned generous essays whose critical edge was based entirely on whether they felt seen by or identified with the film. The entire value was calibrated on the basis of the film being educational, a product of ethical choices that lends itself to ethical consequences. 

2021 Queer Roundup Unassuming gayness of ACP Khan in Aarya over laboured representation in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui

Ayushmann Khurrana and Vaani Kapoor in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui

I have always thought this is a narrow conception of art, because representation is three-pronged. It is not just queer subjects on screen, but queer authorship behind the screen, and queer audiences too — a Kanchana might be acid-like for some transwomen, while many Aravanis celebrated it as rousing validation, ditto for its Hindi remake last year. Laxmii was promoted by Hijra women in a music video, while being bashed by op-eds online written by other transwomen.

The argument to shift perspective from onscreen representation to off-screen authorship in this context is simple. The reception will always be subjective. What can be objective is the material lives of the people you seek to represent. Uplift them. Bring them into the writers’ room, into the film set.  

To see in art an evangelism that would make people less bigoted, more compassionate is to thus assume that the film can be viewed in only one way, beside it also inflates the impact of cinema as an artform. Do people really walk into the theater like students and walk out enlightened? Are we still so enamoured by the big screen that we are willing to romanticise its spools if it suits the utopia we are striving to fight for? 

Of course, this line of thought — that art changes, as opposed to validates or contorts or reflects, society — is not new. Even Socrates in Plato’s Republic, while trying to fashion the perfect city, expresses how the poet Homer’s stories have created a Homeric hero — the man who slaughters — which now must be replaced with one who has philosophical knowledge. Thus, Socrates argues for the censorship of the poets. To create art so people can be restructured in its shadow into thoughtful beings capable of utmost cognition. How illiberal, romantic, hopeful, and unscientific.  

When watching movies becomes a loaded gesture — one where we are not just thinking of the film, but also of how that film will be received by a society, we can only make sense of through anecdotes and news reports — the tenets of film criticism are suddenly made unsteady. The burden of queerness, of feminism, of anti-casteism, etc can now be felt — to worry more about the society art is embedded in than the art itself. To be honest, we are still, and perhaps always will be, grappling with the terms and limits of criticism. To see in Dostana a possibility for more gay love stories as Parmesh Shahani did or to see in it a blatant conversation ender, validating false notions of eccentric queerness, of gayness as a choice. 

It might be easier when writing or thinking about a character’s queerness in inane films like Hum Bhi Akele Tum Bhi Akele or She Loves Me She Loves Me Not (from the Netflix India anthology Feels Like Ishq) or sensational dramas like Bombay Begums or even the oddly leering Call My Agent: Bollywood, for these films and shows are not considered provocative or paradigmatic enough. But when we sense the capacity of a film or a show to change the discourse, we mistake that capacity for actual impact, and in the cross-firing about the politics of the film or the show, we forget that there was actually a story being told.

2021 Queer Roundup Unassuming gayness of ACP Khan in Aarya over laboured representation in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui

Still from Call My Agent: Bollywood

That however startling and cinematic the final twist of Geeli Pucchi, the writing leading up to it was so laboured, it was hard to hold onto it. That whatever the politics of Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, it was a dull film where the trans character was a catalyst, and not a protagonist. Where the chemistry had to be slammed down our throats through blurry sex scenes because it just did not come across when they casually shared space. That the makers were so worried about the reception by the trans community, they included some of them as snippets in the film, to short circuit any blowback. 

Then perhaps, that is my hope for queer storytelling as we step into a new year. To be more irreverent, but hoping that it is not grounded in hateful, spiteful ignorance. To see more easy queerness that is not laboured by explanations and flat politics. To see more queer authorship as opposed to queer characters. And of course, to see more desire — that generous, unsteady, amoral, irresistible, frustrating thing we wag our tails behind. 

Prathyush Parasuraman is a critic and journalist, who writes a weekly newsletter on culture, literature, and cinema at prathyush.substack.com.

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