Indian Cinema and its misguided portrayal of the LGBT community

When members of LGBTQ+ community get cast in stereotyped and negative roles in films, it simply reflects the existing hatred in the real world
Indian Cinema and its misguided portrayal of the LGBT community
Indian Cinema and its misguided portrayal of the LGBT community

This article has been included as a part of our LGBTQ+ series. It first appeared on Women Making Films. Read the original article here.

1894, a poorly shot 17 second experimental film shows two men dancing, holding each other “awkwardly”. This was the first ever depiction of homosexuality that ran a stride of uncomfortability in the audience. The film was called Dickson Experimental Sound Film commonly labeled online as The Gay Brothers. It was shot to check the mixing of sound in moving images by William Dickson. The experiment did not work but the footage somehow became a benchmark.

Nineteenth century and in the mid 1930s and 40s, Hollywood saw its queer characters as nothing but flamboyant, laughing stocks who were just there to establish a twitchy note within the films. Conventional sexual behaviour between the same sexes was not accepted on the silver screen and was only used to typify homosexuality as a mental illness. “Sissy” looking man or the “hardboiled” woman in a film came only to enrich the negativity as perceived by the white Christian middle class culture.

In 1930, also came the Motion Picture Production Code (called the Hay’s code) which was more like a church-led establishment to defy “immoral” expressions shown in a film. A rebel cutting through the Hay’s code was Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot which was released without the approval of the code despite it governing Hollywood cinema for over 40 years. The film notably projecting crossdressing, also dabbled with the idea of homosexuality and other stereotypical gender roles. It eventually became a huge hit, bringing a downfall to the Hay’s code.

The reason we are shedding some light on the history of homosexuality in cinema is to determine how far we have come in disinfecting it off its ridiculousness and subjugation towards the LGBT.

The Indian filmmaking culture somehow still appears confused towards forming a universal opinion about projecting homosexual characters. Deepa Mehta was one of the early Indian director to make a film that openly dealt with homosexuality. It was 1996. Fire tells a tale of a lesbian relationship that ignites between two people enduring similar problems with their spouses. The film served a sensual resonance simmered in an Indian context while also scooping itself out of the patriarchal prevalence. 

Within the community however, the film came under a fair bit of criticism about how it has somehow given an impression that two women, rejected by their spouses become lesbians. It is not so. The film would have perhaps worked better if the two women had explored their sexuality, naturally and not a byproduct of a failed straight relationship.

We are in the middle of 2016 and we still see the likes of Suresh Menon playing a 24/7 horny gay man ridiculed and joked upon by the whole cast in various films. The gap suggests an intellectual difference that streams between the formation of characters like Nikhil Kapoor (My brother Nikhil) as opposed to Son Das (Mastizaade). Question is, who created this gap and why does it still exist?

We have all observed the scandalised comprehension of two actors being discovered in a “compromised” position by possibly a parental figure. We have also seen the absurdity in portrayal of a gay character whose apparent life’s mission is hitting on random people. Finally, there is the famous reliable cross-dressing joke. If you come up with a really unfunny catchphrase, get a man to say it in a squeaky voice, wearing women’s clothing and receive your laughs.

The reason why such folly depictions seem to work in India is the same reason why people don’t say “He is gay” but say, “He is a gay”. Dissociation from homosexual people has got a cultural thumbs up, a long time ago. It drifted onto the younger mindsets saying “ye toh woh hai” (He is that) every time they found someone to be gender-suspicious.

Film still/Kal Ho Na Ho

It wouldn’t be fair to ignore the feminist angle in this discussion as patriarchy hasn’t left even this area, unpolluted . It is no coincidence that Fire in fact managed to set ablaze taboos circling patriarchy. Anjali Gopalan, founder of the Naz Foundation and a petitioner against article 377 pointed towards an aspect that she observed in the film. In an interview with The Indian Express, she said:

“What can be more challenging to patriarchy than women saying they don’t need men? “The issue of lesbianism hasn’t been accepted like male homosexuality. Unlike men who are gay, women who see themselves as lesbians… are still at the bottom of the totem pole. The film helped because a lot of people who were thinking of rights got together to… talk about inclusiveness.”

