Hera Pheri (1976): What is the Line Between Something Being Gay and Something Being Just 70s? Is There a Line?

Well, it’s true, this is the Gayest Movie Ever. There’s 70s fashion, and there’s 70s Hindi film Masala Guy Love, and then there’s this movie. Which is just a whole other thing.

There are good Masala movies like Amar Akbar Anthony, which are ridiculous and over the top but also more or less holds together, has an internal logic to it, the character backgrounds are fully filled in, nothing feels like it is missing. And then there are bad Masala movies that are illogical and just boring, there don’t feel like their are any stakes because you don’t really care about any body. Somewhere in between the two is this movie. It has no internal logic, the backstory gets dropped in randomly like the writer is making it up as he goes along, and there are important scenes (like, the first meeting of our main couple) that somehow aren’t there, as though they got the idea for them after it was too late to film them. But, on the other hand there is so much fun stuff! Especially related to Vinod and Amitabh who have The Best chemistry. Oh, and also Saira Banu.

Amitabh Bachchan on Twitter: "T 2542 - 'HERA PHERI' .. !!! 41 ...

Let’s talk Gayness specifically in the context of 1970s Hindi film! I did a whooooooooooole post on male superstardom and male-male friendship, and the 70s is maybe the decade when male-male friendship was most important. The heroes of the 70s were bigger than ever before, especially Amitabh Bachchan. Which meant the heroines were smaller than ever before (or since). Which means the two leads who spent most of their time together were the two heroes, not the hero and the heroine. Their relationships tended to follow the beats you would typically see in a romance, with the magical first meeting, the confession of love and commitment, the heartbreak of separation, and finally the joy of reunion. All of this isn’t necessarily intended to be gay, or even IS gay, it’s just a different format for a film in which the male-male relationship takes priority over the male-female relationship. So we have Sholay, Dostana, Qurbani, Zanjeer a little, movie after movie where the male friendship relationship is the most important one. And the sub-category of “friend-brother” relationships. In the context of the narrative, no romance is considered there (because brothers), but it is still possible for the audience to look at moments in Silsila, Shaan, or Suhaag and find the romance.

And then there are the 70s fashions, don’t forget them! Gay culture in America was going subtly mainstream. Most folks may not know where the tight pants and unbuttoned shirts look came from, I certainly don’t think the Indian film fashion people were intended to mimic the San Francisco Queer party scene. But it was the look, the popular hip up to date look. So we have our hero-hero friendship movies where everyone is in tight clothes and chain necklaces and stuff, and also it’s South Asia where there are different norms for male friendship including more physical affection than in other places, and there is this whole concept of the breakdown of the standard family structure as an emotional metaphor for the breakdown of the Indian State which leads to these lonely young man forming psuedo-families with each other. And none of this is necessarily “gay”, it’s just a series of unrelated things which can appear to be gay.

Vinod and Amitabh and Prakash Mehra together again in this movie, but this one feels more “70s” than “Gay”

So when Amitabh in an unbuttoned shirt and tight bell bottoms walks into a bar and locks eyes with Vinod in a tight leather jacket and pants with his chunky necklace resting on his chest hair, it’s not necessarily gay. It’s just how manly men dress and look at each other and stuff.

HOWEVER!!!! While most films follow the regular format of “meet cute, fight, make friends” kind of thing with the male-male heroes, this film throws a whole bunch more wood on the flaming fire (yes, all double meanings were intended). Partly because it DOESN’T follow that pattern. We don’t really see the meet-cute, that bar moment is after Vinod and Amitabh are already partners. Instead we see them happily sharing a home, and bedroom, together. Vinod prays for Amitabh and scolds him when he comes home late, and is hurt when Amitabh won’t take him to meet his mother. Amitabh tolerates Vinod’s worry and reassures him, and over and over again declares his love and protection of him. There’s very little of the 70s Masala style “two heroes challenging each other for domination of the screen out of friendship” and a lot more kind of traditional married couple love scenes. Including cozy mornings cuddled in bed together with tea, fights over family, and declarations of never ending love after the fights.

You would think with the love story being so firmly male-male, our poor heroines would be a bit pallid. But no! Good news is, since the sweet and faithful Baahu role was being taken by Vinod, our two heroines got to be all kinds of SASSY!!!! Sulakshani Pandit has almost no scenes or dialogue, but her whole character trait is “thinks Vinod Khanna is hot and has no problem eagerly chasing him”. Very fun! Saira Banu is even better, this was post her marriage to Dilip Sahib and semi-retirement, but the role was such a kick I can see why she did it. She gets to play a straight up Madam! It’s great! You just show up at her house, and there are all these woman hanging around smiling at you, and Amitabh kind of raises his eyebrows and then blows right past it. Also, on a shallow note, have Saira Banu’s breasts always been that aggressively large? Or is it just in this movie?

