Discussion Post: Queerness in Indian Film, Where is It? What is It? When is it Good?

Seems like a good time to do one of my “this isn’t everything, or even the best things, this is just some stuff to think about” posts on queerness with Ek Ladki Ko Dekho coming out soon. Plus, I love our little discussion posts!

Dostana

I’ve written a whole paper on this thing, so I’m not going to go through it all again. Let’s just leave it at the simple discussion question, is a movie in which two straight male characters playing gay is played for laughs still progressive thanks to a few sincere impassioned speeches and sentimental moments? Or does the Three’s Company style farcical treatment ruin it all?

Sholay

One of the classic against the grain readings of classic Indian film. With the way male-male friendships are foregrounded in so many Indian films, it is easy to find these readings. Or even to question if they are against the grain or not? Since some parts of Indian society are still in that “men can have sex with men when they really need to but it doesn’t make them gay” limbo zone. What is definite is that the deepest most loving relationship in Sholay, the most important relationship, is between Jai and Veeru. Gay or not, they love each other; does that make the film queer or just open the possibility of queerness, or does the heterosexual love interests they are both given ruin any queerness potential?

Zanjeer

In this case, Pran does not have a heterosexual love interest. He is completely focused on his friendship with Amitabh. You could even argue that this film presents a loving version of a polyamorous threesome, with Jaya and Pran working together to take care of Amitabh. Or, you could say that Amitabh and Jaya are a couple and Pran is Amitabh’s best friend and that friendship, pure friendship, relationship is equally worthy of respect. What do you say?

Raja Hindustani

Such an interesting film! There is the femme-butch relationship between the two gypsy women in “Pardesi Pardesi”, and there is also the odd thing of the two servants, the woman who acts like a man and the man who acts like a woman. Which ends with the woman being married off and learning to be a real woman, but the man still acting like a woman. Is the whole thing begging for a queer reading? Or is it so outside of awareness of queerness that it treats any kind of gender bending (whether it two female gypsies singing to each other or the servants) as humorous, and surreal?

Veere Di Wedding

Personally, I love this presentation. Kareena’s two uncles are more supportive and parental and “normal” with her, than her father and her stepmother. Or her constantly fighting parents before her mother died. And their relationship status is never a source of conflict, Kareena’s uncle and father fight over Kareena, over inheritance, but never over her uncle’s relationship with his partner. The only question is, is this too idealized of a view? Should the relationship have been foregrounded a little more instead of making it into nothing?

Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na

This is one you only know about from outside sources. The writer/director explained in the director’s commentary that he intended for Sugandha Garg to be a lesbian. He never had the film say it straight out, but it was there in her performance and in the way her character was written. Always part of the group but slightly outside of it, always a little bit ahead of them in terms of understanding romance. And of course, the only one not paired up at the end. Should he have made it more explicit, maybe even paired her up at the end? Or is it better this way, just there in the fringes for the audience to see?

Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania

A film that dances back and forth on playing queerness for humor. Our hero is trying to “trap” the heroine’s groom into admitting he is gay. But at the same time, the strongly coded as and openly gay friend of the groom is eventually welcomed into their group, seen drinking late at night with them. And the groom himself, instead of being “caught” in the trap, sincerely offers to help the young man he believes to be gay to come out, to support him. Does the initial comic set-up ruin the intent? Or does it just barely stay on the right side of the line instead of playing queerness for laughs?

Main Khiladi Tu Anari

My personal favorite against the grain film. A strong macho man’s man up against a weak feminine delicate man, the fight, they make up, they rescue each other, they talk closely and intimately together, they dance, they share secrets. Yes, it is “just” a story of odd-ball police partners (a hero cop forced to have a handsome young movie star follow him around), but it feels like so much more while you are watching it. And yet, that was not the intent of the makers at all, or the actors, supposedly Saif even punched Ashok Row Kavi for implying it in a review of the film. Can we still count it as queer just based on how the audience received it, even if it was not how the makers intended it?

Kapoor & Sons

It’s a tricky line, you don’t want to make queerness a life sentence to deadly sincere and deep and dark and often suicidal character dramas. But you also don’t want to minimize the real problems that LGBTQ folks face in Indian culture. Does this film go too far on the side of drama or not far enough? Should Fawad at least been given one male-male kiss? Or allowed to say the word “gay”?

Bol Bachchan

And the bad side. Abhishek pretending to be a fiendishly effeminate dance teacher. Or, is it bad? The “effeminate male dancer” might be an Indian trope that is above and beyond queerness, more just something about male dancers. And there is also the way that at least part of the humor comes from Ajay’s foolish assumptions and reactions to Abhishek’s performance, more than Abhishek’s performance on its own. It is not that queerness alone is funny, what is funny is prejudiced straightness reacting to queerness. Or maybe not. Maybe it is just terrible. What do you think?

Obviously there’s loads more films I could bring up, Fire and Angry Indian Goddesses and Student of the Year and Vishwaroopam and all kinds of other films. Feel free to mention them in the comments, this is just meant to get a conversation started.

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16 thoughts on “Discussion Post: Queerness in Indian Film, Where is It? What is It? When is it Good?

