This is going to read differently from my normal posts. It’s a paper I wrote years ago, that was published in a book and a journal. So it is very academic sounding and stuff, the original even has footnotes (you can read it here). It is also very clear and certain in its style, the way academic writing is supposed to be. That doesn’t mean I think it is perfect and that you can’t disagree with it just as much as with any of the other stuff I write with all the “I think”s and “Possibly”s and “You could see this as”s. Mostly I just thought it was an interesting thing to look back on today as 377 is once again dead. Also, you get to see how I managed to sneak the phrase “molten beefcake” into an academic journal.
Homosexuality in India today is still primarily hidden; however the films of Karan Johar bring it into the light. Johar’s films Dostana (2008), Kal Ho Na Ho (KHNH) (2003), and Student of the Year (SOTY) (2010) are both popular and progressive. A close textual analysis reveals the ways Johar balances mainstream concerns with subversive elements, which allowed his message of acceptance to influence a large number of South Asians. Johar uses his films to support the gay community’s struggle for acknowledgement through including blatant queer elements integral to the plot and for acceptance through positioning his characters and stars as accepting of the gay community.
In recent years, there have been an increasing number of Indian films dealing with queerness. This generally fall into two categories, the artistic film which deals with it as a serious societal issue and are barely seen by the Indian public, and the mainstream film which deals with it purely as comedy. The film Fire dealt explicitly with lesbianism, while the film My Brother Nikhil (2005) is about a gay character with AIDs. In the mainstream, more and more films have begun to have gay side characters. Films such as Rules Pyar ke Super Hit Formula (2003) made the queer story line a pure figure of fun. The movie Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007) makes it a minor plot point. While explaining why she lied that she was dating a character played by Bobby Deol, the heroine, played by Preity Zinta, says her male best friend always talks about the Deol character because he is attracted to him. KHNH and Dostana are part of this trend, but also supersede it as they dare to go farther than any other, while still treating the issues of being queer in Indian society as a joke. The main difference between art house films and Johar’s films is in their audience. While Dostana was the 10th most profitable film of its year in India (boxofficemojo.com 2014), Fire wasn’t even released in Indian theaters until after it had been out in the West for more than a year and the most well-known parallel cinema film in India on the issue, Onir’s I Am (2011) which won a National Award in the year of its release, was still a box office flop (Adesara: 2011). Johar managed to craft a film that included a message of gay acceptance without sacrificing audience reach.
(Fire opened in Germany before India)
Johar has been including queer messages in his films from the beginning. Johar’s first film, which he wrote and directed, was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (KKHH) (1997) which revolves around the unspoken love between two friends. KKHH deals with the idea of yaari love, through the relationship between Anjali, the character played by Kajol, and Rahul, the character played by Shahrukh Khan. Yaari love in Indian culture can mean anything from best friends as close as a husband and wife, to same sex lovers (R. Raj Rao 2000; Ashok Row Kavi 2000).
In this case, the first half KKHH establishes Anjali and Rahul as “best friends”. In fact, Anjali describes them as “yaars”. While Rahul may chase after women all around campus, it is his relationship with Anjali that truly matters. Anjali, meanwhile, has no interest in boys or other traditional matters of her gender norm. She begins to have feelings for Rahul, but fears he will reject her. Finally, she has a conversation with her foster mother who urges Anjali to reveal her love, that telling it will make her feel better, that there is nothing of which to be ashamed. Anjali rushes to tell her love, only to instead learn that Rahul has fallen in love with another girl. This sequence, a close friendship, turning into love on the part of one of them, while the other remains totally unaware and uninterested, is a common story related in Kala’s book of interviews with gay men in India. They frequently first fell in love with their best friend, or become friends out of love for another man, only to realize their love was not returned (1991: 23, 18, 71, 123). The second half serves to contain the implications of the first. Johar strongly positions the romance in the second half as a social necessity, providing Rahul with a proper wife, his mother with a daughter-in-law, and his daughter with a mother. KKHH went on to great success, containing the possibilities of forbidden love between friends within societal expectations.
(In contrast, this film/song doesn’t even bother trying to contain the “yaar” love, instead rejecting heterosexual romance in favor of homosocial friendship)
Johar’s more recent film, Kabhi Alveda Na Kehna (2005), took the theme of forbidden love and never restrained it within the confines of traditional Indian behavior. The story follows two married South Asians living in New York who start an affair. In many ways this film is a remake of the popular 1981 film, Silsila. However, the narrative has two main differences. In the first movie, the couple falls in love before their marriages, and then reignites the affair after their marriages. In addition, the first movie ends with a reaffirmation of marriage as the cheating couple reunites with their spouses. The later film has the couple meet and fall in love after they are married and ends with them both being divorced prior to reuniting. Finally, the later film shows the physical disgust present in the sexual relationship between the married couples, while the first film shows physical comfort and pleasure within the marriages. The post-marriage meeting between the couple turns the relationship into an irresistible, outside of society, impulse. The physical disgust emphasizes the sexual nature of the attraction. Again, this experience is something Kala speaks to when describing the desires of the men he interviewed (1991: 48, 74, 76).
