Indian cinema has its fair share of negative and misguided portrayals of its queer characters. In a country where cinema is consumed by the majority of the diaspora, it becomes a powerful tool in terms of its ability to influence the wider audience. It is only in the last thirty years that Indian cinema, both mainstream and regional, began exploring the theme of sexuality more openly. It still remains a constant struggle for filmmakers to show what society considers ‘morally acceptable’ or what fits in with mainstream thinking and at the same time keep up with the demands of changing times. While filmmakers either shy away or use queer characters as sidekicks or comic reliefs, our article sheds light on some bold attempts by films which sensitively portrayed queer experiences-
Directed by Deepa Mehta, the movie Fire has gone down in history as the first movie to openly depict a lesbian relationship and explore the theme of homosexuality. Not only that, but it also makes a commentary on how women’s sexual desires are unfulfilled or ignored in a marriage and by society at large. It can be argued that the relationship between Sita and Radha develops due to their unhappy marriages, and they seek the love they deserve in each other, due to which it is criticized on the basis that homosexuality is showcased as situational or rather that every lesbian relationship is a result of a failed relationship. The movie was not received well by radical groups as theatres were destroyed on the pretext of the film being a threat to Indian culture. Irrespective, it is safe to say that Fire was way ahead of its time as it boldly and unabashedly portrayed lesbian relationship with intimate scenes and dialogues, paving a path for similar stories.
Tamanna centres around the notion that since the third sex is biologically incapable of having a child, that very notion hinders the very possibility of rearing a child. Yet, the protagonist Tiku, breaks those shackles by adopting a girl child, whom he found lying on the streets. His daughter Tamanna, however is ashamed when she initially discovers Tiku’s identity. Tiku, in contrast, has nourished her with everything a parent could but that love proves to be meaningless because of his identity. When Tamanna finds that her parents had abandoned her because of her gender, she realises that both Tiku and her are rebuffed - one because of her gender and the other because of his sexuality as they oppose the dominant patriarchal ideas of heteronormativity and gender. It is through Tamanna’s character that the film beautifully tackles sexist ideologies in the Indian society, as her final decision to live with Tiku, drives a point home, that LGBTQIA+ community is equally capable of providing love and fulfilling the various duties and responsibilities of a parent, while at the same time she deconstructs the patriarchal mindset towards women. Hence, the film parallels and tackles two contemporary issues – of transgender discrimination, violence, misgendering and female infanticide. At the same time, the film seeks to challenge heteronormative assumptions of what kind of people must constitutes a family.
Ligy Pullappally’s Sancharram, in contrast to fire, makes queer female desire regional, through the spaces of home and a native city, much like fire does in the north Indian urban context. This goes against mainstream Bollywood cinema with its depictions of glamorized urban settings that dominate popular culture. Its purpose is to deconstruct nationalist narratives of gender and sexuality. Sancharram tackles dual issues – it juxtaposes queer sexualities within the larger discourse of family dishonour and shame, which exclusively resides within a woman. Any attraction outside the norm (one’s religion and caste or heteronormative love) is said to bring shame and dishonour in the family’s name. Hence, female same sex desire is consciously juxtaposed with heterosexual love within the larger hetero-patriarchal framework. This movie looks at ‘Indian queer’ by placing queer desire and subjectivity offered in a local frame, in contrast to those offered by western narratives. This helps deconstruct the image of a monolithic queer identity and unravels various complex associations. Sancharram additionally gives ample screen time for physical intimacy between the two protagonists.
Memories in March (2010)
Another film that parallels this attempt to normalise same-sex relations on screens is Memories in March - an ode to loss and love. The film centres on the struggles of being accepted in a society that considers someone deviant for simply being who they are. It deals with the shock and grief experienced by close ones, when they learn their loved one’s are different and the process of coming to terms with the fact that something they thought was an aberration that is supposed to be ‘cured’ is in fact as normal and valid and that one’s sexual orientation is certainly not a choice or a lifestyle, This film serves to counter rampant homophobia and forces society to see the LGBTQIA community as no different from others.
Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012)
Chitrangada is a Bengali film, directed by Rituparno Ghosh, which was first presented at New York Indian Film Festival in and then released in India in 2012. The film does a great job in representing the LGBTQ+ community by diving deep into the struggles they face. Rudra, the protagonist, and his partner want to adopt a child, but aren't allowed to, being a same-sex couple due to which Rudra decides to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Rudra faces troubles at every stage starting from his parents who are unable to understand their son to when his partner leaves him in search for a ‘real woman’. The movie beautifully represents the journey of an individual who learns to truly accept and love himself despite of undergoing sex reassignment surgery and deconstructs patterns of hegemonic of sex identities which are tied to one’s anatomy.
