Oh boy, a Big Thought post! As always with these posts, every single point and discussion is TM Me, so if you find yourself repeating them somewhere else on the internet, please please give proper attribution. There is nothing more depressing than when I end up on some other site and realize a post or comment is just my ideas repackaged and relabeled under someone else’s name.
As I see it, there are three levels to how queerness can be handled. At one extreme, you have societies where it simply does not exist. Every man is attracted only to women and every woman is attracted only to men. No matter what the evidence, that is the truth everyone must believe.
And then in the middle you have a society where there is an understanding of people being “gay” and “straight”. But those are labels that are firm and fixed and important, every action, every relationship, every moment has to be shoved into one slot or the other.
And on the far end you have a society where labels like that are meaningless. Sexuality is a continuum, you love the person you love whoever they are. Every action exits as its own unique action, every relationship, every moment.
Right now, most of the Western world seems to be in the middle and moving towards the far end. Myself, a young person living in a major city, I live and breath that far side of things. My closest friend was in a longterm relationship with a man when we met, broke up with him, and then started a casual relationship with a woman, which eventually turned serious and exclusive, and now they are engaged and have 3 cats. And that whole time she and I had an extremely close friendship. And thanks to me, she also fell passionately in love with Shahrukh Khan. What I am saying is, she was dating a man, and now she is in love with a woman, and along the way she made a close friendship with another woman that has no romantic touches to it at all, and found a powerful fandom for an older male movie star. Each relationship is individual and unique, and that’s okay. When I watch a movie like War, I can watch it and think “Okay, Hrithik and Tiger are in love in this movie”. And that doesn’t make me then think “and therefore they both must be playing gay characters, and must have a history of struggle with their sexual identity, and should go through a journey of ‘coming out’ to their families”. It makes me think “Hrithik and Tiger are in love in this movie” and that’s it.
In Dostana, when I see Abhishek and John flirt and dance and kiss and also be solid and supportive friends, I think “Abhishek and John are really close good friends, and maybe on some level are also attracted to each other”. There’s no label there either, maybe their characters two years later will finally act on their attraction and start a relationship, maybe that relationship will end and they will move on and one of them will date another man and one of them will date another woman. Or maybe they will never feel the need to act on that attraction, maybe they will both fall in love with and marry women and be friends forever. Or maybe they will fall in love with and marry women and 40 years from now both be widowers and end up getting together then. They aren’t “gay” or “straight”, they are just people. When I see Anwar and Shakti in Dilwale, I don’t think “oh oh! Two gay men!”, I think “a couple that has been together for decades and raised a young man together”. Maybe they have sex at night, maybe they don’t, it’s not necessarily our business.
In American popular culture, I don’t find this lovely uncertainty nearly as much. Characters are “gay” or “straight”. And that brings with it certain clear definitions. A gay man will be promiscuous, and effeminate. Probably dress in pastels. If it is a “modern” “progressive” “groundbreaking” thing, the gay man will instead be unattractive and “funny” and in a long term committed relationship in which one of them clearly plays the “woman” while the other plays the “man”. Meanwhile a straight man will care about sex more than relationships and fear commitment. His friends will encourage him in this, driving him to be less and less emotional and “like a woman”. Meanwhile a straight woman will want a relationship, want to wear pretty clothes, and have nice things, and have friends and family who encourage her towards a relationship. This is not a world I live in or recognize. People don’t fall into those nice tidy categories. Gender is a construct, relationship roles are a construct, even sexuality is a construct and you can’t force reality to match your tidy little ideas.
Now, why is this? Is it because Indian culture is so extremely progressive that it does not recognize gender roles or sexuality labels? Naaaaaah. It’s because it is so extremely regressive that it has not realized it is possible for there to be “gender roles” or “Sexuality”. There is a strange freedom in not needing to “play” straight, because no one can even conceive you might be anything else.
In Indian films, and in Indian culture, a man can say to another man “I love you” without needing to add on “but not in a gay way”. Two teenage boys can walk down the street arm in arm, or holding hands. You can cry, without apology or embarrassment, when your friend is hurt or sad. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that freeing?
This is just one aspect of Indian culture in “reality”, but it is an aspect that appears over and over again in Indian films from all industries because of how Indian film is structured. The Indian film industries revolve around their male stars, while the female stars are made far less visible. If you are looking for a romantic/sexual connection, either between characters onscreen or between the fans and the stars, it is far easier to find it between two men than between a man and a woman.