Johar’s film Kal Ho Na Ho (KHNH) (2003) was the first to take these themes out of the closet. While the queerness in this film is purportedly a mere minor subplot, in fact the entire film invites a queer reading of the relationship between the two male characters. In addition, the casting of the actors makes the queer reading even more tempting, as they have both previously struggled with rumors of gayness. Finally, the way in which Johar wrote the Aman character, who does the most to encourage they humorous misunderstanding of himself as gay, as both the perfect Indian man, and a supernatural being, gives God and society’s approval to the gay lifestyle.
Johar also strongly positions KHNH as representing a modern, international Indian society. Gayatri Gopinath argues it does this through “male homosexuality that marks and consolidates this newly emergent transnational Indian subject as fully modern” (2005: 163). However, her argument focuses on the ways in which the diaspora might react to the film, ignoring the ways in which it questions and challenges a traditional Indian audience. This is present from the opening of the film in which a young South Asian woman (Preity Zinta), her voice over speaking Hindi, runs through New York scenes, ending up by the river, as in the background Bhangra music (a popular musical form from Northern India) plays in the background, positioning her both as a South Asian and as a New Yorker. This sequence is an example of Bhattachariya’s (2009) argument that song sequences in films set within the diaspora serve to support the Indian identity of the characters. The sequence ends with her sitting by the river (a subconscious reference to the Ganges, the center of Hindu/Indian culture just as several scenes by the river are a center of this film) as she gives her name, Naina Catherine Kapur, positioning her both as an Indian through her first and last names, and a Christian (and therefore Westernized) through her middle name.
The next few scenes establish the context of the film and the initial plot complications, as well as the introduction of the one bright spot in Naina’s life, her school friend Rohit (Saif Ali Khan), wealthy and constantly getting into trouble. Once these various plots have been established, Johar introduces the initial solution to them all, in the person of Aman, played by mega-star Shahrukh Khan. The introduction of Khan’s character begins with Jennifer, Shiv, and Gia, all sitting down to pray for an angel to save them from their difficult situation, and, as they pray, the camera circles around the familiar back of Shahrukh Khan, standing on a boat facing the New York skyline, positioned both as a modern international Indian, and a traditional one through the presence of the river, as well as an angel through the dialogue. As he stands, he makes his typical hand movement from numerous other films and interviews, brushing his hair back from his face, identifying him to the knowing audience as Shahrukh Khan, the superstar, not the character he plays. Next, as Naina comes into the room to kneel with the rest of her family, Khan appears, again from the back, walking next to an older woman in a sari (clearly his mother), helping her down the crowded stairs of a train station, again, both a significant New York location and a location with resonance in Indian culture. Finally, he brushes by the Naina in a scene from earlier in the film in which she fights with her friend and spills coffee, but in the earlier filming Khan was invisible.
As Naina’s voice over says “Dear God, if you’re listening, please send us an Angel”, the camera moves out the window of the room over to the balcony of the house next door to finally reveal Khan full-figure, watching the family. He has been positioned as slightly supernatural through his disappearance and reappearance in the early scene, and through his apparent spontaneous creation in response to the family’s request for an angel. In addition, this sequence has served to establish him as the perfect Indian man who is comfortable both at home and abroad and loving to his mother. And finally, through the use of his familiar hand-movement, he is also playing himself, superstar Shahrukh Khan with a persona that ranges through all his films.
Aman quickly inserts himself into the lives of Naina and her family, finally confronting Naina stating that she takes on too much responsibility and does not enjoy what she has, saying “What is the point of praying to God if you do not appreciate the life he has given you?” Again, Johar positions Aman as speaking for God. He ends the discussion by saying “I know [what my problem is] I am very sexy, but you are not my type” a foreshadowing of the upcoming second comedy track. Johar introduces this track when Aman and Rohit meet for the first time as the young people go together to a club on “disco night”. The sequence begins with a series of shots establishing the disco location, dancers, bartenders, etc. Next, Rohit and Aman share a frame together as they drink in unison. They continue to share a frame throughout the rest of the sequence, at first with Naina placed in between them as they face each other, then as another woman joins them with all four characters facing out and the two women on either end, until finally at the end of the sequence, Naina forces herself between the two men to reach the bar and drink shots, which leads to her dancing provocatively, and the next song sequence, “It’s the Time to Disco”.
