Popular Indian Cinema’s Complicated Relationship With LGBTQIA+ Representation

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It’s 2022, and Indian cinema-goers are still packing theatres playing transphobic, slur-ridden, “woke” and “ally” films like Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021). Popular Indian cinema is guilty of being offensive and ignorant and then sometimes downright showing bizarre portrayals of LGBTQIA+ characters. There’s a dearth of queer actors playing queer roles, accurate representation of fashion, lifestyle and queer cultures, or realistic depictions of life led by someone from the community. It is safe to say that popular Indian cinema is marred with a complicated history of representing the community accurately. 

LGBTQIA+ Representation And Ignorance

The first-ever gay character seen in an Indian movie is an orange mohawk sporting Anupam Kher in Mast Kalander (1991). The familiarity with that character and Abhishek Bachchan’s Abbas Ali in Bol Bachchan (2012) goes beyond the floral shorts, bent wrists and effeminate hip sways – it’s the idea that gay men are a caricature – an abnormal version of an actual human being. Akshay Kumar, an established actor with immense influence, has gotten away with embodying dangerously stereotypical characters like Aasif Ahmed (Laxmii 2020) and Sam Gazi (Dishoom 2016). Both demonise LGBTQ identities while attempting to cloak the offensive remarks with bland and cringe humour. Offensive, uninformed and ignorant, popular films have not been able to scratch the surface of the fashion, beauty, art or lifestyle sub-culture that the members of the community thrive within. But given that cinema is supposed to be a mirror of society, how are the stories so blind to their layered visibility off-screen? 

Where Are The Lesbians?

Fortunately, few mainstream releases in the recent past have brought inspired stories on screen. Fawad Khan’s portrayal of the “good son” in the closet in Kapoor & Sons (2016) was respectful and nuanced. Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi’s implication of being a closeted duo in Dedh Ishqiya (2014) gently alluded to lesbian love, showcased with a display of beautiful companionship. They are confidantes who rely on each other to escape a difficult situation and are not presented via the male gaze of “hot lesbians” This brings me to another BIG misstep on behalf of Indian cinema; guys, where are all the lesbians? Bollywood has exploited the lesbian trope to titillate audiences but done nothing to help do away with blatant stereotypes. Gay women are either overly sexualised or shown as murderous antagonists. Movies like Girlfriend (2014) and Ram Gopal Varma’s Khatra: Dangerous (2022) paint gay women as aberrants, suggesting that their homosexuality is the cause of their psychopathy. Such films try to reinstate the archaic idea that there’s something inherently wrong with homosexual or bisexual people. “She’s crazy because she’s a lesbian”; Are you kidding me?

The Vibes Are Off

Some films claim to tackle LGBTQIA+ topics but hide behind humour. Smash hits like Dostana (2008) and Badhai Do (2022) may not be deeply offensive but they certainly do elicit laughs at the expanse of the topic. The idea of “softening the blow” with levity is stale; filmmakers must do better. You can talk about taboo issues softer, subtler way without relieving the tension with laughter. Faraz Arif Ansari, the director of the critically acclaimed queer film Sheer Qorma (2021), revealed in an interview, “I feel our deepest, most intimate conversations take place in silences. As a society, we are constantly overwhelmed with so much noise; most cinema and everything we consume by default are so overpoweringly loud. My cinema is where many things of great relevance are spoken about without anyone needing to shout it out from rooftops while waving a rainbow flag or breaking into a choreographed dance routine with head-banging beats. My cinema will always be where flowers gently bloom, truths are honoured and echoed, differences are celebrated, and inclusion is the default, the power of kindness is shared.” 

Where Is The Craft?

Filmmaking is an art form where a creative mind can find multiple ways to show off their craft. Great stories, innovative cinematography or inspired directing, LGBTQIA+ topics popular in Indian cinema rarely witness cinematic excellence. 2005’s My Brother…Nikhil is a rare mainstream release that cared about telling an engaging story. Deepa Mehta’s 1996 directorial vision Fire is drenched with beautiful visuals of two women in love. But other than a few outliers, movies about the community are usually feature sub-par filmmaking and barely-there cinematic experimentation. LGBTQIA+ characters are rarely the protagonists, with many films resorting to the tokenism of the “gay best friend” to check the boxes of being inclusive. The stories from the community deserve visibility in the popular space via the best talent working behind and in front of the camera. The craft is there in indie and OTT stories, but to bring them to the masses, production houses need to fund projects that deal with such taboo topics and hire queer filmmakers to do justice to the stories. 

Popular Indian cinema lacks perception and vision when it comes to telling stories of the LGBTQIA+ community. Filmmakers and production houses need to know that audiences want to see great stories. Films can either peddle offensive stereotypes or show authentic portrayals of how life for the community actually is – issues, celebrations, challenges, and all – and the audience is now willing to pick the latter.

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