India is a patriarchal society to such an extent that the stories it is realistic to tell about female characters are extremely limited. For example, look at the early historical Sikander. It is about Alexander the Great choosing to turn away from conquest of India by King Porus. Yes, Alexander’s wife also plays a part. But in a story of warfare, conquest, and great leaders meeting the greater weight of the screen time will have to go to Alexander and Porus rather than Alexander and his wife.
At the same time, India is a patriarchal society such that any power female stars may have is slowly leached away and handed to men. When Raj Kapoor and Nargis met, she was the more famous and successful and experienced film star. But as their joint films gained greater and greater success, that success was increasingly attributed to Raj. His star rose and rose while Nargis was left to fall back. That is one small example, but those same micro-decisions made every day (“to advertise this movie, which star should I make larger on the poster?” “who should I ask the first question to in this joint interview?” “which star should meet with the director first?”) add up and over time the female actors in India lose power within the industry and fame and following outside to their male counterparts.
And so since early in the history of the film industry we have had these male stars striding around the earth like Giants. The greatest excitement is when two of the Giants combine in one film. In that case, it is their combination, their relationship, which is most important.
The two-hero film reached its peak in the 1970s, and there is a certain format they all follow. The two heroes have contrasting identities and looks and backstories, so that they still appeal to their individual fan communities in the ways that are established as part of them. After they each get their moment to shine, they meet. Their first meeting is usually a fight, which will end in a draw (so neither fan group is offended). They continue to have conflict for the next portion of the film, wooing the same heroine or competing for the same promotion or some other challenge. Finally, they bond and unite and the fans get to see their favorites singing and dancing and celebrating together, and jointly defeating the third “true” villain.
None of this is intended to be “gay”. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t gay anyway. “Gay” in that you have two very attractive men whose relationship with each other is the entire driving force of the plot. When you have created an entire film universe around men, than the romantic and sexual part of that universe will also inevitably revolve around men, whether or not it is explicitly said.
What I find really fascinating is that this “two hero” format is identical whether or not the heroes are related. In some films, it will be two strangers who meet, fight, become friends. In other films, it will be separated brothers who meet, fight, become friends. The dialogue is the same, the scenes are the same, the tension between the actors is the same. As an audience watching, I can see the amazing chemistry between Amitabh and Shashi (for instance) in Suhaag. But they are long lost brothers in that movie, so I can’t pretend it is a love story between those characters, even while I can still enjoy certain songs of images and imagine a love story between the actors. Meanwhile in Namak Halaal they are friends rather than brothers and the exact same pattern plays out. It is not that the style was designed to create a romance between two stars, or with any idea it could be read that way, it was designed because it was the best logical way to pair two major male stars and please their fans by showing them interacting in multiple ways. The fact that it follows the same pattern as a traditional “hate to love” romance is a charming coincidence.
That charming coincidence gives birth to other unintended consequences. For instance, there is the way male bodies are treated onscreen. Since films are a visual medium, and since Indian films revolve around men, the male body becomes the primary visual for the film. Male muscles, male legs, male strength, male smiles, it is all part of the film experience. And for the fans, just as they will repeat the dialogues of their idols and follow their life lessons and repeat their stories, so will they obsess over the way they look.
Allu Arjun, in Telugu film, changes his hair for every single movie in order to please the fans. Mohanlal lost an extreme amount of weight to prove he could still play young and please his Malayalam fans. In Hindi cinema, we just had an example of how the fans of Tiger Shroff competed with the fans of Hrithik Roshan over which star had the best most muscular body. It’s a delightful part of the film fan experience, collecting images and categorizing and ranking and discussing the new “look” of your hero for each film. After all, the hero is the most important part of the film, so why not talk about his appearance just as you would discuss the special effects or the location shooting?
And again, this is both gay and not gay. Yes, obviously, sexual attraction is part of the appeal of these male stars for their young male fans. But how large a part, does that really matter? Is that for anyone outside to say? A movie star most have amazing physical presence and charisma, that is part of the job, and let us all just accept that when you have that level of charisma, everyone (man or woman) is going to be a little bit attracted to you.
In the West, the possibility of queerness was far more contained, and at the same time the two hero film and the male film star in general did not gain the same kind of primacy. Western film theory talks about moments of queerness in terms of hidden jokes slipped in, effeminate character actors, and (very very rarely) movie plots that skate around the possibility without ever stating it directly. Indian film cannot be looked at in that way. For Indian film, it’s not about “queerness” it is about the powerful bonds between men, the unlabeled and un-categorized bonds. From the start of the film industry, those bonds have been front and center in film after film, and in the fan community. Gayness has hidden in plain sight, there and not there in every film release, in every movie, where ever you want it to be and by whatever name you want to call it.