Both the location of a disco, a traditional site of gay culture, and the first shot of the characters, placing Rohit and Aman as a couple, serves to establish a possible queer reading of the film for the first time. The queer readings continue in for the rest of the disco sequence as Rohit at first attempts to stop Naina, both from drinking and from dancing. Aman stops him and instead encourages Naina. While the surface meaning of the sequence is meant to be Aman attempting to draw Rohit and Naina apart, and make Naina loosen up in order to romance her, it could just as easily be read as Aman attempting to draw Rohit and Naina apart in order to romance Rohit, especially as he keeps Rohit close to himself, while encouraging Naina to leave the group. At the end of the sequence, the Johar re-establishes the heteronormativity. Drunk Naina and Rohit are thrown out of the club; Aman takes their hands, one on either side. As Rohit and Naina start to talk across him, Aman steps back and has them hold each other’s hands, establishing them as a viable heterosexual couple.
The heterosexual couple does not last long, however, as Johar begins the next scene with a shot of the two men in bed together. They are curled up with Aman’s head on Rohit’s shoulder and his hand on his chest, although they are fully dressed. Rohit at first assumes Aman is his dog, petting his head and calling him by the dog’s name. Aman, on the other hand, is fully aware of where he is and smiles with pleasure at Rohit’s caress. Aman sits up with Rohit and explains that he only spent the night as Rohit was too drunk to be left alone. He then negates that explanation by casually reaching across Rohit’s body for a bottle of water. As they are tangled together in this way, Rohit’s maid, Kantaben (Sulbha Arya) comes in the room. Aman proceeds to put on a show for her. He waves in a friendly fashion to her, asks for a banana, and caresses Rohit’s face, asking to be introduced. As she turns to leave, Aman calls her name, so she turns back to see him leaning against Rohit’s shoulder making a kissing face.
After this disturbing scene, again Johar restores the heteronormativity with a discussion of Rohit’s love for Naina. Soon after, Naina realizes she loves Aman just as Rohit realizes he loves her, leading to another song. A series of characters answer the question what is love, and finally Aman declares he will show what love is, followed by images of Naina and Rohit singing of their love. Again, Aman is supernatural, controlling all. Within the song, there are shots of other couples in love, a motorcycle couple, two children, an older couple, and two men fondling each other and laughing. They are included not as examples of sexual desire or as a humorous oddity, but sincerely as an example of a couple in love. While the queer features of the rest of the plot are used for comedy, this brief moment reveals an understanding of gay love as just as valid as the other examples used within the song. This moment is especially unusual when understood in the context on an Indian culture in which Arvind Kala, an experienced journalist writing a book on the gay Indian experience, felt the need to clarify for himself and his readers, “a gay’s attraction for men isn’t merely sexual, as non-gays think, it’s emotional too. Incredible though it may seem, a homosexual falls in love with a man with the same intensity as a heterosexual falls for a woman” (1991: 67).
A scene of Naina talking with her friend and Rohit talking with Aman about how to confess their love follows this song. After finally making an appointment with Naina to tell her, Rohit embraces Aman, saying “Today I am going to say what’s in my heart. I love you Aman! I love you”. Aman facing away from the camera, responds in kind. The two men separate, revealing the maid Kantaben watching them, which Rohit still does not see. Aman, who did see her when facing away, starts blowing kisses at Rohit, who is oblivious. The scene ends with Kantaben collapsing on the couch and Rohit asking “Did you hear something?” to which Aman replies “No.” Aman, positioned as not just the perfect Indian man, but in addition as an Avatar of God, enjoys being perceived as gay, in fact courts it. He is putting his supernatural stamp of approval upon same sex relationships. As the character is doing this, so is the star, Shahrukh Khan.
The plot progresses, with all the young characters experiencing heart break. Aman, now revealed to be dying although he told Naina he was married in order to discourage her, is eager for Rohit to get back together with Naina, leaving a message on his machine insisting that he cannot forget his first love, Aman will not let him. Naturally, Kantaben overhears. This leads to a plot movement which can only be understood through the context of Kantaban’s misunderstanding, which allows for the possibility that not only might two South Asian men be gay, they may be committed to each other. Rohit’s father takes him to a strip club and asks if he is “normal”. But he can’t bring himself to say gay, so instead he says that “Kantaben mentioned you might be in love with someone.” This is very revealing phrasing, giving the male relationship love status, rather than relegating it to “men who have sex with men,” a definition which is still common in India (Joseph 1996: 2229). Later in the conversation, Rohit declares he is telling his father “I am in love with someone, I want to marry them, I want to have children with them.” His father, still thinking he is talking about a man, merely asks “Is that possible?” He seems to be struggling to understand and accept the situation, saying “In America, anything is possible; I asked for a daughter-in-law, I got a son-in-law.” The reaction of Rohit’s is typical of a South Asian parent of a gay man, struggling primarily with the lack of cultural context to deal with male love in India, to define a relationship that has no definition (Joseph 1996: 2230-2231; Kala 1991: 83). After this, Rohit corrects his father, but not emphatically, emphasizing that he is in love with Naina, not that he is straight, or acting angry at the misunderstanding. This is not the kind of reaction experienced by the men in Kala’s book, who describe anger and fear from the parents, not just confusion leading to acceptance (1991: 30, 83, 85).
