There is a popular scene from the 2003 Telugu movie Vijayam, where a robber strips Brahmanandam on a highway and makes away with his shirt, pants, and wallet. Brahmanandam, left alone on the road, waves at a scooter rider for a lift. The rider, played by Amanchi Venkata Subrahmanyam (AVS) asks about his condition and suggests that Brahamanandam ride the scooter, with himself, AVS, sitting pillion.
Right after they start the journey, AVS, whose actions are shown to be effeminate, starts touching Brahmanandam inappropriately all over his body. Dialogues become incoherent and sensuous music starts playing in the background. Though AVS isn’t openly identified as a gay man in the scene, the intention of Vijayam director Singeethaam Srinivasa Rao is clear – create “comedy” by misrepresenting the queer community as perverse individuals who don’t understand consent and are always thinking about sex.
The 2014 film Teeyani Kalavo, directed by Shivaji, draws a caricature of queer people which is all the more offensive. Comedian Phani wears a bright pink, body-hugging shirt and red lipstick, and is treated as a joke by those around him. He’s also shown to exhibit predatory behaviour, pouncing on every man he comes across in his college. He bites his lips at the sight of men and sighs loudly at a touch. He also holds his hands in a certain way, whether he is walking, standing or even drinking a glass of water.
The representation of the gay identity and same sex relationships in Indian cinema has been much debated and discussed. As one of the judges who delivered the landmark verdict scrapping Section 377 noted, our history owes an unconditional apology to the LGBTQI+ community in this country.
And though there is larger awareness about queer identities today, stereotypes created by cinema continue to impact how people from the community are seen.
Telugu cinema’s ‘Mada’
Film critics point out the trend during the ‘70s and ‘80s which popularised the role of ‘Madas’ in Telugu cinema. ‘Mada’ roughly translates to ‘effeminate men’ in English. The trend made no distinction between gay men, cross-dressers, or transgender persons, and depicted everyone as “men who weren’t masculine enough”. And one of the early actors – in fact the pioneer of this trend – is Venkateshwara Rao, better known as Mada Venkatesh.
“Gay men, beginning from the early ‘80s until the late 2000s, have just been poorly written characters who are brought into the plot for comic relief,” says Vamshi Reddy, film professor at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Tirupati, “Since south Indian cinema has a very strong audience base, both filmmakers and audiences are equally responsible for this trend to have continued.”
“Telugu filmmakers, barring a few, hardly came from educated backgrounds and neither were they sensitive of the issues of the LGBTQI community then. Understanding that gay characters kept the audiences entertained, directors over the years used them as a resource to create cheap comedy. Telugu cinema started off the trend with 'Mada' or 'Maada' in several films, which has since then taken different hues,” he says.
The ‘Madas’ of Telugu cinema were abused in plots for comedy to the extent that actors playing queer characters were confined to playing similar roles in different films.
If Venkateshwara Rao popularised the role in Tollywood, by the end of 1990s, actor Ali, who has acted in the role of a gay person in several movies, concretised the offensive stereotypes surrounding the community. These stereotypes were often made without providing much distinction between a gay man and a transgender woman.
In Ram Charan’s debut movie Chirutha, Ali takes the name Lachmi (a spin on Lakshmi) and identifies as a ‘lady boy’. In the 2000 movie Nuvvu Vastavani, Ali appears once again as a ‘lady boy’ draped in a towel, winking and making lewd gestures at the men around.
Loud makeup, neon coloured pants and kohl smeared eyes – gay men in all Telugu movies are shown to be fond of makeup, and are depicted as hypersexual. Another film featuring Ali in a similar role is Bujjigada, a 2008 Prabhas film, where director Puri Jagannadh depicts gay men as sexual predators. In a scene set inside a men’s toilet, Ali is shown to be ready to molest any guy who comes his way.
In the 2013 Telugu film Gunde Jari Gallanthayinde, director Vijay Kumar shows actor John Ravi as a gay man who sexually harasses men in a shopping mall. Keeping an eye on handsome men and dragging them to trial rooms, the film obnoxiously suggests that gay men only think about sex all the time.
As Vyjayanti Vasanti Mogli, an RTI activist for the LGBTQ community and a trans woman rightly points out, “Regardless of whether or not people admit it, our society has normalised such stereotypes and has learnt to peacefully co-exist with such discrimination, passing it off as a ‘sense of slapstick humour’. Queer and transgender issues apart, the very language used in movies is ableist, homophobic, misogynist, sexist, and transphobic. Such stereotypes stem from a deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset that places the alpha male at the top of the manmade gender hierarchy.”
The rise of the alpha male
The disdain for queer characters in Telugu cinema grew as the notion of the ‘alpha male’ became popular in the industry. Apart from providing crass humour, the characters of gay men were written to further underline the machoism of the superstars on screen. Gay men either became sexual predators who had an eye on the hero, or like in the 2011 movie Nuvvila, got beaten up by the hero (an aspiring model) for being open about their sexuality.
“The effeminate nature of gay persons as depicted in movies has been a deliberate attempt to make the hero seem more desirable, assertive and dominant. The repulsion grew from the simple fact that for a man to be accepted in a society, he has to be ‘manly’ enough,” says Jalapathy Gudelli, a popular Telugu film critic.
