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The Big Myth

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From its ambivalent portrayal of gay characters on screen to an almost incredulous approach toward alternate sexuality, Bollywood often belittles the cause of sexual equality.

Biographies in India, especially of the high and mighty of Bollywood, brew more than passing public interest. Little surprise therefore when the biggest beholder of tinsel towns’ secrets and stories, Karan Johar came out with his biography, that it created more than just a storm in the tea (or ‘Koffee,’ if you please) cup. A compelling point of intrigue amongst his countless engaging stories involving superstars was whether Johar would put an end to speculations about his own sexuality. While Johar did so in a way, but not without opening another can of worms — on how Indian society views homosexuality in the most abaft manner.

In his biography, An Unsuitable Boy, Johar writes: “Everybody knows what my sexual orientation is. I don’t need to scream it out. If I need to spell it out, I won’t only because I live in a country where I could possibly be jailed for saying this.” Almost expressing his helplessness to tackle the issue head-on he adds: “The reason I don’t say it out aloud is simply that I don’t want to be dealing with the FIRs. I’m very sorry. I have a job, I have a commitment to my company, to my people who work for me; there are over a hundred people that I’m answerable to. I’m not going to sit in the courts because of ridiculous, completely bigoted individuals who have no education, no intelligence.”

While this may sound very plausible, even endearing, what this not-so-self-proclaimed poster boy of homosexuality in India is missing is a vital truth — that his own monumental podium of telling both real and escapist stories, Bollywood, has for ages shown a rather inverted attitude toward alternate sexual identities. It’s a shame that the world’s largest movie producer has yet to build a body of work that shows the reality of homosexuality in a truthful and sensitive manner.

Save for precious exceptions, such as Deepa Mehta’s Fire, which tried to tackle an even trickier subject of lesbianism in 1998, to emotional portrayals by Onir (Anirbar Dhar) in I Am and My Brother Nikhil, Bollywood prefers to keep LGBT communities in the closet. When it comes to mainstream blockbusters, it would be no exaggeration to say that Bollywood harbors an almost Victorian prudishness toward homosexuality.

Johar has attempted to bring the veiled reality on the big screen, but only tepidly. He may have broken new ground with his recent production Kapoor & Sons, showcasing one of the lead characters as gay. The fact that the role, played by Fawad Khan, was reportedly rejected by six of Indian cinemas’ big stars, is reflection of the extent of the homophobia in Bollywood. Johar himself was quoted as saying that he thought of changing the storyline until Pakistani actor Fawad Khan agreed to the role. 

While some may argue that the gay character in the film is not the lead, the fact that Johar moved ahead with a raunchy comedy like Dostana in 2008 to bring the gay relationship in focus for a more mature version is still welcome relief. 

Produced by Johar in 2008, Dostana tells the story of two men played by John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan pretending to be gay. The fact that the protagonists are not gay, but “real men” in actuality, seemed like an unsure, half baked attempt to test the waters on whether a gay hero would work in Bollywood. The movie with its crude, slapstick jokes mocking gay men and the lead actors cringing at the thought of being actually gay, in a way affirmed that being gay is not a desirable trait in contemporary India. 

The bitter truth remains that while Johar’s Archie comics’ style love stories of the late 1990s, his clichéd family dramas of the noughties, to the somewhat sappy, Gen Y targeted college romances, stirred an entire generation to feel the pulse of emotions he portrays; but his less than finely etched out gay characters did little to bring the same attention toward alternate sexuality. If in 2013 he brought the topic of sexuality with some seriousness in Bombay Talkies, where two closet gay men are encouraged to come out in open, his 2014 movie, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya, showed actor Sidharth Shukla play a masculine looking gay man. Although the character was not stereotypically effeminate yet gay, the character had no major role to play or portray in the story line. It will be some time before Bollywood is ready to present us with a character who is gay, has substance and forms the crucial (lead preferably) part of a storyline.

While the portrayal of alternate sexuality in Bollywood has made an occasional recurrent appearance, the treatment has usually been stereotypical. In Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion (2008) gay characters were critical to the plot, but it had caricaturist representation of a gay man gesturing more with his hands than his dialogues, while another gay designer in the movie enters into a contract marriage to garb his sexual identity. Sad truths, but told without an attempt to break the taboos. In Mastizaade, Suresh Menon plays a badly executed, poorly performed and hugely exaggerated gay character. 

Often filmmakers add gay characters to the movie for cheap thrills. But then in a country where the most viewed comic shows on TV have men dressed as women to induce funniness, what can one expect. Most mainstream movies have steered clear of gay characters with dimensional roles. Movies, such as Kal Ho Na Ho, even use the gay connection as a comic relief to the plot. 

Filmmakers have opted to be pragmatic, in deference to the box office. But the confused confrontation of sexuality extends from the reel to the real. Johar’s very own chi-chi circle of friends may be doing a lot more disservice to his “alternate” individuality than he deserves. In the so-called progressive sections of Indian society, if coming as guests dressed in everything from Guccis to Puccis on Karan’s popular talk show and passing suggestive snide remarks on his sexuality, while giggling like high schoolers on their smart aleck comments, is how we handle such serious issues, then well, we may have lost the battle even before we began. 

While Karan and his ilk may cry hoarse about the need to build sensitivity, when those that confused youth look to answers for their “deviations” reduce the issue to jocular tomfoolery, the situation looks more grim than gay (ok, bad pun). 

When actress turned author Twinkle Khanna almost nonchalantly remarked on a Koffee With Karan episode that Karan may have to go to the jail for 377 days or when choreographer Farah Khan almost casually blurted that Karan couldn’t be the sister she always wanted, the wisecracks may be funny, but certainly not humorous.

The tone and the modality of the guests with suggestive comments on Karan’s sexual status in a wit-warped manner, are licenses to laugh or mock someone who is gay or different.

While almost certainly this was not the motive of any of the guests, the fact that they are clueless on how to confront sexuality makes a gender sensitive society seems a distant possibility. 

But then there may be some hope with movies such as Aligarh released last year starring Manoj Bajpayee in an well-etched out role of a gay professor, played with such finesse that it received a standing ovation at international film festivals. It is truths such as these that need to be told. 

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Bollywood | Arts & Entertainment | April 2017

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