This conversation leads directly to Rohit’s father introducing him to a series of eligible women, one of whom he begins to date, a minor plot movement, but one that makes sense only in terms of the initial misunderstanding of Rohit as gay. Aman breaks into Rohit’s apartment, while his maid desperately tries to stop him, he declares “I will kill myself, but I will never leave Rohit!” bringing up memories of the many Indian suicides when two men or woman are driven apart (Kala 1991: 28, 29). After he leaves, Kantaben prays to her religious idol to always keep the two men apart. Immediately following this, Aman finds Rohit in a bathroom. Clearly, God ignored Kantaben’s request (something which is fairly unusual in an Indian movie), implying that it was unworthy. Once Aman breaks up Rohit and his girlfriend, the plot continues to move forward, with Aman insisting Rohit not give up on Naina, reminding him how much he loves her. He proceeds to teach Rohit how to get a girl in six days, which naturally succeeds.
Following the success of the plan, Rohit goes to Aman in his bedroom and says seriously, “I love you Aman, I really do.” Aman pretends coyness and smiles and says “Why thank you.” Rohit proposes to Naina, she accepts, knowing she doesn’t love him, and the wedding plans begin, including a large engagement party. Throughout the sequence, Aman expresses heartbreak. This heartbreak could also be from the loss of Rohit, not Naina, especially as he must keep it a secret. In the course of the engagement party planning, mention is made of an interior decorator from France. This character fits nicely within Russo‘s definitions of the sissy as foreign, expansively feminine, and surrounded by decadence (1987: 7, 26, 36). The first time he appears, he wears all red with a beret, makes a face, and declares “Drapes!” Next Johar shows him in black with a motorcycle cap, moving to give a garland to Rohit, before being stopped by Kantaben. Finally, he dresses in red again, this time traditional Indian garb and another beret, fluttering his hands as he moves aside to reveal the decorated hall for the engagement party. At the party, of course, there is a big dance number.
The number begins with Aman dancing and singing for the couple accompanied by a female chorus, putting him in a female space, as Chopra discusses the construction of his character in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayange (2002: 79). Later in the song, Rohit dances with Naina in a western style. As he spins her out, Aman spins in. The two men pause a moment, then shrug and start waltzing together, in a image reminiscent of the early Edison films showing two men waltzing (Russo 1987: 7). As they waltz past, the interior decorator jumps up and down clapping his hands. Kanteben shoves him off balance into Rohit’s father, who he grabs for balance (despite the father’s obvious discomfort), and stands on one leg waving his hand. The older image of the sissy gives his blessing to the new image of the modern man, comfortable with a fluid sexuality.
The wedding moves forward, again showing Aman heartbroken as he watches the couple, but Johar allows for a reading that he mourns Rohit, not Naina. At the end of the film, Aman lays in a hospital bed actively dying. He says good-bye to all the main characters, but it is Rohit he saves for last and talks to alone. While the content of the conversation is their mutual love for Naina, the fact that this is his farewell, places the relationship between the two men above any other in the film. This scene was spoofed in the Filmfare awards ceremony (awards sponsored by a leading film magazine, the Indian equivalent of the Oscars) of that year, when Shahrukh Kahn and Saif Ali Kahn acted it again, but instead of discussing Naina, confessed their love for each other.
Some authors criticized KHNH for providing a typical gay stereotype (Pramod K. Nayar 2007: 123; Shohini Ghosh 2007: 424). However, what they ignore is the invisibility of queerness in Indian culture which makes even a stereotypical presentation a triumph. In addition, as shown by the previous description, Johar positions the gayness within the narrative in way which makes it legitimate. Aman, the perfect man, the angel, enjoys being thought of as gay, in fact he courts it. In the same way, Shahrukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, the popular male stars, used this film to show their own comfort with being thought of as gay. This is impressive for both men, as they have both struggled previously with rumors of homosexuality. For Shahrukh Khan, there are jokes about his close friendship with Johar (Ghosh 2007: 426). For Saif Ali Khan, there was his past associating with Akshay Kumar in a series of popular films with led to them being called “Saikshay.” This culminated in the gay activist Ashok Row Kavi specifically citing their relationship in the film Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1995) as gay, which led to Khan publicly punching him (Thomas Waugh 2001: 289).
Following KHNH, the film Dostana makes queerness the centerpiece of its plot, impossible to be ignored. At the same time, Johar uses it to promote acceptance through the ways in which the various South Asian characters interact with gayness. While KHNH invites a queer reading, Dostana almost demands it. Karan Johar has enormous power in the industry, especially over his own films; he handpicks scripts, is involved with every aspect of filming, and chooses to work with the same small group of actors (Raja Sen: 2009). Therefore, even films such as Dostana which he merely produced, or KHNH, which he produced and wrote but did not direct, are still very much Karan Johar productions, following Tom Schatz’s idea of the “genius in the system” (2009).
