Hitesh Kewalaya’s February 21 release Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is a path-breaking entry in Indian queer cinema because not only are its protagonists openly gay, but one of them is played by a top male Hindi cinema star at the moment, Ayushmann Khurrana.

Reaching this point was not easy, as queer characters have been negatively and comically stereotyped in film after film for decades. Filmmakers who tried changing the status quo before Kewalya had to battle several roadblocks to bring LGBTQ-themed stories to the screen.

Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1998) was released, withdrawn from exhibition, and re-released, amidst vandalism of theatres and public protests across several states. Seminal queer films like My Brother Nikhil (2005) did not find takers among distributors for months, while I Am and Margarita with a Straw (2015) were subjected to censorship before seeing the light of the day. The Malayalam film Ka Bodyscapes was released only after homosexuality was decriminalised in 2018, while the film had been finished and sent to be certified two-and-a-half years before.

We spoke to four filmmakers – Onir, Shonali Bose, Abhishek Chaubey, and Hansal Mehta – who shared their experience of making queer films at a less comfortable time, getting them released, and the changes they have witnessed in the mainstream’s acceptance of such films over the years.

Onir, My Brother Nikhil (2005), I Am (2011)

“At the time of My Brother Nikhil’s release, people spoke of homosexuality in an extremely hush-hush way. NGOs such as Humsafar Trust worked with LGBT people under the garb of AIDS. So perhaps that’s why the chatter around My Brother Nikhil was more AIDS-centric, but I distinctly remember that Sanjay Suri and Purab Kohli were asked about playing gay characters in almost every second interview.

No major studio or distributor was willing to work with us. After the film travelled to several international festivals, where it won accolades, Yash Raj Films stepped in as distributor. And it is for them that we got six weeks in the theatre. Luckily, our film had a U certificate, so it got telecast on Sony and the viewership was high. I heard of people moving out of the theatre once they realised the characters are gay, but most were overwhelmingly moved. The idea wasn’t to shock or scandalise audiences anyway, but to create dialogue and awareness, which is why the community cherishes the film.

It is surprising that over the years, working with the censor board kept getting tougher. It was easiest to get My Brother Nikhil certified. The film was based on a real person, but we had to put up a disclaimer that the story is fictitious, that’s it. With the anthology I Am, the board asked us to cut 21 minutes out of 24 minutes of the short film Omar. After six months, we just had to cut two-and-a-half minutes. At the time, the Delhi High Court struck down portions of Section 377, which worked in our favour. But still, the film was delayed for release because of censor-related troubles. I remember they had a problem even with two guys looking at each other romantically.

My Brother Nikhil (2005).

With Shab, we struggled for the longest time. We had to appeal to the tribunal to get it released. I remember one CBFC member saying wow, you have shown these gay guys as normal, you can’t figure they are gay from their mannerisms. It was basically telling an openly gay filmmaker that you are abnormal. Another guy said, why not make the gay couple friends or brothers?

Every time I tried making a film bolder, the CBFC got more conservative. Such an erotic and bold Fire was out in 1998, and then today an Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga has all my support but it is sanitised. I had a gay couple kiss in I Am, but where’s the love in the kiss in Shubh Mangal Zyaada Savdhaan? Breaking boundaries is not about just showing two gay people kissing, but there has to be love and romance.

The good thing is that the unconstitutionality of Section 377 has now legally empowered filmmakers to make bolder films. It is important that a film like Shubh Mangal Zyaada Savdhaan works at the box office, because what gets made in Bollywood largely depends on what works financially, so if this does, that’s great.

I Am (2011).

The film industry never really celebrated queer people. Once the decriminalisation of homosexuality happened in 2018, did the film industry cheer for it? No. With Kapoor & Sons, they couldn’t get a single Indian actor to agree to play a gay man, and Fawad Khan had to fly down from Pakistan to do the role. Dostana is said to have brought the conversation to the dining table, but it did more harm than good. It made a mockery of gay people. The word became a slur, as people would tell people, dostana mat kar yaar.

