There is more than you think! I’m not just talking about Dostana, or Kal Ho Na Ho, or Dunno Y…Jaane Q, or Bombay Talkies, or Margarita with a Straw, or even Fire. In the whole history of Indian film, there have always been those people off to the side, being themselves and being Queer.
Pride is an American holiday, but I think it is being more and more celebrated around the world, including India. It started in America, in the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. On June 28th, 1969, the police raided the bar and started beating and arresting patrons. The fight spilled into the street and turned into a full-scale riot, the patrons of the area, including every color of Queer, fighting back against police brutality. A year later, the first “Pride Parades” were held in cities around America, commemorating the event.
And now the weekend closest to June 28th is an unofficial national holiday, featuring parades in almost every town, speeches, celebrations, and protests. I’ll be leading the Pride service at my church this morning, but I thought I should put something up on the blog to celebrate as well.
If you want to watch one Indian movie this Pride Day, watch Bombay Talkies. Specifically, Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar’s segments. They are a perfect encapsulation of what it is to be Queer in India today, and how film fantasies can give sustenance to help people survive. But if you want to watch more than that, well, there are hundreds and hundreds of films from the Hindi industry that nod to Queer society.
(This kid breaks my heart)
First, a quick note on language and definitions in this post. I am talking about anything that can be read as “Queer”, which is a blanket term meaning any behavior that is not gender normative. Even if they are just “playing”, or if they are in “disguise”, or if it is a joke, or if it just COULD be read that way, but doesn’t have to be read that way, it is still something that isn’t the norm.
Queer presentation in Indian film goes all the way back to 1913. The first Indian film “actress”, was a man dressed as a woman, Anna Salunke. Dadasaheb Phalke was unable to find a woman willing to be in his films, even prostitutes turned him down, so he finally cast an effeminate looking cook he found in a roadside restaurant. In a later film based on the Ramayana, Anna Salunke played both Ram and Sita. This photo below shows Anna as Sita. She’s pretty, right?
In the decades since, as Indian film has grown, men dressing as women continues to be a common practice. All 3 Khans have done it, Shahrukh in Duplicate.
(Great legs, right?)
Aamir in Baazi.
And Salman in Jaan-E-Mann.
Even Amitabh, back in the day, was fine with putting on a dress.
There have been the occasional scenes of heroines dressed as heroes as well. Most often in the context of acting out a love song between a man (played by a woman) and a woman, making it doubly Queer. Rani, for instance, has played both sides of this.
In Badal, getting silly with a fellow bridesmaid at a henna party.
And in Dil Bole Hadippa, performing at her local theater when the male dancer doesn’t show up that night, and getting foolish with her frenemy Rakhi Sawant.
And of course the classic example of this, a Queer-positive song number hidden in the most “traditional” and “family friendly” film of all time, “Didi Tera Deevar Deewana” from Hum Aapke Hain Koun.
While these are songs between a woman dressed as a man and another woman, there are also the occasional duets between two women that seem to have more going on under the surface. For instance, the gypsy number from Raja Hindustani.
Speaking of Raja Hindustani, the servant characters are clumsily handled, but they are also one of the few times Queer characters were placed front and center in a film.
(Well, front and slightly off-center, on either side of Karisma.)
Usually the queer characters tend to be not just off-center, but moved way off into the corner. For instance, in Sholay, the helpful fellow prisoner with the highly styled hair.
Just like the characters are moved off-side, so are the relationships that could be read as queer moved a little to the side, where they hope no one will notice them or think too much about them. Like, do you remember Mohnish Behl’s best friend, Shakti Kapoor, in Hum Saath Saath Hain? How Shakti was always around and loved to spend time with him? How Shakti dressed so brightly and how Mohnish resisted getting married?
I don’t think this relationship was meant to read as Queer, or even should be read as Queer, but I do think it CAN be read as Queer, hidden within this very traditional and gender normative plot.
That’s the thing about Queer content, it sneaks in no matter how you try to keep it out. Because the fact is, at least 10% of the world is Queer, if not more. And therefore it can be hard to keep at least 1% of that 10% from sneaking into your fictional world.