Bollywood and LGBTQ: Can the industry ever come out of the closet?
Bollywood is learning to experiment with gay themes on screen in the post 377 era. Bollywood and LGBTQ notions, however, don't go together in real life yet.
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This year in the post-Section 377 era, Bollywood has so far given two very different efforts that explore LGBTQ narratives. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (ELKDTAL) had looked exciting in the trailer, hinting at how progressive the industry had become. Alas, the final result was a weak film that dealt with many issues but tried as much as possible to avoid discussing or showing what should have been its central narrative — same-sex love between two women.
On the other hand, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti’s nine-part web series Made In Heaven (MIH) was an intelligent effort. The Amazon Prime show explored the lives of Delhi’s elite and wannabes through the eyes of two wedding planners, one of whom is a gay man whose struggles are sensitively handled by the script. After MIH dropped on March 8, there were reports of many young gay men in real life who had been encouraged to come out to their families.
Which in turn, along with Bollywood’s sudden focus on LGBTQ themes, has raised a pertinent question: Celebrities are considered role models traditionally. So, should the gay set among them take the initiative to come out of the closet?
Bollywood’s argument would be obvious: Coming out is a personal choice. It can’t be mixed with professional commitment. Even in Hollywood, it is rare for big-ticket gay actors to publicly acknowledge their sexuality. For long, there were rumours about Kevin Spacey being gay but he never spoke about it. He was outed only in the context of the #MeToo charges in 2017.
Bollywood is taking baby steps at understanding sexuality right now. A series like MIH should encourage more dedicated filmmakers to explore alternative sexuality. However, discussions will be restricted to on-screen portrayals only.
While coming out of the closet looks unlikely for gay celebrities, even the idea of many top stars taking on gay roles would seem improbable. Would Akhtar and Kagti’s Gully Boy Ranveer Singh agree to play the gay wedding planner in MIH? He would fit the role, but still probably shy away fearing an adverse impact on his career.
The scene has clearly not changed much since the time Karan Johar set out to cast for the two gay protagonists in his segment of Bombay Talkies (2013). Established stars opted out, and the roles were finally essayed by Randeep Hooda and Saqib Saleem. The same thing happened three years later when Johar produced Kapoor & Sons. An article in Open magazine states the role of the gay brother in the film was offered to stars including Saif Ali Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Farhan Akhtar and Shahid Kapoor. Eventually Johar settled for Pakistani actor Fawad Khan after the big stars turned it down.
Would Saif, Hrithik or Shahid still say no to gay roles, post the scrapping of 377? Quite likely.
The last time commercial Bollywood tried dealing with homosexuality as the central theme of a script was the Karan Johar-produced Dostana (2008), where Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham played young men who were pretending to be lovers, in order to get an affordable apartment in Miami. The film was queer-friendly, but mostly a cop-out effort. The two male protagonists made it amply clear they were heterosexual, with a slight wink in a Jerry Seinfeld sort of way to suggest, “not that there is anything wrong in being gay!”
Back in 2008, Dostana was criticised for laughing at gay characters and not with them. In 2019, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (ELKDTAL) failed to deliver on its promise and, frankly, made Dostana look like a landmark film. At least Dostana brought its supporting gay characters — even if they seemed caricatures — into mainstream Indian conversation. Bollywood’s attitude about alternative sexuality has perhaps remained the same over a decade, despite the industry cautiously exploring such subjects now.
Obviously, ELKDTAL and MIH were planned before the Supreme Court ruling that scrapped Section 377 and decriminalised homosexuality on September 6, 2018. Surely the makers of both projects must have hoped the ruling would favour India’s gay community. In reality, these projects were more about striking a perfect release timing, than being a reaction to the ruling.
The biggest thing working for ELKDTAL was its star cast comprising Sonam Kapoor, her real-life father Anil Kapoor, Rajkummar Rao and Juhi Chawla. The truth is the film never stood much of a chance. Critics trashed it and the film collapsed at the box office.
Offbeat Bollywood has done better. Onir’s My Brother Nikhil (2005) is an iconic gay-themed film. Hansal Mehta’s 2015 film Aligarh, which saw Manoj Bajpayee giving a heartbreaking performance as a gay professor, has been among the most nuanced efforts on the subject. Deepa Mehta’s Fire, Mira Nair’s Gates Foundation-funded short, Migration, and the segment Omar in Onir’s I Am are among other commendable efforts.
Bollywood is learning to come out of the closet in reel life. Bollywood and LGBTQ notions, however, don't go together for our glitterati in real life yet.
(The author is an entertainment writer and director of the New York Indian Film Festival)
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