Now, there is a difference between “gay” and “queer”. And, unfortunately, the rest of the world of “queer” have had almost no filmic representation for the same reasons that “gay” has been so prevalent. If male stars dominate the films, and male fan clubs dominate the fan community, where is there a place for lesbian love stories? Any sort of female friendship in Indian film is rare, as is any sort of female fan community for an actress. It’s there, of course, you can watch Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or Veere Di Wedding and find ways to read against the grain. But while male-male love offers a rich buffet of options on and off screen, female-female is left with a few scraps falling from the table.
Hijra’s are highly represented in Indian film. And as has been oft-repeated, the first Indian film actress was a man (he played both the male and female roles). But the Hijras are the one category treated the same way that “gay” characters tend to be treated in the west. Labeled, isolated from the rest of the plot, kept in their own particular areas. For an extreme and shocking example of what happens when a Hijra dares to break free, check out the Tamil film I. For one of the warmest and most open ways a Hijra was simply included as a person, look at the Hindi film Dil Ne Jise Apna Kaha where she is merely part of the friend group.
But the male-male love story? That is a grand old tradition of Indian film, one that old men wax nostalgic about and young man cheer as it appears onscreen. My fear is that, as homosexuality becomes more visible within Indian society, we will lose that joyful ability to find what we want without shame in these movies. Young man should be able to discuss their favorite hero’s gym body without feeling shame or a need to question their identity, and young woman should be able to sigh and feel things while watching to attractive male actors onscreen together without bothering to consider why they feel those things. There is a place for agonizing challenging movies like Aligarh, but there is also a place for joyfully shamelessly fun movies like War.
(Now, we just need a few more films like that for the female audience! I vote, Swara Bhaskar and Vidya Balan as rival police officers who wrestle on their first meeting, then get drunk and dance together, then move in together, and then defeat the Big Bad and end by riding off into the sunset. And we can start a “GoFundMe” for all female fan clubs of female film stars in India.)
I’m so glad you wrote this. I love this aspect of Indian films – its so refreshing to not hear some iteration of I love you man….but not like that.
There’s this scene in Padayappa where Rajini is fighting shirtless and Abbas, who’s watching him in awe and adoration, goes ‘What a man!’. I’ve seen that movie countless times and it never seemed like a ‘gay’ moment to me. It was a Rajini moment. I watched the movie with a non-desi friend who automatically was talking about how Abbas has a thing for Rajini. Maybe or maybe not but it doesn’t really matter.
It does seem like things might be changing though. Like male actors are a little more aware of this could be seen as gay and are either in on it or trying to avoid those situations all together. I really hope we keep getting these films though.
Vatathukkul Chadhuram is probably the closest I can think of for a female equivalent for this that I’ve seen. Two best friends who would do anything for each other and eventually run away together so one could avoid a marriage and continue her education.
So glad it made sense to you!
And that moment in Padayappa is exactly what I was thinking of. Because it’s both on and off screen, right? These male fans truly are in love with their heroes. In whatever way that means for them. It’s not “gay”, it’s Rajinikanth.
I do love the power of those moments though, the way the male friendships can add so much emotion to a film. Remember Tezaab? All this awful stuff happens to Madhuri, but what really breaks my heart is how loyal a friend Chunky Panday is to Anil, and then he dies for him. And it wasn’t “gay” or anything, they just loved each other.
On Fri, Oct 11, 2019 at 7:55 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
Ah.. now I so much want that Vidya Swara action movie…
And I want a Sonakshi deepika buddy comedy where they provide stupid advices to each other’s boy troubles… If the makers are feeling so bold, they can even go riding to sunset together.
Yes to Sonakshi-Deepika! It can be Dips as the pretty classy girl and Sonakshi as the little bit wild one. Maybe they are both athletes for Team India and are forced to be roommates, they fight on and off the court, then bond, get drunk, fall asleep in bed together, become best friends, break up with their boyfriends, win the big Thing, and embrace each other in joy and celebration in the ending freeze frame.
On Fri, Oct 11, 2019 at 10:08 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
Sounds like Bend It Like Beckham :).
Yes! But older and without the family plot.
On Fri, Oct 11, 2019 at 10:31 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
Yes! More power to sizzeling female friendships/pairings!
