Music, dance, color, compelling stories and drama: Welcome to the world of the Indian film industry.
With the production of more than 1,500 films every year, the industry is the largest in the world. Movies like “Dangal,” a 2016 film about wresting, impacted Indian society’s views towards girls. In a country with limited awareness of Tourette’s syndrome, the 2018 film “Hichki,” which means “hiccup” in Hindi, successfully sensitized audiences.
But the Indian film industry before 2015 failed to highlight an integral part of Indian culture: The LGBTQ and intersex community.
The 1971 movie “Badnam Basti,” which means “Infamous Neighborhood” in Hindi was dubbed as India’s first gay film. The movie disappeared into oblivion soon after its release, and the 35 mm film print was only recently discovered in a Berlin archive. The Central Board of Film Certification, a film certification body under the Indian government’s control, in 1971 certified the film as A-rated, meaning for adults only. According to Hari Om Kapoor, the son of “Badnam Basti” director Prem Kapoor, the film never explicitly showed homosexuality but implied it through scenes.
When India was going through a tumultuous time in 2004, and the political landscape was changing, “Girl Friend” appeared on large screens.
Although it was not the first lesbian feature film, it portrayed a lesbian character as evil and stereotypical. The film explored a love triangle between two girls’ best friends and a man. One girl — Tanya, who played by one Bollywood’s biggest stars, Isha Koppikhar, soon realizes she is in love with her best friend, Sapna, who Amrita Arora plays. But Sapna is in love with a man, Rahul, played by Ashish Chaudhary. When Rahul realizes that Tanya is too close to Sapna, making him uncomfortable, he vindicates Tanya for the troubled relationship. The film then ends with the gruesome murder of Tanya by Rahul and Sapna, portraying Tanya and Rahul as heroes, and a lesbian character, Tanya, ends up becoming evil. This film received poor reviews from film critics.
“Indian cinema has played an important role in conditioning the mindsets of Indians of all backgrounds, and while the recent it has made great leaps in the types of cinema being attempted, most Hindi films still thrive on the offensive and stereotypical portrayal of the non-binary gender characters,” said Celina Jaitly, a former Miss India and one of the most popular Indian actresses.
Jaitly, through her performance in various big films, won millions of hearts in India and globally. Her activism in India for LGBTQ and intersex equal rights attracted the endorsement of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, which in 2013 made her an Equality Champion. Jaitly has supported the U.N. Free and Equal campaign to counter homophobia and transphobia.
“I have always wondered as an actor, why a gay or a trans person is constantly seen as outside the bounds of ‘normal.’ Ironically, despite the rampant transphobia, one particular trope is extremely popular in Bollywood, even after so many years, and that is cross-dressing men,” she told the Washington Blade. “Trans people are abnormal but cis men in drag are applauded. Every time a ‘hero’ dresses in drag it is considered to be iconic piece of performance, it’s always been difficult to wrap my head around that one. Casting trans and gay people in trans roles is still a challenge as cisgender actors consider it as a loss of opportunity to win awards, and producers/directors would rather cast cis actors who pull in an audience rather than a trans or a gay actor who pulls in the character.”
Jaitly, who have worked in the Indian film industry for more than a decade, appeared in “Seasons Greeting” last year in which a trans person is the lead actress.
Jaitly said she has fought for LGBTQ and intersex rights in India for years, and the reason for which she agreed to work in “Seasons Greeting” is that the director Ramkamal Mukherjee cast a trans woman for the first time in a trans lead film. Jaitly told the Blade that she believes in the importance of trans/gay cast in a trans/gay role, and only they can and should portray and become the beacons of reflections of the agonies and ecstasies of their journeys no matter what the script.
“Filmmakers hold supreme responsibility in being sensitive, empathetic, and rational while attempting to make films on the said theme,” said Jaitly. “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. Cinema like literature is the reflection of society and not only does it influence the society but has great impact on successive generations.”