I want more openly queer filmmakers, gays and lesbians, make films about their lives. Replacing a female character with a male character and calling it a queer film is not representative enough. Just as female filmmakers come with a certain gaze, so do queer filmmakers.”

Shonali Bose, Margarita with a Straw (2015)

“Queer films getting made and released and working at the box-office has nothing to do with the legality and illegality of homosexuality. What matters is the mindset of the people, and the truth is that people are, by and large, still homophobic, though things have changed for the better definitely than 20 years ago. Theatres were burned during the release of Fire, and Margarita with a Straw was released and it did fairly well at the urban centres with zero protests. And today you have a star like Ayushmann Khurrana playing a homosexual man in a film, which is great.

With Margarita with a Straw, getting it made was bit of a problem. When Viacom18 greenlit the film, the main character was only disabled but not gay. Now, homosexuality was legal at the time, but in 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the judgement and declared homosexuality criminal again. I was outraged, and I decided the character should be gay. Then Viacom18 said the audience wouldn’t want to see a character who’s disabled plus gay, so they said they’d withdraw funding. I said, just arrange for 50% of the money, and I will find the rest, which they agreed to. That’s how the film was made.

Then came the censor board. They wanted a huge number of cuts. I remember at the censor board office, I went to the bathroom and began crying. A censor board member then walked out from the bathroom, and told me, your film is great, but our hands are tied by the government, so we have to make the cuts. She asked me to appeal to the higher authorities to get the film cleared, which we did, and thus Margarita with a Straw was released.

Of course, the protagonist’s sexuality wasn’t a part of the promotional campaign. More or less, most audiences were moved by the film, but I also know that more people saw it on Netflix than they did in theatres. Many were put off by the fact that the heroine is both gay and disabled, and Viacom18 wasn’t actually wrong.”

Margartia with a Straw (2015).

Hansal Mehta, Aligarh (2015)

“Making Aligarh wasn’t as difficult as it was to get it released. The mayor of Aligarh wanted the film banned in the city, and our entire promotional campaign got jeopardised because the censor board certified our trailer as fit only for adults, which meant the trailer could only play with adult films or get a late-night slot on television. The moment we sent out our first video promos, we were told point blank that homosexuality is an adult topic.

But the film was released without any major cuts, and it went on to become an important film that was right at the centre of the debate around the decriminalisation of homosexuality. What is disappointing is how the film was treated long after it was out: an extremely mutilated version was released on Zee5. Half the film has been chopped up, and the word homosexuality has been beeped at several points.

Streaming platforms are our archives today for posterity. That is where people have access to our work after the end of their theatrical life. Things like this make you question whether people don’t want to see mature cinema or if it is the gatekeepers and exhibitors who are paranoid about what the people would want to see.

But I want to look at the positives. I got a lot of love from the LGBTQ community for Aligarh. Sometimes they stop me on the streets randomly and give me a hug. A few of them worked below market price for me in my subsequent films as gratitude for making Aligarh.”

Aligarh (2015).

Abhishek Chaubey, Dedh Ishqiya (2014)

“Making and releasing Dedh Ishqiya wasn’t a problem. Either the CBFC didn’t get that Begum and Muniya were lesbians and they let it pass, or they got it and didn’t care. What they had an issue with were the bad words.

The film was indeed based on Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf, but none of us mentioned it during marketing and promotion, not out of fear, but we didn’t want to make the third act public and let the fun go away. Honestly, if we had said it out loud, perhaps the audiences would increase. Not revealing was a purely creative decision. And Lihaaf is a story where the homosexuality is alluded to, so that’s how we kept it in the film. There’s only so much one can do in a genre film, so we kept it subtle.

Dedh Ishqiya is essentially a comedy caper, but its narrative core is the relationship between Begum and Muniya, so when people call it a queer film, I actually agree. That we could smuggle something like that through a genre film is great.”

Huma Qureshi and Madhuri Dixit in Dedh Ishqiya (2014). Courtesy Shemaroo Entertainment/VB Pictures

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‘Kapoor & Sons’, ‘Aligarh’ and the debt they owe to ‘Fire’