Hera Pheri (1976) - Prakash Mehra | Cast and Crew | AllMovie

So yes, I recommend this movie! Not for the plot, that’s terrible and nonsense and impossible to follow. And not even for the songs, which are kind of forgettable. Fight scenes more or less too. But the gayness! And the awesome women! And the CLOTHES!!!! Amitabh and Vinod both have 3 separate three piece bellbottom suits with bowties! Come on, you know it is worth watching just for that.

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I honestly truly could not follow this plot. I don’t think the script “writer” could follow this plot. I think this plot is NONSENSE!!!! It’s one of those that only sort of works if you work backward from the ending explanations.

At some point in the past, not shown to the viewer, Vinod was depressed because he was an orphan and couldn’t find a job, even with his good degrees. Amitabh found him and saved him and they fell in love and moved in together and now they run cons together at a gambling den. Vinod saves a girl from rapists, and she falls in love with him. A different woman (Saira Banu) shows up on their doorstep upset and ALSO pursued by rapists. Amitabh is intrigued by her, and the next morning they discover her gone along with the money they have just conned from an Evil Smuggler. But she left an address behind, Amitabh goes to her brothel and meets with her where she offers to give the money back if he and Vinod start working for her gang. But what they don’t know is that Amitabh is only doing crime because he is trying to track down the Evil Killer who killed his father and drove his mother Mad. He tells this whole story to Vinod finally, who is hurt because Amitabh never brought him to meet his mother. Vinod doesn’t have parents, his father was forced to sell him into child labor to raise money for medicine for his mother. Coincidentally, one of the Evil Smugglers henchman overhears Vinod telling this story to his new girlfriend (he found the attempted rape survivor and they are dating, even though she is the police commissioners sister). The Evil Smuggler is stunned, he realizes Vinod is his longlost son! He adopts Vinod into the gang and Vinod rejects Amitabh and his love now that he has found his father. Amitabh is heartbroken, Saira tries to comfort him and admits that she is in love with him. The Evil Smuggler plans to capture both Amitabh and his mother and kill them. Vinod kidnaps Mother, Amitabh and Saira show up at the Evil Den, Vinod and Amitabh fight and then…HA HA! It was all a TRICK!!!! Early on when Vinod was hit on the head and kidnapped, he overheard Evil Smuggler and his men talking about his longlost son. So Vinod somehow knew the henchmen would be listening when he told his girlfriend this story? And also somehow never had time to tell Amitabh his plan so Amitabh believed it to be true? It doesn’t quite hold together. But the point is, Amitabh and Vinod love each other again, Happy Ending.

There’s also something about how the Evil Smuggler goes around disguised as a Respectable Businessman sometimes. But honestly, the disguise is so weak I didn’t even think it was a disguise, I just thought everyone knew he was both people all along. Until the ending scene when he shows his “son” Vinod how he can transform into a respectable businessman and Vinod goes “NO! You are the SAME PERSON? Not possible!” Like when folks don’t believe Clark Kent can be Superman.

So yeah, the plot is terrible. The point of the movie is to see Vinod and Amitabh’s happy homelife, and then feel the torment when Vinod abandons Amitabh and breaks his heart. And then the happiness when they are together again.

Maybe it is that homelife which makes it feel different? The typical multi-starrer, we have our heroes as friends, but they travel around together having adventures. We don’t see them sharing a cozy apartment with little jokes and lazy mornings in bed and stuff. Although this also isn’t a couple that has been together forever, one of those “we met in childhood and know everything” kind of couples. They still have a sort of honeymoon glow about them, Vinod prays for Amitabh and Amitabh teases him. And when Vinod is hit on the head and kidnapped, Amitabh has some real fiery new love madness to him as he threatens Saira that he will kill her if Vinod is harmed in anyway. Here we have a couple that is beyond the “meet cute” part, but still in the phase of “I can’t believe how happy I am, happier than ever before in my life”.