In 2008, the star-studded romantic comedy film “Dostana,” which means “friendship” in Hindi, also attracted criticism and praise for depicting a gay couple.
Hollywood sensation Priyanka Chopra played a central role, with megastars like John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan. The film explores the world of two men living in Miami who pretend to be a gay couple so they can live with a charming girl (Chopra), and they both eventually fall in love with her. Many critics argued that the film mocked LGBTQ and intersex people and making fun of the serious subject. But some critics also said that the presence of megastars like Chopra helps make audiences feel comfortable about the issue.
The Blade reached out to Chopra for a comment, but the actress did not respond.
With the advent of cheaper mobile data in India after 2015, more people are aware of LGBTQ and intersex people, and the Indian film industry is making LGBTQ and intersex-based films more than ever.
Maanvi Gagroo, a prominent Indian actress, in an email to the Blade said that there was hardly if any, LGBTQ and intersex representation in Bollywood for the longest time. And whatever little there was, was almost always comedic. Gagroo believes comedy can be a great tool for social change.
“it was always the manner or the nature of the humor that was problematic for me. Often the jokes were at the cost of the gay/queer characters, and audiences were meant to laugh AT them rather than WITH them. These characters never had any sort of redemption, no arc and often created and/or perpetuated outlandish, garish stereotypes!” said Gagroo. “There is hope though. I see makers becoming much more sensitive towards the community. And this change is parallel in society as well. I mean we only decriminalized homosexuality a few years ago. Now whether Bollywood is mirroring society or vice versa, I can’t comment but the change is positive for sure.”
Gagroo’s first LGBTQ and intersex film was “377 AbNormal,” is based on the Indian Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that decriminalized homosexuality. The film explored the five people who challenged Section 377, a colonial-era law that criminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations.
“‘377 AbNormal’ was actually very educational for me. While I pride myself as an ally, I was completely ignorant about the journey of the movement and what led to the monumental verdict of 2018. I knew I had to be a part of the film from the time I first heard the concept,” said Gagroo. “Again, that was another film where the director, Faruk Kabir, was extremely cautious of not only getting the film factually right but also portraying the entire process sensitively. We would often choke up and would have to stop shooting because all of us would get so emotional.”
“In terms of preparation, I didn’t need to work on sensitizing myself on the topic,” added Gagroo “I was there. I was ready to tell that story and I felt I had to do it well without minimizing anyone or anything related to the film.”
Although “377 AbNormal” was the first LGBTQ and intersex film for Gagroo, it was not the last.
Gagroo in 2020 appeared in “Subh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan,” a film that Hitesh Kewalya directed.
The film explores the story of a gay couple who have trouble convincing their parents to accept their relationship. The film generated a buzz at the box office. While talking about the film, Gagroo, who also starred in it alongside megastars like Ayushmann Khurrana, Jitendra Kumar, veteran actress Nina Gupta, and Gajraj Rao, said that the film came with empathy and a respect and that the intent of the film is clear.
“Our director, Hitesh Kewalya, was very clear right from the start, that he didn’t wish to delve into the gruesome hardships that the gay community is subjected to, but aim to normalize a lot of the conversation around it,” said Gagroo. “It dealt with so many different social issues even beyond LGBTQ. Even while shooting you could see the cast and crew evolving and their growing comfort with the topic was palpable.”
While talking with Blade, Kewalya said that things changed, and people became more aware of the issue, which led to the making of “Subh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan.” He argued the Section 377’s abolition made it possible to make such films. Kewalya also noted that Indian society was already talking about the issue, so making such a film became easy.
“It was challenging because there was no precedent to it. In a commercial film like this, where a top star is headlining the film, and a top production house is backing it, and all the great actors backing it,” said Kewalya. “It was also challenging because it is a sensitive topic in our society. Even the LGBTQ community was never happy with the kind of representation that was happening in the cinema.”