“Let’s take the example of the 2014 Mahesh Babu starrer Aagadu, where Ashish Vidyarthi is a cop. He is shown to be a regular person until he confesses that he is a gay man, that he is ‘not a man’ when he is accused of raping a woman. Also the point to note here is the sudden change in the reactions of the characters surrounding him. They look at him with anger and disgust, while Ashish’s character undergoes a sudden transformation and adopts effeminate mannerisms. His merit of being a cop doesn’t count and suddenly he is considered less manly because he comes out as a gay person,” Jalapathy says.
Since they are considered to be “less manly”, they are also characterised as “harmless” towards women. Apart from the usual trope of gay characters who are best friends of the female leads in a movie, a case in point is director Nandini Reddy’s critically acclaimed movie Ala Modalaindi.
Nithya Menen in the movie introduces Nani as her gay friend to her uncle, because, as she later explains, after all gay men are “harmless”, and a woman can return home with them at any time of the night, without raising any suspicion in the minds of elders. The scene is followed by a sequence where Nani’s character imagines himself as a gay man, wearing a floral shirt, holding the picture of a bodybuilder with the song “Kajara Re” playing in the background. As Nithya’s character introduces the young man to her uncle, the latter looks at him with utter disgust and retires to his room.
Mixing up identities
While there is no doubt about the insensitivity that surrounds the portrayal of the queer identity in Telugu films, there is also a lack of understanding about the difference between a gay man and a trans woman – and the underlying transphobia of society which views trans women as ‘men in dresses’.
“The Telugu film industry hasn’t yet made out the difference between gay men and transgender women and very often characterises both identities as the same. This comes from a sheer lack of understanding of the filmmaker regarding the difference,” Vamshi Reddy says.
“For example, in the 2005 movie Venkat Tho Alivelu, though Mada Venkatesh comes across as a gay man, he is surrounded by a bunch of people, some of whom are transgender persons and some others gay men. Irrespective of the distinction, both the groups are addressed as ‘hijras’ in the film and they are shown to molest a man who randomly walks across the road,” the professor notes.
Where are the lesbians?
While gay men are mocked in cinema, there have been very few representations of lesbian women.
Prasanth Varma’s 2018 release Awe is among the rare films to depict a same sex relationship between women. The movie has Eesha Rebba and Nithya Menen playing the role of a lesbian couple, with the latter trying hard to convince the former’s parents to accept their relationship.
Though the film gave out some misinformation (it suggested that a character had become lesbian because of child sexual abuse), it portrayed the two women with dignity and did not make it sleazy as is common in industries like Bollywood.
As Vyjayanti says, “The film industry has many decision-makers like actors, directors, financiers, and producers who generally go by the saleability of films with the masses and their box office collections. Therefore, when it comes to exploring women’s sexuality, Telugu cinema has institutionalised its ignorance as the lethal combination of lesbophobia, patriarchy and misogyny. For starters, we are yet to see anything that even comes close to the likes of the Bollywood mainstream film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. Lesbian characters apart, much of the cinema churned out by almost all top actors, directors, and producers of the Telugu film fraternity is male-centric for the very same reason.”
Speaking to TNM, actor Eesha Rebba, says that considering the mass influence movies have on audience, breaking stereotypes have a cathartic effect on people, which actors often fail to realise.
“When Prasanth offered me the role in Awe, I didn’t think twice before I accepted to play the character. For the most part, I was excited to do a role that was so unconventional. But it’s only after the film released that I realised that the character I played had affected so many women in a positive way. I even got Instagram messages from girls, who wanted to come out in the open about their sexuality, but were worried for their parents. I think the way forward to bring more awareness on same sex relationships is for actors to accept and play such roles, and not just actors but stars who have a considerable influence over the masses,” Eesha says.
A long way ahead?
While the Malayalam industry has had movies like Randu Penkuttikal and Deshadanakkili Karayaarilla as early as the 1970s that portrayed lesbian relationships (although it wasn’t explicitly spelt out in the second film) and Prithviraj played a gay cop in Mumbai Police (a problematic depiction, but still, a mainstream star played the role), the Tamil industry has had a few sensible depictions like in En Magan Magizhvan and Taramani.
What about the Telugu industry?
“We are talking about popular Telugu cinema which has been dominated by one sub-region, one dialect and a few communities all these years. Talking about decent portrayal of homosexual people is too much to ask for. Telugu cinema is reluctant to talk about caste and major societal issues unlike Tamil and Malayalam cinema. Any sensitive issue here assumes importance only when it becomes a matter of political and electoral significance,” Vamshi Reddy says.
However, director Nandini Reddy says that considering the increasing awareness on the LGBTQI communities now and the reading down of Section 377, there is much hope and change is on its way.
“I am equally guilty as charged for the insensitive portrayal of the gay community in Ala Modalaindi. It is something I would never again want to do in my career. But having said that, back in 2010, ‘gay’ wasn’t even a word that was used in the common parlance. There was very less awareness on the nuances of depicting the queer community. But times have changed and we are seeing a lot of quality content that is being churned out in Telugu. With increasing awareness, I think there is hope and it isn’t long before our filmmakers learn and accept homosexuality as normal,” the director says.