It sounds a bit like I am joking, but really, this friendship is a love story. Sure there are two heroines, the text of the film says they will marry other people. But someone involved in writing this script, whether they would have identified themselves as “gay” or not, had the happiest times of their life when they found a fellow man who loved them just as they were, who took them in and gave them a home, who they spent every day with and laughed and talked and slept together. And that glow of happiness for those times together just comes through somehow, like magic.

9 thoughts on “Hera Pheri (1976): What is the Line Between Something Being Gay and Something Being Just 70s? Is There a Line?

  1. There’s that scene with the shorts and the bed, where I swear to God Vinod knows how gay it is and he’s just standing there stroking Amitabh like YEAH LET’S JUST GO WITH IT. Actually I wonder that a lot, because they were wordly and educated men, they had to know.

    I love this movie even though honestly it is barely a movie. The 70s! Greatest decade.

    “the disguise is so weak I didn’t even think it was a disguise, I just thought everyone knew he was both people all along.” This happened to me, too. I still don’t really understand the plot to this.

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    • Either they were thinking “yeah, let’s just go with it” or the director was saying “no no, more loving!” But someone on set knew what was happening.

      Here’s a thing, Osho is strongly against homosexuality, in a very backward way. Kind of 1920s pyschology speak, says it is a stage and immature, and only happens because men (or boys) have no other choice, and if you keep being gay past age 15 or so it is because you are in arrested development. I think he was also a bit “HIV, it’s a punishment”. I don’t think Vinod was into Osho yet when he made this movie, but it’s kind of funny to go backwards and look at it, isn’t it? Here’s a guy in short shorts clearly in love with another man, and within a few years he’s going to join a radical religious community that thinks homosexuality is a sin.

      Also, so glad I am not the only one who can’t understand the plot! For one thing, Saira is a Madam, right? And we just let that be? Is she going to quit her job and marry Amitabh? If so, who is going to look after her employees? Or is Amitabh going to move into the brothel?

      On Tue, Apr 14, 2020 at 1:26 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • lol with Shashi especially, I often think he was doing it on purpose because he hated the censors. Much like Jennifer intentionally gave him all the clothes she thought he would look great in but were too silly to wear in real life.

        Yeah, I know that’s Osho’s policy, which makes it very puzzling to me, because SO MANY of his films, even after he already got into it, are SO GAY. Like he’s on a par with Amitabh or maybe even worse. Maybe it’s one of those things in their ideas he didn’t feel very strongly about? Or it’s part of the reason he didn’t think making movies was moral anymore. Or he was working out a part of his sexuality he couldn’t accept through movies.

        It’s been a while since I watched it but I have seen it a bunch of times. I thought Saira was a female don, I don’t see the brothel part of it. Though it could be. I assumed she and Amitabh would just run the gang together and do crime.

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        • For Saira, go an hour and ten minutes in for the introduction of her house. There’s all the women, but also Amitabh’s slight “oh my!” response. Oh, and you can also join me in going “wait, are those Saira’s breasts? Their pointed?”

          Maybe Vinod was so blind he didn’t see the gayness? Or so brainwashed by the Osho version of homosexuality he could no longer recognize the real version? Or, my favorite theory, everyone around him decided to force him to be super gay in movies because they found it funny to make him pretend to be gay when he was too dumb to even realize that was happening (the Ben-Hur theory).

          I guess with this film if you really wanted, you could see it following the Osho version. They are immature and stunted and traumatized, which is why they have sex with men, but once they grow up and work through their trauma, they become healthy heterosexuals. But that’s BORING. I prefer the version where they use the woman to have babies and form a mostly platonic 4 person household.

          On Tue, Apr 14, 2020 at 9:34 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • i thought he was just overcome by the sexy ladies. I looked it up in Funky Bollywood, and Todd Stadtman says she’s the head of a crime gang, who are a subgang of PK’s crime gang.

            One of the things I love about 70s Bollywood is that the holdover bullet bra that went out at the end of the 60s in Europe stuck around. It’s great and I wish deeply for a rebirth.

            I thought this was a normal cultural narrative in India, as it seems to be in all societies that are very divided by sex, and that that was often what informed the homoerotic narratives. Like in Sholay. It’s okay to have this strong homoerotic attachment before marriage, but then you have to transpose it to your wife. But I haven’t read anything on homosexuality in India specifically, all my academic reading was on gender, so I don’t know what sociologists think.