The start of the movie once again places Karan in control, with the titles reading “Karan Johar presents” then “Dostana.” Following a series of establishing shots of Florida, there is a mid-distance close up of Shilpa Shetty’s back, before the first song music starts as the shot changes to John Abraham walking out of the ocean wearing a miniscule yellow swimsuit. The camera moves up and down his body, looking at his chest, his back, his waist, and paying scant attention to his face. After an interlude of singing with a female chorus, Abraham appears again this time in a red swimsuit with a white t-shirt, which he slowly takes off, and then goes into a beach side shower where the camera watches the water run down his back. As Laura Mulvey (2009: 717, 719) discusses, Abraham’s identity is being removed as he becomes no more than body parts to be enjoyed while the female chorus stands in for the audience on screen, enjoying the spectacle. Even before the plot begins, the film is already queer through the focus on the male body. John Abraham’s standard role was recently referred to in a review as “molten beefcake” (Nikhat Kazmi 2010). While his body has always been a main focus of the camera, in this movie Karan Johar takes it to extremes.
As the bridge starts, the second male star/character is introduced. A large pink convertible drives down the center of a bridge, and then Abhishek Bachchan is revealed, wearing a pastel shirt, driving the car. After a load of girls join him in the car, Shilpa Shetty sings to him as he wears a variety of outfits and stands alone, disinterested in her. While Abraham is introduced as a sexual object, Bachchan is introduced as a potential consumer of Abraham’s sexuality, through his connection with queer iconography (pink colored car, pastel colored clothing) and his clear lack of interest in the female sexuality offered him.
While KHNH delays the meeting of the two male characters until well into the story, Dostana opens with the two men meeting. They run into each other at the apartment shared by two women with whom they have just had sex. The two men meet on the balcony having breakfast and introduce themselves to each other as Sam and Kunal. The two men run into each other again trying to catch a cab, and then find they are going to the same location. The way the two characters are constantly thrown together by fate is reminiscent of the films Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayange (1995) and Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), which introduced the idea that a couple meant to be together will meet many times until they finally start a relationship. The characters even mention that it is fate they are both looking at the same apartment.
At this point, the relationship between these two men is clearly going to be the centerpiece of the film, but it could still be perceived as the “yaari” type friendship, the sort that was valorized in the earlier film of the same name as well as many others, and which can be read as either queer or straight. However, soon after their meeting, the queer interpretation is forced on both the characters and the audience. The two men walk down the street getting to know each other better and sharing a hot dog. At the hot dog stand they run into a white soldier who bursts into tears saying:
It’s just that my boyfriend has been sent to Iraq, and I am here. We were so happy after Afghanistan. It was perfect, we were like the perfect family, and I just saw the two of you standing there, you looked so happy, you reminded me so much of us. I mean really God bless you both. I just wish you all the happiness.
This statement is given by an American soldier, in full uniform, and it is the first time any part of the script explicitly states the possibility of queerness. America is confronting these two members of the diaspora and forcing them to acknowledge queerness within themselves.
Kunal walks away. Sam chases after and grabs his shoulder trying to convince him they should pretend to be gay to get the apartment, Kunal shakes him off, then is convinced partly by Sam’s first and most important argument, that Kunal is his brother, meaning they could never be together. The brother relationship in India can be invoked easily through naming someone in that manner, the same way the brother-sister relationship can be invoked. “Naach girls” (strippers/prostitutes) can even use this method to discourage unwanted suitors, treating them as male relatives and negating any possibility of a sexual relationship (Suketu Mehta 2004: 277). This trope is used often in films to undercut homosexual possibilities, for instance in the shower scene in Silsila. The two stars, Amitabh Bachhan and Shashi Kapoor, are showering together. They have an exchange about “dropping the soap.” The commentator Ashok Row Kavi describes the experience of watching the film, suggesting that the exchange was so blatant as to be it actually became less noticeable (2000: 311). However, he ignores the fact that the two characters are supposed to be brothers and constantly refer to each other in that manner, therefore making the situation unromantic.
The two men rush back to the apartment and present themselves as a couple. In fact, when the woman says again that only girls are allowed, Sam says they are girls, then tries again to explain using a series of euphemisms in Hindi, saying they are together, they are both together, they are special friends, and finally, in English, that they are boyfriends. There is no Hindi word for the relationship, they must use an English one, perhaps the most dramatic example of the way in which queerness in impossible in Indian culture. The same thing happens later, when after finding out they will be sharing the apartment with someone else Kunal asks “One-by-one, do you want to tell everyone that we are…” He cannot complete the sentence as again, there is no Indian word that will convey his meaning, and Sam has to add the word “Gay”.
Finally, the joke is repeated one more time when their potential roommate, Neha (Priyanka Chopra) appears. The two men rush off to discuss whether they are willing to pretend to be gay to a beautiful woman while her aunt tries to convey the situation to Neha. The aunt starts with “they aren’t what we are” then tries “they are ‘modern’ boys” and finally saying “they are boyfriend and girlfriend.” The aunt translates this as “it wasn’t like this in our days, boys used to like girls.” The idea of queerness as being modern ties in both to the idea that it was something brought by the British and placed upon Indian society (Narrain and Bhan 2005: 15) and with the idea proposed by Gopinath that the characters in KHNH who play with the idea of gayness are the examples of modern Indian men.
