Indian Cinema’s Journey Down the LGBTQ Road

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LGBTQ in Indian cinema
Fire (1996) was a 'bold' film

I was in college when the film Fire released. It was 1996. The girls’ hostel I stayed in was abuzz with whispers about the highly sexual film, and its apparently bold theme. There began hushed whispers and giggles about whether one would find any such couples within the hostel. While the conversation is a distant memory, what remained with me was the awkwardness with which the film was received. A few years later, when another film My Brother Nikhil (2005) released, I witnessed the same hushed whispers come back. But we were in the 2000s and the film was appreciated and better understood probably than others. Sexuality was a far more open topic now. It must be noted here that My Brother Nikhil became the first mainstream Indian film to not only talk about homosexuality, but also showcase the problems that homosexuals are faced with, and how deeply violent both law and community can be, with regards to anyone it considers as an outsider or a threat to a perceived normality. 

Cut to 2023, Indian courts have decriminalized same-sex relationships between consenting adults since 2018. Does that mean we now have better films that showcase themes pertaining to the LGBTQ community? The answers remain ambiguous though. The question that begs an answer is, are Indian audiences and filmmakers aware enough about the intricacies that assign your gender to that of your birth, without any room for sexual exploration. Are they curious enough as creative people, to explore realms that determine the various socio-cultural aspects governing the LGBTQ community? There are many questions here and too few answers, if one were to trace a pattern through the filmography of the past few years. The fact that gender is but one aspect of queer communities, and the larger area of sexual exploration has hardly been spoken about, leaves much room for thought here. 

LGBTQ in Indian cinema
Aligarh (2015) was a biographical drama.

In a country where most people are unaware of any sexuality outside the rigid framework of male and female, it would probably be too much of an ask to expect films that explore sexuality and love in areas defying gender roles. As such, can a film based on a queer character not be completely mainstream in its acceptance as just another form of love? But for that to happen, maybe we need to begin at a place where queer filmmakers are given the opportunity to make films that talk about queer narratives. 

But irrespective of who makes the film, recent outings like Aligarh (2015) or Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh (Part of Bombay Talkies –2013) have made us sit back and take notice. Films such as these have after all been successful in talking about the violence that one often associates with such relationships, not only from those outside, but also because of the mental makeup of those within the relationship. The success of these films is not only in tackling such issues with sensitivity, but also with regards to the subtle handling of the topic itself. Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh or Margarita With A Straw (2014), are films that showcase the problems and the vulnerabilities within these relationships too. Such a mature handling of these topics is not only a step in the right direction, but also subtly speaks about how couples within this community are as vulnerable, and sometimes as faulty as other heterosexual relationships. Films like Mango Soufflé (2002) or Arekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love Story- 2010) are fine examples of how those from the queer community want to live a life without labels. And that a queer love story is also just another love story that can exist without a bracket or categorisation.

One must also be grateful for the more nuanced story-telling that has been seen in more recent films, where a story about someone from the LGBTQ community need not be about extremes or even aggressive in nature. These are delightfully fresh stories, where queer need not really become queer, but can also be an exploration of life without labels. If Indian cinema can come out of these clear cut boxes, and steer clear of the ‘normal narrative’ of heterosexuality more stories about people who explore various kinds of genders and different aspects of sexuality, might be made with subjects that don’t necessarily focus only on the so called strangeness of such relationships.

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One must note here that there have been various Indian language films that have attempted depictions of queer and trans people ever since the inception of Indian cinema more than 100 years ago. But while only a few of these films managed a sensitive portrayal, most others used caricature and laughter to give a certain slant or colour to the idea of other sexuality. Moreover, due to censorship rules and various other social and cultural prejudices against the LGBTQ community the onscreen representation of such characters has always been stereotypical and laced with sarcasm. In spite of the fact the literature of this country has often boldly spoken about different types of sexuality, cinematic adaptations of such work have mostly been close to negligible. In 1942 Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai wrote a short story, ‘Lihaaf’ which subtly explored lesbianism. Hindi writer Pandey Bechan Sharma wrote the short story ‘Chocolate’ in 1924 which explored homoerotic desires by its characters. But strangely enough, it took cinema a much longer time to find its ground in this matter. The lack of a proper understanding, and the vicious backlash against the abnormality that was associated with all relationships under the LGBTQ community led to unsure narratives, and half-hearted attempts at telling the stories from this community. One can only hope that with time, not only will matters change but that more and more people from the community will themselves come forward to take things into their own hands, and either tell their own stories, or make films that will enable them to weave their narrative better. 

Images courtesy: MUBI

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