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          • When I did deep research on homosexuality in India, there were two lines. The first being the strong segregation of the sexes which really could lead to the men-having-sex-with-men situation. Your closest physical/emotional bond was with your male agemates, and there was a lot of social acceptance for physical affection and so on, so it would be easy for teenage boys to experiment with each other. And that continued sometimes post-marriage in that your wife became attached to the woman’s side of the household and you lived your life perhaps more closely with your male friends still. It could be a physical bond, or emotional, but it existed in an accepted kind of nether world where your friend was super important to you, as important or more so than your wife, because you shared more experiences together. “Yaari love” is how I read it described somewhere.

            And then the second being the gay men who were gay, not bi. The first category could be men who maybe even preferred women but because of the gender segregation ended up forming closer bonds with other men. Or men who went both ways, but again it was just easier to form bonds with other men. But this second category are the really heartbreaking ones who are singled out in society for somehow not fitting in. With marriage being this massive marker of maturity in Indian society, gay men would either have to remain forever “children” because they did not marry, or marry without love.

            The scientific/legal thinking was literally Victorian, a hold over from colonialism. The religious writings really didn’t have much to say about it, nor did ancient cultures, there certainly were elements that were there all along but nothing firmly “this is bad” or “this is good”. The modern extremist violent Hinduism seems to have folded homophobia in as part of a general “Macho Macho Man” kind of thinking. Along with a strong element of “oooo, western influence weakened us by bringing in queerness”.

            And then there are Hijras of course. I know in some parts of the middle east, trans issues intersect with queer issues in a big way, in that it is culturally and legally easier to transition to being a woman than to live as a gay man. I don’t think there is confusion around Hijras versus queer men in the same way in India, but it is interesting to see how Hijras are kind of accepted as an ancient part of the Indian culture, but gay men are not. Or trans men.

            Anyway, you probably already knew most of that, like you said a lot of it is just how things are in strongly gender segregated societies. But that’s all I’ve got for queerness in India!

            Oh, and of course generally Lesbians don’t exist because women don’t have sexual desires, right?

            Oh, and Karan Johar in high school on his own found a “coach” to make himself less effeminate. This is a South Bombay boy going to the best school in the country living with very cosmopolitan and accepting parents, and he still felt so unhappy in his own skin that he answered a newspaper ad for “voice lessons” and spent years going over to the house of this guy and his wife and learning how to talk and stand and move his hands. Based on that one example, I think we can safely say that homophobia was around a lot in the 80s if it was enough for sweet little Karan to internalize it and decide he had to “fix” himself.

            On Tue, Apr 14, 2020 at 10:18 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Poor, poor Karan.

            Thanks for that, it did have a few new things in it for me. There is not a lot of intersection in Asian cultures with a traditional “third sex” option with the “new” sexualities and genders, according to academia. AFAIK this goes for Hijra too. The main way they cross is in their relationships with men (they might be “accepted” but they still can’t have acceptable relationships), and the issues they share with queer and trans women (violence, prostitution). Depending on the people involved, some LGBT orgs don’t advocate for the traditional third gender either which is monstrous to me.

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          • I find the LGBT orgs versus the traditional third gender fascinating. LGBT is an international respectable clear definition. But Hijra is something old-fashioned and doesn’t fit and easier to just pretend doesn’t exist. At least, that is what it feels like. Of course trans/3rd gender people have always struggled to be included as part of Queer history everywhere, but there is some other flavor to it I can’t quite identify which feels related to colonialism and westernization and education and urban versus rural and a whole bunch of other things in India. Would Karan Johar be ready to identify with the Hijra being beaten on the street? Or would he see his Queerness as not related to her? And why is that?

            I don’t have an answer, but surely someone is researching that, right? Maybe I should check out JSTOR.

            (to be fair to NGOs, I have a friend who worked with one in Pune for 6 months that was officially LGBTH and did a lot of work with the Hijra community related to getting them new ID cards with proper gender names and identities, so they aren’t all bad)

            On Tue, Apr 14, 2020 at 12:46 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • No, of course there are orgs who do it, which makes sense because any international programs would include them in the funding briefs. It’s more the LGBT community itself that sees itself as separate, at least that’s what academia says. I’m sure that differs from group to group and from person to person, and maybe it will have changed in the past 5 years or so. But I see it in the culture too. Like, how in Made in Heaven the Hijra show up and no-one is like “hey, don’t you guys get arrested for no reason and beaten up by police just like me???”.

            I’ve forgotten what exactly the reasons given by research were, but it’s a bit educated vs. uneducated and urban vs. rural, and a bit “we should get rid of all tradition because it’s bad for us” afaik.

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