Goodbye Onida devil, hello bionic man: Mapping gay desire in India

Gay images are everywhere these days in India from buff Bollywood stars to rocking gay parties in big cities. But the visibility hasn't demolished the closet, just made it better furnished.

hidden May 25, 2011 13:52:02 IST
Goodbye Onida devil, hello bionic man: Mapping gay desire in India

By Vikram Phukan

In the eighties, living rooms across India would prime themselves daily for a visitation by a horned goblin, green and slimy, who had a permanent arch to his brow and a fiendish glint in his eyes that never failed to enliven the staid Doordarshan telecasts.

Played with characteristic elán by actor David Whitbread, the Onida Devil slithered across our television screens, braving the rocks that were hurled at him purportedly because of the brand of television he advertised and the emotion he evoked, that of 'green' envy. But there was also something about his high camp demeanour, his natural audaciousness, and the irrepressibly delicious manner in which he delivered his schtick: “Neighbour's envy, owner's pride.” That "pride" had a special ring to it, and to my young impressionable mind, still grappling almost sub-consciously with its own sexuality, the process of identification had just begun.

The Onida Devil, in its own subliminal way, was my first bonâfide gay icon.

Homegrown beefcake to gay icons

In those days, the queer experience was that of translation, of re-interpretation, of claiming meaning from ambiguity— nothing was clear-cut and defined because there were no “out” gay men or women in pop culture, certainly not in India. We had to look for our own brand of homegrown beefcake in images like those of robust bronzed men jumping off parapets at the ghats of Varanasi for a dip in the river. We tried to read gay moments into spaces that where only men gathered even if it was a Sufi dargah during Urs.

From those times to these, the journey from the hidden-in-the-shadows to broad-daylight has been somewhat paradoxical. The renaissance of male sexuality means that shirtless beefcake pinups now populate the front pages of our tabloids where in the past they've been hidden like pressed flowers under moth-eaten mattresses; the metrosexual man is now a demographic in its own right ready to take on a whole barrel of fairness creams without a trace of embarrassment; and every Bollywood star worth his salt has been freely anointed a gay icon, sometimes with nothing to boast of except a well-appointed posterior.

Goodbye Onida devil hello bionic man Mapping gay desire in India

These days Bollywood stars are happy to project themselves as gay icons. Image from

While old-fashioned cruising is still in vogue, clandestine encounters between men are no longer about fumbling in the dark. In the past, men would spend hours purveying the scene (maybe at a dimly lit park, or at a seedy sauna) before making the first move. These days you just cruise online. And in the real world a mere clocking of the eyes or exchange of pics leads to an exchange of numbers minutes later, and it can take place anywhere— at the computer terminal, at the metro, in a hotel lobby, or even at a marriage reception. The world has opened up and you're not living in the realm of missed opportunities anymore. The possibility of a fulfilling alternative life is more real now than ever before.

The party closet

But the visibility that was promised due to recent events, like the historic Delhi High Court ruling that read down Section 377, hasn't entirely been forthcoming. For instance, pride parades are populated by a rank-and-file set of gay activists, women in saris are out in full fore, and transsexuals have special pride of place.

The world of activism has embraced a notion of queerness that doesn't mean strange, weird, or peculiar, but has rather now taken on the mantle of a giant umbrella, all done up in rainbow colours.

By contrast, the after-pride parties are almost entirely patronised by a decidedly different set of gay men. Gay party culture in India offers a tantalizing glimpse of this other gay life, a swarming incestuous circle, a seemingly unending roster of familiar names, faux online identities, and vital statistics; that sometimes creates an impression of something warm and fuzzy, at other times almost assumes a schizophrenic dimension that is a heady margarita of deceit and earnestness, of blurry affection but not the promise of real love.