  1. This subject is so complicated because filmmaking is complicated. You have so many creators involved, directors, editors, screenwriters, actors, composers. And they may have different visions for the film. For example, in Ben Hur, Gore Vidal wrote gay scenes into the film and clued in one actor but not Charleton Heston. Heston swore for the rest of his life that there wasn’t anything gay in the movie.

    With Main Khiladi Tu Anari I’m convinced that all that hip thrusting was very purposeful. A choreographer having a bit of fun.

    On another note, Raja Hindustani is such a weird film! I’m amazed in retrospect that the film is what pulled me into Hindi cinema because it’s so different from a lot of films made in the same era. The queerness in the film is interesting because the two dancers seem to have a sexual relationship but they are also stand-ins for Karisma’s sexual desire, the contrast between the young girl and the messy out of control woman. Also, the gay servant gets integrated into Aamir and Karisma’s family so even though he doesn’t get a romance he does get a measure of acceptance.

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    • On top of the many people involved who might be inserting coding, there’s also the way the camera can just randomly catch on to unintended consequences. Frame a shot a particular way, combined with the way an actor delivers a particular line, and it turns a boring scene between two male characters into something romantic.

      I like that the two servants are so accepted, Karisma just introduces them as what they are and everyone goes along with it. Well, except for Jonny Lever who has to “tame” the lesbian.

      On Tue, Jan 15, 2019 at 1:16 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. The other movies that popped into my head you have already covered well in other posts: Kal Ho Naa Ho and Queen. One positive but not really highlighted portrayal I noticed is the effeminate male friend in Chalte Chalte, who is part of the group during those framing scenes with the young friends who are telling the story of Raj and Priya, and again during the climactic airport scenes with Raj begging Priya to stay.

    The title song from Oh Darling Yeh Hai India seems to be a celebration of all kinds of marginalized identities, including queer identities. Couldn’t find the song in isolation, but it starts at about 11 mins into this video: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6glov1

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    • When I started thinking about it, I could think of lots of characters who came off as queer that were just part of a general friend group. Made me suspect that is how things might be within the film industry, for the people writing the films that is what they think of as a normal part of a friend group. It was made almost explicit in Dear Zindagi when Alia talked about how the film industry lets people be themselves, after we saw her hanging out with her group of friends including one male friend who reads as gay.

      On Tue, Jan 15, 2019 at 5:12 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I thought of Dear Zindagi too. I wondered if the girl/young woman in Dil Dhadakne Do whose parents keep trying to get her to dress up more is meant to read as lesbian, or as a smart, bored teenager, or both. 🙂

        I watched Lust Stories over the weekend and thought Karan might have been going there with the librarian and the teacher. Almost, but not quite. Neha Dhupia’s character was something else though. My my.

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  3. There is a gay character in Happy phirr bhag jayegi and it’s both terribly and interesting. I can’t say a lot, because I don’t want to spoil the movie but I liked his story (he’s gay but his parents don’t want to see it and arrange the wedding with a girl), but once he came out he was like set of all gay stereotypes: effeminate, walking in a strange way, dancing and wearing pink shirts.

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    • I wish there were more “I’m gay!” character reveals in Indian films, it is such a tidy way to resolve conflicts, I’m surprised it isn’t used more from a pure plot perspective. Like, the arranged fiance is gay and that is the out for the heroine to escape the wedding. Or the hero loses his confidence when he finds out his childhood dream girl isn’t interested in him because she is gay.

      On Wed, Jan 16, 2019 at 1:59 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. Two movies that you haven’t mentioned with clear gender-queer characters are Honeymoon Travels and My Brother Nikhil. I haven’t watched either in a very long time but both those films are fairly clear about the sexual orientation of the character. I also thought of My Brother Nikhil after seeing Juhi Chawla in the Ek Ladki Ko Dekha trailer. In that she plays the sister of Nikhil, a swimming champion who is diagnosed as HIV+ in the early 90s in India and her fight to get him acceptance within her family and society. Based on that role, I think we can safely say that Juhi has been an open ally to the LGBTQ community for a while now. There are also a couple Mahesh Bhatt films from the 90s that come to mind – Sadak and Tamanna both had gender non binary characters in important roles. There is also a movie from 1997 called Darmiyaan with Arif Zakariya, Tabu and Kirron Kher where Arif Zakariya plays a gender non binary character. I have never watched the movie but remember it being in the news because at one point Shahrukh was supposed to play that character. I still wonder how Shahrukh’s career would have panned out if he had continued taking the non-commercial, “unhero”-like roles that he started with in the 90s.

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    • I desperately want to watch Tamanna, but have had no luck so far finding a copy. It is my white whale. I haven’t even heard of Darmiyaan! There are really so many Hindi films with queer characters once you start to think about it. Mainstream films too, not just art films. In some ways Hindi film was ahead of Hollywood. Although stable long term happy couples are still rare. Which could just be more a reflection of reality.

      I love Honeymoon Travels because it shows two gay men without making them comic, or tragic. It’s sad, but it’s not treated as an over the top tragedy. They will survive being married to women and just always have that little moment of sadness inside. And neither of them are stereotypically effeminate or anything, just people with an unspoken love. The open ending to their storyline is so brave, everyone else gets their heart’s desire and learns to be themselves and so on and so on. Except for them, they have to be contented with the little scraps of half-happiness they can find.

      On Wed, Jan 16, 2019 at 5:05 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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