During the next sequence, in efforts to stop the other from saying the wrong thing, the men have erotic play together, Sam embracing Kunal as he tries to leave, Kunal running and jumping on Sam when he sees the aunt overhearing a conversation. In reaction, the aunt, horrified, says in Hindi “All this isn’t allowed here. Stand straight.” For the first time, discomfort is apparent in her reaction to their relationship. However, this is only after they have performed physical acts which might be considered uncomfortably explicit between a male and female couple as well within Indian culture. The aunt questioning them on how they met, as she might a heterosexual couple, supports this reading.
Sam makes up a story, staring deep into Kunal’s eyes, saying they met in Venice. The audience sees their first meeting, Kunal carrying flowers bumps into Sam and drops them; their hands touch as they both pick them up. Remembering the moment, Sam sings an old film song. Then he says for the next few days we kept bumping in to each other, again following the pattern of fate bringing them together. Sam describes his distress as Kunal turns away from him, but he kept searching, finally finding him. Sam runs towards him, hips swaying, chest jiggling, in slow motion, a classic shot in Indian cinema, usually the woman running towards her love. However, the immediate previous sequence of Sam’s quest for Kunal is usually the male role. One of the problems for the gay and lesbian community in India is the lack of a defined role. This sequence suggests that role be a combination of the male and female position. In the end, the two men meet by the canal where they dance. Again, it plays into the trope that homosexuality was brought by the British as the two men are wearing western style clothing and performing western style dancing
The second song sequence starts, establishing the relationship between the three characters. After scenes of moving in, shopping, eating meals, there is a long sequence in a club. All the characters become drunk and first Neha dances on a table, with minor crowd reaction, and then is joined by the two men, at which point the crowd goes wild and starts throwing money at them. Again, the men are positioned as the object of the gaze.
Immediately following this sexualization of the men, there is a scene of Neha coming out of the ocean in a gold swimsuit, with the camera lingering on her body, as the two men react, having to cover their laps with magazines, firmly reinforcing heterosexual attraction, both between the characters, and for the audience which is forced to observe a woman’s body rather than a mans. With heteronormativity restored, it is possible to have the next sequence in which they watch a scary movie, followed by Sam sneaking into bed with Kunal. Following the song sequence, the three characters share details of their personal lives, in Indian culture this means talking about their parents. Sam complains about his mother, especially the way she keeps pushing him to get married. Neha takes this to mean that Sam has not told his mother he is gay. It is easier for her to explain an Indian man not wanting to be married as his being gay, rather than merely uninterested in commitment, reflecting the deep importance of married status in Indian culture, which makes being unmarried an admission of disinterest in women (Kala 1991: 139, 154, 44; Joseph 1996: 2230).
Sam then lightens the mood by talking about how the character Gabbar Singh in the movie Sholay (1975) was gay. This is a ludicrous suggestion, but interesting, as the same film contains one of the closest male to male relationships in the history of Indian cinema, that between Veer (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) (Ghosh 2002: 209). The suggestion that Gabbar is gay is safer, as it is clearly false, while the suggestion that Veer and Jai were lovers is a valid reading.
Sam continues the argument in the next scene, when Neha is no longer with them, suggesting a much more likely gay pair, Munna and Circuit (the gangster characters film Munna Bhai MBBS (2003)). Without the female presence, it is possible to suggest an actually legitimate gay reading of a film. Kunal shoots this down pointing out they called each other brothers, but Sam argues “Even I call you brother in public.” These two sequences show the ways in which the queer community of India has learned to read Indian films, as Gopinath (2000) describes, and invites the audience to read this film in the same manner. Especially as it negates the first argument Sam presented against he and Kunal having an actual relationship, that he regards Kunal as his “Bhai” or brother. This whole scene takes place as they wait in line for residency permits. Following Neha’s suggestions, they decide to register as a joint couple in order to expedite the process. This is of course a ludicrous idea of the American immigrant laws, and again a sign that this film was made not just for a diaspora audience, who would be peculiarly sensitive to immigration status, but for an Indian audience who would not know about another country’s laws.
The next sequence introduces the first truly gay Indian character in the film. Neha’s boss M (Boman Irani), who arrives with a swishing gait and a screeching voice, wearing a lilac striped suit. He announces to Neha that he is about to resign and she is up for a promotion, and follows that by suggesting she invite him over for dinner to meet her young gay roommates. The following dinner sequence, while played for laughs, is the confluence of several actual troubles for the gay South Asian community. There is an expectation of loose relationships, as shown by numerous interviews conducted by Kala, which leads Neha to assume her roommates would be willing to romance her boss, despite their established relationship. There are the legal issues, as the immigration official Javier arrives in the middle of dinner to confirm they are truly in a relationship. This is of course a through the looking glass legal issue, as in fact gay men are more often required to act straight in order to solve legal issues than the other way round. It plays into the problem suggested by Diane Raymond in her article on American television that gayness is often shown as a solution to a problem, rather than the creator of one (2003: 107). And there are the family issues, as Sam’s mother arrives at the end of the dinner scene and reacts with fainting and horror to the idea of her son with another man, as shown in the Kala interviews.