Margarita with a straw (2014)
Another movie worth mentioning is Margarita With A Straw which was released in 2014. The movie revolves around Laila, a teenager with cerebral palsy who is exploring her sexuality. Margarita with a straw portrays an intersection of disability and sexuality, which is very rarely seen in Indian cinema. In fact, this was the first film to portray lesbian relation after nearly two decades of Fire’s release. The movie beautifully taps into the sexuality of a disabled girl, going against the general idea that disabled people are asexual or are not interested in sex. Opposite to this popular view, Laila, the protagonist, takes charge of her sexual desires, and explores and owns her sexuality by getting involved with another disabled woman. Disabled homosexual women are subjected to a triple system of stigmatization and this movie is a progressive attempt to capture that along with a queer identity and its sexual exploration and bring it to the mainstream cinema.
My brother Nikhil (2015)
What makes my brother Nikhil a special movie, is the simplicity that lies in its narrative. There is no dramatic ‘coming out’ (i.e that's often used for plot twists in Bollywood films) moment and the relationship between the two men is so ordinary, that they seem like any other couple who care for each other. The film’s director Onir, who himself came out of the closet, doesn’t show being gay a sort of special thing. Hence, he doesn't give any forced ‘unique’ aspect to the bond or add any stereotypical touch of Bollywood romance. The film aptly conveys the message that being gay is simply being human. The movie additionally brings out the AIDS stigma and the degrading treatment towards AIDS infected gay men. The film did face obstacles and wasn't open to full house cinema, but years later it has become a landmark movie for queer representation in Indian Cinema. It shows tolerance, understanding and inclusivity - both towards AIDS and homosexuality.
Aligarh – (2015) and Loev – (2015)
Aligarh comes as a breath of fresh air through its sensitive writing and wonderful performances set up against Section 377 of the IPC (which criminalised homosexuality). Although many would see the film centered on homosexuality per se, it is the theme of right to privacy that stands out the most. It forces the audience to think “Does society have a right to police the private acts of individuals?” and brilliantly depicts the repercussions faced by those who deviate from society’s skewed conceptions of morality. It does this without downplaying the ostracism and humiliation faced by gay men in our society. Aligarh, does not stand without its fair share of censorship, however. During its world television premiere, the censor board had muted words like ‘homosexual’ and ‘gair mard’, supposedly based on societal taboos around homosexuality. The fact remains, that censoring such content is equivalent to muting queer thoughts and experiences or relegating the fact that they don’t exist, on the supposedly flawed premise of sending the ‘wrong message’ to children.
Loev is a film that additionally attempts to show an organic relationship between two men within the larger discourse of the political and legislative framework of India that binds their love and makes a bold attempt to show the raw abuse and discriminations that often take place in such relationships but are either dismissed or not talked about.
Kapoor and Sons (2016)
Kapoor and Sons, released in 2016, was a big leap for representation of the LGBTQ+ in the mainstream Bollywood. Unlike in the previously mentioned movies, the sexuality of Fawad’s character remains a sub-plot in the movie, but still his character is as close to perfect as it can get. It is free from all stereotypes that are generally associated with gay men like flamboyancy, feminine nature, and bitchy-ness and it does not exist for merely entertainment like it is true for most movies with delivered within a heterosexual setting. The character is sensibly portrayed in the most normal manner with no labels such as ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’ and whose sexual orientation is as much as a part of his personality as other aspects like his career.
The most beautiful and evocative thing about the moment where his truth comes forward in front of his mother is that she doesn’t try to change him. She is of course shocked and taken aback but she takes her own time to come around and accept her son as he is. The movie instils a ray of hope that we can expect more sensible and sensitive portrayals of gay men in the mainstream cinema.
Faraz Ansari’s Sisak, India’s first silent queer short film, showed how the deepest bond sometimes requires no words to express it. It shows a heart wrenching depiction of how queer love is silenced in our mainstream society. Under oppression, silence speaks the loudest words. What is queer love in a society that admonishes it? To be happy even with pain. Sisak shows what it is like to be in the same room with someone yet feel like you are still miles apart. Sometimes even bodily touch doesn't really mean satisfaction. What really gives the protagonists satisfaction is that they are very close even with that distance and that barrier between them but despite that their souls touched each other. Finally, the protagonists know that, like the parallel lines of railway tracks they will be together but always on different sides. They just can see each other in pain, from the other side and be happy with that pain in their hearts. Sisak is a fitting tribute to what was considered forbidden love till section 377 was abolished.