Heteronormativity in India unceasingly prevails for the sole purpose of oppressing homosexuals as a whole. But even in that realm, heteronormative patriarchy takes the final decisions. Women don’t even get to detach themselves from their families like their male counterparts. Instead they are shunned, forcefully “treated” and at times, even silenced. Reason being the ultimate frustration within the dominant-gender system after finding out that suddenly  women do not need men, not for love, not for sex. It is also the reason why we do not see even the tiniest bit of fair movies about homosexuals, based on a lesbian relationship. But there is no dearth of films that poke fun at it with an astounding amount of insensitivity and misinformation like ‘Girlfriend’.

Actually, if we sort of move away from the limelighted works of Bollywood we can trace a number of films that have dared to put an equitable depiction spreading across vast corners of time. In 1981, came a love ballad between two college girlfriends. Yes, 1981. Late Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar wrote Mitrachi Gostha (A friend’s story). A controversial play dealing with LGBT issues, a relationship between two friends, Sumitra and Nama.

A time where discussing same-sex relationship was a screaming taboo, Mitrachi Ghostha went on to be made into a film, after its success as a play. It was progressive, intense and managed to attract big Marathi names like Vinay Apte, Rohini Hattangadi and Ujwala Jog. In 1982, Vijay Tendulkar also wrote the screenplay for ‘Umbartha’(based on the novel ‘Beghar’) which touched upon a lesbian relationship between two inmates of a remand home.

Similarly, the first film to hit the viewers after the decriminalization of 377 was Arekti Premer Golpo (Just another Love story). This Bengali film dealt with a transgender filmmaker’s obsession of his bisexual cinematographer, focusing on the psychological upheaval faced by transgenders.

Film poster/Arekti Premer Golpo 

This film is poignant and spot on in achieving the desired representation – it is also a masterpiece in its narrative and interwoven, complex characterisations. Rituparno Ghosh, who plays the role of a transgender, will break your heart by his melancholic performance.  It is so unfortunate that this genius’s life was so short lived. An openly gay actor/writer, nothing less than an icon of the LGBT community in the cinema fraternity. Other characters in the film too, were very well thought out and intelligently placed to heighten the sensitivity of the situation. 

It is fascinating to observe how Kaushik Ganguly has cleverly juxtaposed the life of Chapal Bhaduri, a female impersonator in ‘Jatra’ a performing art style in Bengal. Chapal’s gender identity itself being complex, it blends right into the film’s ultimate objective. It is thus, quite amazing of Ganguly to have managed to throw light into the life of a struggling theatre veteran who lives in isolation – while making a film around it, with fictional characters.

Chapal Bhaduri in 'Jatra'

And of course, the internationally aclaimed, award winning ‘Aligarh’ MUST be mentioned in this article for it to be complete. Manoj Bajpayee has lived the character, and attempted to transform the society’s regressive thought process by his portrayal of Dr Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras.

A lot of articles online talk about how times have changed and list down films that have an alleged good representation of people belonging to the LGBT community. But upon reading them, you realise that not only have they got zero understanding of what representation means, but the films in such lists are all having LGBT characters portrayed in negative, villain like roles. Cinema is an all-pervasive tool that reaches so many people at once  and challenges the conditioning of the society – and even in cinema, if members of LGBT community get cast as manipulative, negative and fearful characters, it simply augments the existing hatred in the real world.

Do you recall the film ‘Saadak’ which was then remade in the Tamil film ‘Appu’? Though the film has a significant amount of time allotted to the transgender character, do you also notice how they are often depicted as negative characters? And not to mention, the highly shameful ‘I’ in which this arrogant, insensitive man by name Shankar, demonises a character by virtue of her sexuality. 

Film poster/Appu

What is the point of education and worldly experience, when common sense becomes astray? Same goes for ‘Vettayadu Vilayadu’ Ilamaran and Amudhan, the characters that show just enough signs of being homosexual, only for Raghavan to call them homophobic slurs through out the film. Somehow, it is assumed that, people belonging to LGBT community can’t have a normal life like everybody else – that, directors, with their limited understanding of the concept of homosexuality, take morbid liberties bordering on extreme, irrational and diabolical portrayal of such roles.

‘Naanu Avanalla..Avalu’ (I am not a he, but she), is a 2015 Indian Kannada feature film directed by B. S. Lingadevaru, based on Living Smile Vidya’s autobiographical work I am Vidya portraying the life of transgenders. With about 80 transgenders in the film, it created quite a stir in the otherwise non-controversial industry. Again, ‘141′ a Kannada film that portrayed a lesbian relationship between an Indian and a Russian/American woman, created some buzz. The censor board seems to have delayed the release of the film by nearly 2 years only to grant it an A.