Later, after Sam’s mother (Kirron Kher) has arrived, M rushes him away, saying “Your mommy doesn’t know, does she?” Then grabbing and embracing him, saying “It really hurts, doesn’t it?” Javier also touches him, holding his hand supportively, as Kunal stands to the side in discomfort. While played for laughs, the whole scene shows the supportive nature of the gay community, especially in a culture where most gay men are not out even to their mothers. Interestingly, M himself breaks down, confessing his true Indian name, and that he has never told his mother either. This is similar to the experiences described by Kala of gay South Asians who left home to live in America, finding acceptance and comfort there they could never find within their own families (1991: 60-63). The mother interrupts this scene, screaming “Nooooo!” She declares she will take Sam back to London where he will be better, but M stops her crying out “Look at me! Miami or London, your son is gay! He likes men! Wake up!” This is still a controversial statement to make in Indian culture, in which, as described in the article “It’s Not My Job to tell You it’s Okay to be Gay”, many respected doctors still regard homosexuality as a disease that can and should be cured (Narrain and Chandran 2005).
The mother rushes off to Sam’s bedroom, where she sees a photo of Sam and Kunal on the nightstand, and has a vision of first Kunal in grooms garb with Sam in a bridal veil, and the song starts “Ma, your son rides a bridal palanquin, alas your done for.” Next there is a song sequence as the mother watches the intimate ways in which the two men interact, rolling on the beach, Kunal putting a bandage on Sam’s cut, and has a recurring vision of them as a bride and groom couple with the song in the background. Then the two men working out together, which leads her to sneak into Sam’s room and try to perform an exorcism, using a necklace of skulls, a broom, and white powder. Next while walking down the street she sees them in a series of couples, from babies to old men. At which point she faints again. The images and lyrics themselves perfectly capture the concerns of an Indian mother, learning her son is gay. However, rather than taking the mother’s part, the song positions her as a creature of ridicule, that her concerns are invalid.
This song, like the sequence of the men dancing in the club, is followed by a plot movement which dramatically restores heteronormativity. A new character is introduced, Neha’s new boss and a viable love interest for her. After nodding towards male-female love, the queer element is reintroduced when Sam’s mother comforts Neha about losing her promotion. After making her feel better, Neha takes the opportunity to talk about Kunal and Sam, saying “For the past three years your son hid the biggest truth of his life from you because he knew that you wouldn’t be pleased. You’ll be happy, but Sam? If he can live for your happiness then can’t you accept the truth for his happiness? Whatever God does is for the best, right Aunty?”
After a buffer scene with Neha and her boss, Sam’s mom goes to Kunal’s room and bless him, as the song “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham” from the film of the same name plays in the background, placing her acceptance of their relationship next to the acceptance of forbidden love from the ultimate traditional family movie. She continues with the full traditional blessing for a new daughter in law, before Sam comes into the room asking what she is doing. Sam’s mom apologizes, saying she prayed for her own son’s sorrows, and finally giving her bangles to Kunal, the traditional gift of a mother-in-law to welcome a daughter-in-law into the family, although as she says “I don’t know if you are a daughter-in-law or a son-in-law” and finally asking him to keep the Karva Chauth fast (a traditional religious fast carried out by wives for their husbands) for her son’s well-being, then take her blessing. The two men bend down, she gives them the traditional blessing, “my victory be yours may you have children,” then pauses, and adds, “forget it” (about the children). There is no cultural way for homosexuality to be addressed in Indian culture, and yet this scene does an excellent job of showing how it can be done. Although, as in KHNH, it is when the question of children arises that the parent realizes the limits of their acceptance, not believing such a thing could be possible. This scene effectively resolves the queer storyline.
For the rest of the movie, the two men plot to break up Neha and her boss, finally succeeding. However, before realizing their plot worked, they confess their love to Neha, and that they lied to her and were never gay. Furious, she throws them out. Later, the two men track Neha down at a fashion show and confess their scheme and apologize. The framing throughout this sequence has Sam and Kunal position on one side as a couple while Neha and her boss are on the other, as in the disco sequence in KHNH. Kunal and Sam stand on the stage and declare that Neha is their best friend and they lied to her, they told her they were a gay couple the crowd cheers in response, to which Sam repeats “We lied.” This gets an “aaaaaw” of disappointment. Again, this is a South Asian fantasy of American acceptance, or rather the way the modest amount of acceptance in America looks to someone coming from a country which still endorses electric shock therapy.