The fact of males showing feelings and being ‘touchy’ not only towards women but also to each other without giving me the vibe of playing gay men was an astonishing and lovely new experience for me when I started my Indian (longtime only Hindi) Cinema journey. I was accustomed to the ‘labeling’ of the Western Cinema although my own perception of ‘gender roles’ and ‘sexuality’ is more similar to yours.
One year into getting more and more knowledge about this emotional and physical kind of cinema, I went to Mumbai living there for ten weeks for doing some work experiencing the day to day life with its rules and restrictions and its freedom and togetherness (and its violence and joy of life).
Thinking about it now, I think when I started I didn’t see it as gay because I translated it all to “brothers” and I was so happy to see that kind of sibling bond shown onscreen. Which is kind of the same, the idea of saying “I love you” even to a brother in the west is soft and strange and not “macho” enough. By the time I started to see it as more than just brothers, I was already in the zone of just enjoying that they loved each other so deeply and truly as friends.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t also choose to interpret some films as a romantic relationship! Depending on actor chemistry, on costumes, on the way certain scenes play out, something can be there.
On Sat, Oct 12, 2019 at 5:56 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
I’m conflicted about this. I get what you’re saying about male friendships and love and I grew up in a culture where men are much more expressive about their feelings for each other, where fathers kiss and embrace their sons, etc. But I also think that having more overt gay content is important.
On Twitter I was talking about War and the Celluloid Closet and Gore Vidal writing a gay romance into Ben Hur and how it’s hard to discuss intentionality in the context of film because there are so many creators who contribute to making movies. A man responded oh but bromance exists in India and another person said “Gay” also exists in India, though. So I don’t want to lose the natural male affection and love that exists between ostensibly straight men but it’s so important to also make space for the love that isn’t just friendship.
I’ve noticed on Twitter that the majority of fans are not talking about the romance/homoeroticism. That seems confined to film critics, desis who are urbanized/westernized and non-desi fans. So it speaks to your point of people not even being able to conceive of a gay male romance.
Another thing I wanted to mention: one of my Twitter mutuals is a gay film critic and he brought up something I found touching and a bit heartbreaking, which is he feared the filmmakers were mocking the idea of love between Khalid and Kabir and of course I don’t know what they intended but I told him that it didn’t read as a joke to me at all, that they were the most romantic couple I’ve seen on screen in years. I did laugh during the Hrithik intro scene but not because I was mocking it, more like I was in shock that the film was so explicit about portraying the love and lust and longing. It all felt deeply sincere to me, whatever the intent.
Oh one last point: I had a friend who fell in love with a woman in college, had a very tempestuous relationship with her that ended badly, got involved with another woman for several years and broke up, then told me “I miss men” and got married. So I completely hear you on not labeling things. I do think that’s more of a thing for women than men, though.
Your last line let me ponder about how this subject would be handled by a male writer…
This isn’t exactly the same topic but interesting take on the film: https://www.latestly.com/entertainment/bollywood/war-was-there-a-hidden-gay-love-story-in-tiger-shroff-and-hrithik-roshans-action-thriller-spoiler-alert-1242493.html
Also, oh my gosh this still!
On Sat, Oct 12, 2019 at 10:38 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
This on Twitter is relevant to my interests
Why are crows feet so sexy? And why do botox people want to ruin my buzz?
On Sat, Oct 12, 2019 at 11:03 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
Ugh, lemme try again
Thanks for the article. It seems to be a good take on the way the bromance is shown.
Maybe what we need is three categories of film? The ones that make possible a gay reading (most of the 1970s two hero films), the ones that openly invite it (War, Dostana, Kal Ho Na Ho, etc.), and the ones that force it and demand it (Aligarh, Karan’s Bombay Talkies short film, Veere Di Wedding). I would like to see all three categories exist, I think they all have their place. In the west, it seems like we only have the last category now, because unless it is explicitly gay it has to be explicitly NOT gay. While in India, we have few films in the final category and many many in the first two.
In terms of the Celluloid Closet, as I said in the post I don’t really think it is a fair translation to Indian cinema. The methods of working are so different, and the end results are so different. Most of all the societies are so different. Look at someone like Gore Vidal. In India, he may have had sex with men but he would not have identified as “gay”, he would not have had a community to join, he would have been married with children and living a “normal” life. If he wrote something into a film, it would not have been a conscious twitting of society, it would have been a subconscious inputting of how he saw the world, the love he felt for the men in his life. I highly doubt that Karan Johar is the first gay man to be a successful Indian filmmaker, but he may be the first gay man to be a successful Indian filmmaker who identified as gay, who felt part of a larger community. Does that make sense?
