With Karan Johar announcing Dostana 2, a look back at what made the original a standout film
Despite the criticism that Dostana faced for its stereotyping of homosexuality, the film was path-breaking in its own right as it 'brought the conversation of homosexuality into drawing rooms'
In 2008, when Karan Johar's Dharma Productions released Dostana, it was a landmark moment for Bollywood. This was the first-ever Hindi mainstream film to turn its lens towards homosexuality. In the film, two leading men played gay characters (even if it was them pretending to be gay), and audiences lapped up this universe.
Karan Johar proudly pointed out the same in a 2016 interview with Filmfare, saying that the Tarun Mansukhani film "brought the conversation of homosexuality into the drawing room of every urban home."
Dostana was indeed path-breaking. Like Johar said in the same interview, the film received as much flak as it garnered praise for its depiction of same-sex relationships. Critics said that the film stereotyped homosexuality and was even homophobic at times. But the film was a stepping stone for Bollywood. For on the one hand, it did indeed use homosexuality as a comedic tool, but as a result, it also normalised it for the average Indian viewer.
"Acceptance is still a long way but at least we’re aware. That’s the first stage. There was once a point when we weren’t even aware," Johar asserted in the interview.
The story of Dostana is as follows — Sameer/Sam (Abhishek Bachchan) and Kunal (John Abraham) pretend to be a gay couple to rent out an apartment in Miami, which is owned by Neha (Priyanka). Problems begin when both the men start developing romantic feelings for Neha.
There were plenty stereotypes. Neha's gay boss Murli M ( Boman Irani) refuses to promote Neha as the editor because he is told Sam and Kunal are a couple, when Neha promised that both the men were single and were available for his romantic advances. Sam's mother Rani (Kirron Kher) sang 'Maa Da Ladla Bigad Gaya' (Mother's beloved son has gone rogue) each time there was a reference to their homosexuality. The portrayal of gay men as loud, flamboyant and somewhat even caricaturish effectively demarcated them from the suave and tempered cis male, Abhimanyu Singh (Bobby Deol). The film also raised questions regarding representation, as the protagonists are ultimately only pretending to be gay.
But perhaps it is imperative to take a closer look at the socio-political implications of the film. At the time when Dostana hit screens, Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code was still a decade away from being declared unconstitutional. In such a socially-rigid scenario, the existence of such a film and its box office success was a big deal. Rachel Saltz of The New York Times remarked that the film "irreverently normalizes a topic that has been virtually absent from screens in India."
If we are to look back even five years, films like Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) used homophobia as a tool to provide comic subplot in an otherwise emotionally-charged film. In 1998's Prem Aggan, the female lead says "Tumhara naam Jay Mehta nahi, gay Mehta hona chahiye tha" (You should have been called gay Mehta instead of Jay Mehta) to a passerby who offers to help her. Many '90s films couldn't tell the difference between an effeminate man and a homosexual, and would often confuse the two. Homosexuality was used as an insult in many mainstream 90s films.
Dostana is no Fire or My Brother Nikhil. It didn't try to break the glass ceiling; it did, however, start the conversation on portrayal of homosexuality in mainstream Bollywood.
That said, with the announcement of Dostana 2, we can't help but wonder if the Dostana-formula would work in the present day. To put it simply, it wouldn't.
Since Dostana, numerous films have tackled alternate sexuality, and rather sensitively. Dharma Productions' Kapoor and Sons (2016) featured a homosexual character as the lead and didn't sensationalise his sexuality. In 2019, Shelly Chopra Dhar's Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga rewrote history, as the first commercial Hindi movie to explore a romantic relationship between two women. Zoya Akhtar's web-series Made in Heaven pushed the boundary a notch further — not only is her protagonist Karan (Arjun Mathur) gay, he is also a philanderer. His character is given depth and space to grow.
Mainstream movies have come a long way since Dostana — with the digital coup, there's a genuine attempt to not 'otherise' the LGBT+ community. For every Kabir Singh celebrating toxic masculinity as passion and intensity, there's an Aligarh, that does not shy away from sharing stories fragile and vulnerable queer individuals.
Here's hoping Dostana 2 takes a cue from these stellar works to produce something not only entertaining but also mature and inclusive.
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