Finally, Neha’s boss says, in order to be forgiven, they should kiss each other. The crowd cheers. Sam agrees first. Kunal points out he isn’t gay, Sam agrees that he isn’t gay either, but they have to do it for Neha. And then he puts his hands on Kunal’s shoulders and leans in as the both purse their mouths, but he can’t do it. Neha starts to turn away, the film goes into slow motion, and Kunal reaches out and passionately grabs Sam. The camera spins around the couple showing it from several angles. While the initial kiss, after both men confirm their lack of gayness, and with an a awkward forced coming together, would have been humorous, the eventual kiss, sudden and violent, is both humorous in context, but erotic out of context, especially as it is filmed in a typically romantic manner, with slow motion and a spinning camera.
This idea is encouraged by the last scene of the film, 2 months later. The three friends are shown sitting a bench (a common trope in Karan Johar films, important scenes always take place on a bench) and Neha asks “When you both were pretending to be gay, at any point, did anything happen between the two of you?” They react in horror, she declares she was just kidding, but after she walks away, the two men look at each other and there is a flashback to the kissing scene implying one or both of them are thinking about it. As the credits start, a remix version of the “Maa de Laadla” song starts, clearly placing the greatest importance of the film on the queer story line and the ways in which it interacts with Indian culture, rather than the hetero romance or the queer story line as pure comedy. Beginning with KKHH, Karan Johar has been slowly expanding the possibilities of presenting queerness in popular Indian cinema. With Dostana, as revealed through the plot, the images, the presentation of the stars, even certain lines of dialogue, queerness can no longer be ignored.
Johar continued his slow unveiling of queer themes with his next directorial mainstream hit, Student of the Year (SOTY) (2010). As Bakshi and Sen discuss, in this film there are two possible queer readings, one of the central relationship of the film, between two teenage boys, and the other of the school principal who is broadly drawn as being in love with the football coach (Kaustav Bakshi and Parjanya Sen 2012). The two boys’ relationship is part of the tradition of the possibly sexual or romantic same sex “yaari” relationships previously described. More revolutionary is Johar’s presentation of the character of the principal as an educated, responsible, and kindly man, who also happens to be in love with another man. However, ultimately, Johar contains this character, as his love is unrequited. One gay man, alone, cannot threaten Indian society. He needs a partner in his love. The film briefly directly acknowledges his lone status through the speech of the character Sudo at the end who avers that the principal only drives his students so hard because he has nothing else in his life own life, hinting at the misery and loneliness inherent in being a gay man in India.
The films described so far were made for the masses, both at India and abroad. They include massive inaccuracies about life overseas that Karan does not expect the audience to notice and crowd pleasing elements, as well as canny methods of containing the threat inherent in the queer content. Once he reaches this audience, he gently shows them that homosexuality may not be the fearsome threat they think it is. He creates audience sympathy for the tragedy of loving your best friend and being unable to express that love. He allows for sexual attraction as an important part of married life, something which, if it is missing, forces a spouse to find it somewhere else. His ideal man, his “angel”, has no fear of gayness and find harmless enjoyment in playing with societal expectations. An Indian mother can accept and make sense of her son’s sexuality and be happier for doing so. A childless gay man may search for meaning and companionship by raising other people’s children but will never be truly whole.
In his career, Johar has made one film aimed at a smaller, specific, audience. In honor of the 100th anniversary of Indian film, four of the leading directors in India today, Johar, Zoya Akhtar, Dibaker Banerjee, and Anurag Basu, came together to make an anthology film titled Bombay Talkies (2013). The film was screened at Cannes and enjoyed a limited release in India, but did not play in either the Indian heartland or in the diaspora theaters abroad. The story line of the film takes the jokes of Dostana and KHNH and plays them as tragedy. Two men meet, they fall in love, their families find out, and their lives are destroyed. While Dostana built the whole story line towards the gentle confrontation with the older generation leading to the dominance of a younger, more accepting perspective on queerness, Bombay Talkies moves past this concern in the first few minutes when the character Avinash (Saqib Saleem) breaks into his parents home, beats his father (in recompense for the many beatings he had been given), and shouts at him that homosexuality is not wrong. Immediately after this, the question of children is raised in the form of a young girl singing an old Hindi film song. This girl is the witness and companion to the two gay characters in this film, first joking with Avinash, then serenading Avinash and Dev (Randeep Hooda) as they fall in love, and finally comforting Dev as he sits with her, heartbroken. The film is part of an anthology in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Indian film, and the girl singing film songs is the only connection to that theme, the greater message all four films share that movies are India and India is its movies. This great connection to the Indian spirit can only sit by and watch as India’s young gay men destroy themselves in misery. Unlike his previous films, Bombay Talkies was aimed at the Indian gay community only through its unsoftened content and limited release, not at the Indian mass audience. Johar tells them that the motivation for all his work, the purpose of film itself, is to provide them with the sympathy and comfort they cannot find anywhere else.