For example, I mention in the post a Hijra character in Dil Ne Jise Apna Kaha. Her name is Bobby Darling, she has been in several movies, but it wasn’t a moment of inserting queer content, it was that she is/was friends with lots of people in the industry and they were throwing her work because she is who she is as a person, not her identity. She was mostly sponsored by Salman Khan who would hardly normally be considered someone on the forefront of gay rights.
On Sat, Oct 12, 2019 at 10:01 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
I’m pretty sure there are and have been gay communities in India regardless of whether the men were married and had families. That would track with what you saw in the Victorian era where men gathered in male only spaces and had sex but also socialized and they didn’t in most cases self-identify as gay. Even if it’s just “I take regular walks in that park where men have sex” it’s still a community with codes and norms and a sense of membership. And I would imagine it even more so in the filmi community where there was likely more tolerance for those men who were very close to each other.
And creators have been consciously inserting gay themes into content for literally thousands of years and I doubt India is an exception to that.
But I agree on the three categories of film, that makes sense.
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So do you think that’s why ELKDTAL wasn’t a huge success? Would it have connected more if it was two men rather than two women?
(I really wish I had more to contribute to this conversation, because this is a fascinating topic and something I never thought about.)
Perhaps? But it also would have been far more controversial, I think, because it would have forced people to question so many other movies and relationships. While with two women, it was isolated to this one unusual film that had this dynamic.
On Sat, Oct 12, 2019 at 5:53 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
Not exactly on point, but I suddenly remembered the gay story bit in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
1. You make such an interesting point about Indian culture being so “regressive that it has not realized it is possible for there to be ‘gender roles’ or “sexuality.’ There is a strange freedom in not needing to ‘play’ straight, because no one can even conceive you might be anything else.” On one hand I can relate to that based on personal experience. I grew up in India until middle school, where physical affection between them girls such as holding hands was completely common. Then I came here, and the first time I tried to display similar physical affection toward a girl, I was asked if I was gay. I had no idea what that term even meant, yet because of the way it was presented to me (and because middle-school children are a**holes) there was an immediate feeling of shame if I were to be gay. So, while U.S. was considered progressive, I was more free to express my feelings in India without any judgement or labels.
At the same time, having studied Indian religion and mythology, it is so rich with queer, intersex, and transgender stories that are very overt and revered. And yet, in practice, many people in India have very regressive and ignorant views on sexuality and gender roles.
2. I so want there to be more mainstream, happy, overtly gay content like ELKDAL. But I agree that I also never want to lose the “joyful ability to find what we want without shame in these movies.” One of the things I love most about Indian cinema is strong bonds and displays of affection between two men and two women. I don’t want those to ever go away.
3. Also, you “Any sort of female friendship in Indian film is rare, as is any sort of female fan community for an actress.” Would you want to do a theme week/month to showcase female friendship/bonds? I am sure DCIB has a pretty high female fan community. Off the top of my head, besides KKHH and VDW that you mentioned, the others I can think of are K3G (between the grandmothers, between Jaya and Farida, between Kajol and Kareena), Mujse Dosti Karoge, Dor (sooo good!), Har Dil Jo Pyar Karega ( I just rewatched KKHH in honor of its 21 anniversary and I am starting to think Rani just has amazing chemistry with all her female costars), Lajja, Andaz (1994), Cocktail, Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani, and Daamini.
1. You could also say that even mythology has benefited from that blindness. While other religions and other cultures wiped out those elements of queerness and pretended they never happened, India has gone merrily along not making the connection.
2. I forgot about ELKDTAL when I was writing this! I think that kind of film would be great, because it makes the same-sex romance fit so tidily and clearly in the established boxes. We could still have the joyful and unlabeled same-sex relationships that are separate from the family approved engagements and marriages.
3. I would love to do that theme week! But it would be awfully hard. I struggled even for Pride week this year to balance out all the male-male content with anything female-female. Veere Di Wedding really feels like it is in a class by itself in terms of female friendship. Maybe also Mujshe Dosti Karoge? But these stupid men and romances keep coming in to my interesting platonic female friendship stories.
On Fri, Oct 18, 2019 at 11:59 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
All great points. BTW, I can’t believe I missed this post the first time. It is so good!
I’m so glad you found it!
On Fri, Oct 18, 2019 at 12:57 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote: