With Aligarh and Kapoor & Sons being nearly universally lauded, it would seem that the era of the gay man in Bollywood has finally arrived. After being caricatured, pushed into the shadows, or plain ignored, the gay man (and so far it has largely been only the man) is now finally making an appearance as the protagonist.
It’s taken a good 20 years for us to reach here. Fire was released in 1996, and that film, so ahead of its times, heralded a new grammar for the gay Indian film. In some ways, Fire achieved what Bollywood has been unable to in the years since. By setting its love story smack in the middle of heterosexual family dynamics and by first questioning and then wholly incinerating those dynamics, Fire was more than a gay film. Its aesthetic was deeply and politically queer.
In the interim, the conversation around gay issues has entered our living rooms. With the Supreme Court admitting the curative petition on its December 2013 judgement that recriminalised homosexuality, hopes for an egalitarian outcome are high. That judgement came on the back of the Delhi High Court judgement of 2009 that struck down Section 377. Taken together, these judgements elicited a much-needed debate on the urgency of ushering equal rights.
Coterminous with this has been a rising trend to shift gay storylines from the indie circuit (the films of Onir, for instance) to the heart of mainstream Bollywood. This year, for example, two films that substantially address homosexuality have been released. Aligarh, about the gay Aligarh Muslim University professor Ramchandra Siras, recounts the trial and the subsequent death by (alleged) suicide of a man who was hounded for his sexuality.
The other film, Kapoor & Sons, showcases an upper middle class man who returns home from the United Kingdom for a private family affair and uses the opportunity to come out to his family.
Both films, in spite of being set in very different contexts, work studiously to further the cause of gay rights. In Aligarh, we see a small-town man who is uncomfortable with the attention his case (invasion of privacy emerging out of video-recording a homosexual act) has garnered. In Kapoor & Sons, the battles are more private but no less angst-ridden for that. In both movies, the sheer force of prejudice and how it is internalised, within families and societies is brought out remarkably.
Both films subconsciously tip their hat to Fire, the first, and the most bruising, example of how resolutely homosexual love can threaten heterosexual mores. Fire was completely different in that not only was it about lesbianism (a subject matter rarely broached sensitively even in the new Bollywood), it was also a stark attack on patriarchy and the hypocrisies of the Indian middle class. Its power lay in questioning the very basis of the Indian family, something that none of the latest films emerging from Bollywood do.
The films also chart the changing nature of coming out. In Fire, Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das) find love in a domestic setting, a love that is occasioned by their coming together via their respective heterosexual marriages to two brothers. Radha’s husband is living the life of an ascetic and has given up on sex. Sita’s has a girlfriend and does not make time for her (Sita).
Radha and Sita are forced to come out when they are discovered together by their family. The film leaves the delicate point of whether they are homosexual hanging. While it is Sita who makes the first move (she lands a kiss on Radha’s lips), it is moot whether the women would have found love if they had been in happy marriages.
In Aligarh, as in Fire, the coming out is not natural but forced by external circumstances. The events of the film are set in motion by the recording of a sex act between Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) and another man. When forced into the limelight like this, Siras seems chary of being labelled “gay”, and harbours what Jai Arjun Singh called in Mint a “provincial conservatism”.
The word “gay” is missing from Kapoor & Sons too, but it would be incorrect to put this down to a deliberate censoring. The world of Kapoor & Sons seems at first to be the most amenable to coming out. These are upper middle class people who live abroad and make careers in such professions of the mind as writing. And yet, such is homosexuality – so different, so intrinsic, so unidentifiable, unlike other markers of difference – that when the time comes to reveal his secret, Rahul is as angst-ridden as the “provincial” professor of Aligarh.
Rahul (Fawad Khan) has made a successful life in the United Kingdom, where he has a boyfriend. We don’t know if he is in a civil partnership, which the UK allows for same-sex couples, or if the couple leads a more “queer” life. Those details are elided because the film derives its thrust from Rahul’s aching need to come out to his family in India.
As an aside, Kapoor & Sons marks a significant shift for Dharma Productions, whose films, while being the only ones from a major production house to regularly include homosexual characters, have shied away from meaningful representations. From Dostana to Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya, the gay men in Dharma films have done little more than serve the cause of visibility, and it is debatable whether the visibility they have bestowed has helped matters. Kapoor & Sons is perhaps the first film from the stable that takes the conversation forward.
It is worth pondering if the narrative focus on coming out is a result of the dominant social attitudes towards homosexuality, which find ready support in the law. If being gay itself is such an issue, it is little wonder that our filmmakers focus on the contours of revealing that information to the world.
For this reason, both Aligarh and Kapoor & Sons, for all their blessed egalitarianism, are also conservative in that they tackle homosexuality as something that needs to be, well, tackled. The cinematic treatment revolves around the difference that alternative sexuality bestows and the very real consequences of that difference. Homosexuality is not what it is, but what it can lead to, how it can disturb the stable currents of heterosexual society.
How long before gayness is introduced just “by the way” in Hindi films? It can be argued that the current gay cinema is preparing the ground for that eventuality by shifting away from visibility to representation. As more LGBT stories get shown, the expectation is that these stories will give way to thoroughly gay cinema. Social change should help, which in turn will be hastened by legal sanction. Movements in cinema, as in society, progress in fits and starts. On current evidence, we should have hope.