According to Variety, India produces films in staggering 41 languages, mostly regional. In 2017, Lokesh Kumar released “My Son is Gay,” a Tamil language film. The story revolves around a school principal and her only son. The mother-son duo shares a strong bond, and the mother soon finds out the hard truth that her only son is gay, which leads to a drastic change in her life.
“I am glad many people supported and showered a lotta love for our little indie feature film ‘My Son is Gay.’ I have attended an LGBTQ film festival once, where I have seen many queer films across the world and also got to meet many community members. That’s when I realized there are only very few Tamil films which showcased queer characters and there are no full-length gay-themed films as such,” said Kumar. “I really felt the need to tell the stories like ‘My Son is Gay.’ So, I have decided to meet LGBTQ members and their parents and did my research, wrote the story which is based on many real incidents. It wasn’t an easy journey at all, as there were very less support from people around me considering the theme of the film. Many actors and technicians were hesitant to involve. There weren’t many producers who wanted to back this project. However, producer Anil Saxena, an Indian citizen who lives abroad, Cyril D’souza and actor Anupama Kumar understood the importance of this story and they backed me. Finding the right cast and making the cast, crew understands the importance of such stories and making them confident and comfortable to play the characters was really a challenge. Am glad I didn’t give up.”
While LGBTQ and intersex films are doing well in India and globally, in 2022, another film, Junglee Pictures’ “Badhaai Do,” generated a buzz among the masses. Star-studded films with casts like Rajkummar Rao, actress Bhumi Pednekar, Sheeba Chaddha and Chuma Darang helped the film highlight the LGBTQ and intersex issues in India. The film tells the story of a gay cop who enters into a sham marriage with a lesbian teacher to convince their family that they are living a normal life.
“The films that came before us had already placed the LGBTQIA+ issues and concerns in the mainstream space. Not having the burden of explaining an ‘issue’ was liberating for us as we could focus on aspects of representation while negotiating with our own heteronormative conditioning without worrying about having articulate and politically correct sounding characters,” said “Badhaai Do” director Harshavardhan Kulkarni. “It helped us locate the film in familiar realities of caste, class, and patriarchal family units. I feel that too often, we tend to gloss over the fact that sexuality is only one aspect of our being, and it exists within the many other aspects which govern daily life in large parts of our country. I feel that we need to do more to understand and educate ourselves about this. Until we do that, our understanding of the real-world problems faced by the LGBTQIA+ community will remain limited.”
In recent years, the Indian film industry has released some critical films that show real-world issues of the Indian LGBTQ and intersex community. Films like “Badhaai Do,” “Subh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan” and many more have not only created an impact on Indian society but also started the discussion.
Samantha Ruth Prabhu, an Indian film star who won millions of hearts across India and numerous awards for her contribution to Indian cinema, told the Blade that Indian movies and the film industry are constantly evolving.
“I do believe we have a long way to go before mainstream films refrain from crudity, insensitive humor and homophobia completely,” said Prabhu. “I am extremely proud of having been a part of a path breaking and ambitious film like ‘Super Deluxe.’ The film tied many intricate stories to an overarching philosophy, so I wouldn’t say it was only about a transgender person. The characters portrayed by me and Mr. Vijay Sethupathy (an actor who appeared in ‘Super Deluxe’ with Prabhu) were similar in that they both exhibited their own brand of bravery.”
Prabhu has joined the cast for her next LGBTQ and intersex film, Arrangements of Love. Wales-based BAFTA-winning director Philip John is also joining the team as director. The film will revolve around an Indian man in Wales who visits his homeland to find his estranged father. Prabhu will be playing a bisexual detective who becomes part of the search.
“The industry is evolving-slowly but surely. There was a time when people were forced to tuck away a very real part of themselves in the way they told their stories, in a bid to conform. That thankfully has changed,” said Prabhu. “Directors and scriptwriters are being more real, and the audience is here and ready for it!”
Ankush Kumar (Mohit) is a freelance reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion.
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