Everything is hip, hipster and hyper-masculine. You could almost be mistaken into believing that this new generation is taking the bull by its horns. The cake is served, they are gorging too. But somehow in this new freedom, and despite the emblazoned symbols of this well-packaged gay expression— the wifebeater shirts, the hot pants, the flesh parade, the hint of designer underwear—the paradox is real because for the most part, this is still an underground culture.

These men who are partying the night away are the ones most likely to benefit from any changes in the social climate when it comes to homosexuality. But many of them wouldn't be caught dead waving rainbow flags in public. For them, activism seems to mean nothing much more than partying. After the party is over many of them are happy to go back into the closet.

Goodbye Onida devil, hello bionic man

There is a very Westernised notion of sexuality taking root— you need to strut around with six pack abs and make your 'body beautiful' debut. The centrespreads of Indian gay magazines like Fun are photo-processed to the point that the male models are like strange, hairless bionic men. Not a hair out of place, not a freckle to be seen, not one muscular cut invisible.

The Onida Devil, with his foppish avuncular manner wouldn't survive for a minute in these arclights. Many readers of Fun would probably cringe from any hint of effeminacy and campness in their photospreads because stereotypes are easy to embrace even by those who are subjected to them.

But for all the flamboyant bare-chested display of sexuality, the readers enjoying this beefcake buffet still happily live in cloistered closets in which they can masquerade as straight men.

The reality of urban gay existence in India is that of a thriving parallel culture that still seems to derive much of its power from the closet. A typical gay man has two profiles on Facebook. The non-gay profile allows him to be an upstanding member of society, with men and women represented in equal numbers in his roster of friends, and no telltale comments or tagged pics that would betray any licentiousness that isn't of the right kind. Then there is a more sexualized world for a more sexualized alter ego.

Here your friends are now a bevy of shirtless beauties, and the conversations are more openly flirtatious, albeit in a stilted way. Men are now brazen in the manner in which they can negotiate the closet. The parallel culture has more space than ever before. That means more beach parties and holiday getaways.

Goodbye Onida devil hello bionic man Mapping gay desire in India

Gay pride marches are becoming a regular feature in big cities but many homosexuals are still happy to stay in the closet. Manpreet Romana/AFP Photos

A rainbow community

The self-confidence and egalitarianism of the new generation is heartening even though some if comes from partying in the margins and out of sight. It is not a physical gay neighbourhood but a sort of virtual ghetto where class and race distinctions are more easily laid to rest, and everyone, from industry honchos to fitness trainers, are on a level playing ground, except in terms of desirability.

This gay ghetto still allows a large proportion of Indian gay men to remain married to women. If you sanction the closet you sanction the fallout. Urban gay culture isn't about finding your gay icon anymore. It's more about finding a Neverland of your own. Conversely, visibility is considered a boxcar to nowhere. Openness is perceived to mean the loss of your family, the loss of your job, the loss of your children, and the loss of your secret lifestyle.

Sometimes however, the parallel culture surfaces in the open. Kashish, the largest gay film festival of its kind in the country, took place last year at a mainstream multiplex. People may have expected to be beset by all kinds of queer denizens, walking in un-policed, shamelessly flagrant in their public displays of affection. In fact, they looked like everyone else. But they were no longer hiding. You couldn't hide, you had to line up just to get in.

Inside the theatre there was a kind of collective excitement. They were moved to tears by even the most hackneyed melodrama. They laughed at the most trite jokes. They didn't really switch off their cell phones or watch the films with rapt attention. They clapped even for the most dour documentaries. But there was a certain unity, a community. The personality of this gathering wasn't defined by a hundred rainbow flags or its ilk. It was a kind of sensibility that didn’t for a minute seem like it had known years of repression.

Dare I say I sensed that unfathomable, but quite unmistakable quality that “smelt like queer spirit?”

Vikram Phukan runs the theatre appreciation website Stage Impressions and has formerly edited Bombay Dost. The second edition of Kashish runs from May 25-29 in Mumbai.

The original Onida Devil. Watch here.

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