Made in Heaven (2019)
Made in Heaven (2019), an Amazon original, can undoubtedly be considered a milestone in representation of gay characters in Indian cinema. Just like Fawad’s character in Kapoor and Sons, here Karan Mehra’s sexual orientation is normalised. The series is set at the time when section 377 was still in effect and Karan’s character plays an important role in uprooting it in the show. He is a strong and responsible gay man who runs a successful business of wedding planning. Karan’s character goes against the effeminate image of gay men that is standard in Bollywood; instead he plays video games with his friends, drinks beer, lends a shoulder to his friend and business partner during crisis, opens up to his parents about his sexual orientation. The show explores gender issues, marriage, sexuality, through a queer and feminist gaze which is clearly an improvement in cinema.
Over a period of time, Indian cinema has significantly improved in justly representing the queer community, but there are drawbacks and challenges that directors and artists face which cannot be ignored.
Movies in India generally have their fate decided by the censor board. They are banned on several grounds ranging from hurting religious sentiments to depicting communal violence. Sadly, one of the reasons why some great films have been banned or censored is because they deal with the “tabooed’’ subjects of homosexuality, transsexuality etc. In 2003, a beautiful movie which won international awards and appreciation for sensitive portrayal of the marginalized community, Gulabi Aaina (The Pink Mirror) by Sridhar Rangyan, was banned permanently in India and labelled ‘vulgar’ because it depicted the relationship between two drag queens. He made two more movies on homosexuality - Yours Emotionally which he didn’t even bother to take to the board, and 68 Pages which got A-certificate whereas according to the director, the movie showcased homosexual couple in a ‘sanitized’ manner' and he was therefore expecting an U-certificate. Another movie, Aligarh received A-certificate due to its theme of a gay professor which infuriated the film makers. The board also trimmed the lead’s kiss with her lover in the movie Margarita with a Straw prior to its release in India. Evidently, the censor board in India has a huge role to play in what we see on screens and to a larger extent it effects the honest representation of the queer community.
Another backlash that most movie makers receive is that queer characters are not played by actors of the community. To a certain extent, it is true. For instance, Vijay Sethupathi played the role of a trans woman in the movie Super Deluxe and so did Akshay Kumar in Laxmii. Cis male actors playing such roles becomes a problem as it reinforces the false idea that trans women are men in wig and saaree or are just men in drag. It becomes important to note here that in India, it is relatively difficult to find people from the queer community to play such roles and the directors select actors whom they think can play the role sensitively. In this case, cis gender actors should be considered allies who help the stories reach the larger audience. Furthermore, when we talk about representation, we only account for the on-camera representation, but it is important to have behind camera representation too. As long as the stories are written and made from queer gaze and not a heteronormative one, it will depict the queer community in the truest sense. A heterosexual individual making a queer movie is likely to unintentionally subdue or mock queer experiences as that person comes from a place of privilege and therefore it becomes important to have representation in the process of making of a film in its entirety.
Lastly, it is often considered that queer representation in Indian cinema is dominated by the portrayal of gay couples but bisexual, trans, and asexual people as well as lesbians and others are often ignored. For instance, we have many movies which in some manner or the other present gay couples but there are only a few which revolve around lesbian couples. An argument can be made here that Indian cinema is slowly progressing towards honest representation of LGBTQ+ community, and therefore it is unjust to divide their representation on this basis. For instance, Margarita with a straw represents bisexuality as well, but it becomes problematic as it reinforces the wrong notion that bisexuals are unfaithful or disloyal. Such representation is more harmful than no representation at all. At the end of the day, what matters is the right representation and extending accountability beyond visibility. Movies must center and display raw, original and happy stories between queer adults, with a focus on exploring the ‘Indian Queer’ identity free from western narratives, so that millions of queer children have someone to rightly identify with through the medium of cinema.
Children cannot be who they cannot see.
Sanjana Nair (she/her) is a research assistant at Nolmë Labs and currently pursuing her master's in Clinical Psychology. She’s an avid reader and writer and wishes to contribute more to her field through indigenous research and clinical practice.
Ananya Sharma (she/her), former Research Assistant at Nolmë Labs, is interested in clinical and feminist psychology. She is passionate about mental health issues that are faced by people due to the gendered stereotypes that exist in the society and aims to contribute to this field through research. She also aims to improve the mental health care setting for people with stigmatized identities.