Film poster/Naanu Avanalla..Avalu

There is this really extensive blog piece that we stumbled upon about portrayal of homosexuality in Malayalam cinema. The one we wish to bring to your attention is the film called, ‘Randu Penkuttikal’. This film talks at length about a woman’s open attraction towards her junior in school, a girl who also happens to be a dancer. But the displeasing thing about this film is, it ends with a note on how “it was just a phase” and in the end, how the heteronormative society has cautiously “saved” the girl and brought her back to the “right” path.

From the same industry comes another film called ‘The Journey’ that beautifully portrays the relationship between two young girls, without sending out a message that strong-arms a homophobic notion down the audience’s throat.

‘My son is gay’ is an upcoming Tamil film directed by Lokesh Kumar that encapsulates the struggle between a mother and her son when she realizes that he’s gay. The plot explores a new issue that fills a major area of this gap – the parents. The guardian generation of India, stays in denial when it comes to accepting their children’s sexuality – especially when oriented towards the same sex. The fretting thing about this is that the very same generation finds the ludicrous depictions of gay people in films, equally funny. Lokesh, in an interview with DNA addressed another obstruction while making LGBT films- the funding. My son is gay is a crowd funded project and Lokesh talks about how people sympathized with the intention but didn’t want to become a part of the project.

“They (funders) would say, being part of a gay film, would damage their image.”

There are filmmakers like Onir and Sridhar Rangayan, who march on despite heavy criticisms and backlash. Sridhar’s film ‘The Pink Mirror’ remains banned in India – but it is controversies that make people speculate the grounds of such ban.

Film still/The Pink Mirror

As a society, we are programmed to view films on LGBT community only as a depiction of their lives – as it is – an oppressed, isolated, outcast life. Though films that depict reality is of supreme importance, in the realms of making people aware, it is also quite crucial that we start to desire for films that have characters belonging to the community, living an accustomed life, facing normal societal or personal conflicts and not discriminatory/oppressing ones.

Unfortunately, we are living in a society where “normalcy” has become very misunderstood. A significant amount of films that have dealt with LGBT topics has been made by one of the members of the community. This power to tell tales as they are, need to become more mainstream and commonplace and can only be achieved through creative collaborations and the will to be sensitive human beings. And because privilege is so rampant and loud-mouthed, it becomes rather distressing to observe that if at all audiences watch films on LGBT themes, they favour the appropriated ones made by a straight male, than a film made by a member of the community which is honest.

Onir, Rituparno Ghosh, Sridhar Rangayan and many more filmmakers, have simply opened the doors to this sphere of tabooed stories of love and intimacy. What will completely exterminate the discomfort in the air is the day when filmmakers, not belonging to the community, through the power of collaboration, make films that have an unprejudiced outlook to the lives of LGBT members, without the fascicle of appropriations.

It is true that not every film made can see its way through the wretched censor board, a classic example would be that of ‘Unfreedom‘ by Raj Amit Kumar. But one can only hope that the filmmakers would persevere and make good cinema, despite the caterwauling of this severely politicised CBFC.

How many of us, filmmakers, audiences alike, know that LGBT is in fact short for LGBTTQQIIA+? It includes, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, intergender and asexuals. An in-depth comprehension of all these terms and the ‘+’ in the end of the acronym shall give you the idea how fathomless sexuality really is. While we have only touched the first two to three letters and that too with an immense struggle coupled with extreme homophobia and transphobia, we still have a long way to go before we sketch the deeper untouched expressions.

While there is still so much confusion regarding what constitutes gender and what is one’s sexuality, and how it is not interchangeable, filmmakers hold supreme responsibility in being sensitive, empathetic and rational while attempting to make films on the said theme. And as complex as it may seem, the underlying principles of treating people respectfully and equally is a no-brainer and requires no special education!

(with inputs from Dolly Koshy)

Note: The intention of this article is not to appropriate any aspect of the LGBT community, their opinion or space. This is merely an observation made on the ways in which Indian cinema and the society in general, is ill perceiving members of the LGBT community and issues related to it.

Are sex and gender the same? Or are they different? Confused? Read our explainer here.

There's a lot more to LGBTQ+ than the rainbow filter in your profile picture. Read our comprehensive explainer here.

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