Bollywood Movies Coming Out of the Closet

Rajkummar Rao and Manoj Bajpayee in Aligarh; Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in Sholay

By Khalid Mohamed

For starters the yuck news: The year has kicked off with Bollywood’s persistence with homophobia. Anything to extract guffaws and giggles from the audience.

Cut to Vir Das and Tusshar Kapoor in Mastizaade. They massage each other’s besocked toes vigorously, the sound effects leaving nothing for the imagination. The buddies starved of female company are, well, in the throes of bleep…bleep… Plus, there’s a podgy, limp-wristed male comedian going bananas (the dialogue’s double entendre) over Tusshar Kapoor.

Vir Das and Tusshar Kapoor in Mastizaade

In Kya Kool Hai Hum 3, there’s yet another buffoon who goes gaga over guys. Tusshar Kapoor’s on the scene again. What’s with him? More pathetic than funny.

And in Sanam Re, a humungously hunky Canadian sheriff strips, rolls his eyes and more to nail Pulkit Samrat.

Next, the more than welcome news: Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, which is to be released this month-end, is a sensitive and serious take on a real-life University professor who was witch-hunted for a gay relationship. This at a time when homosexuality wasn’t criminalised.
With Aligarh, clearly, same-gender sex comes out of the closet, proudly. A corrective which was imperative, given Bollywood’s hypocritical and mocking treatment of sexual preference.

Debatable Analyses

Over the decades, readings of B-town’s bromances and buddy movies, have elicited curious analyses. Absolutely inadvertently, there have been latent signs of male-to-male frisson. The one reading which took me totally by surprise (as it will, you) was advanced by Cyrus Mistry, the feted writer of the novels Radiance of Ashes and Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer — don’t gasp please — vis-à-vis Sholay.

Mistry’s essay on Sholay was published in Fulcrum, an excellent, serious-minded magazine, which alas went defunct since it couldn’t sustain itself in a market packed with glossies. According to Mistry, the bond between Jai and Veeru verged on the homo-erotic.

Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan in Sholay
The picturisation of the song Yeh dosti hum nahin chhodenge, Mistry felt, was unintentionally suggestive. Just the writer’s way of seeing the Dharmendra-Amitabh Bachchan bond, of course. However, Fulcrum, wasn’t the kind of magazine which would be read by Bollywoodwallahs. Mistry’s interpretation slid through the cracks. Or else there would have been hell to pay.

Filmmakers be they uncompromisingly artistic or rabidly commercial have consistently pooh-poohed the signs and meanings discovered by critics and theorists, However, if there’s freedom of expression, there’s freedom of interpretation.

Saif Ali Khan and Akshay Kumar in Main Khiladi Tu Anari

Startlingly, gay activist and journalist Ashok Row Kavi had located fortuitous chemistry between Akshay Kumar and Saif Ali Khan, the wacky heroes of Main Khiladi Tu Anari.

Similarly the alliance between the physically disabled friends in the black-and-white weepie Dosti, it was stated was “suggestive to the point of embarrassment.” Undoubtedly, that was furthest from the minds of the producers of Dosti — the squeaky clean Rajshri Pictures.

As it happened, quite quirkily a song lyric by Neeraj filmed on Manoj Kumar in Pehchan is quoted as a gay anthem. “Bas yehi apradh main har baat karta hoon,” it goes, “Aadmi hoon aadmi se pyaar karta hoon” (The only crime I commit every time is…that I am a man and I love men). Obviously, Neeraj was using ‘aadmi’ to mean “human being”, but over time the lyric has been lost in translation.

Hema Malini and Parveen Babi in Razia Sultan

Incidentally, unplanned sparks between Hema Malini and Parveen Babi had been detected in Razia Sultan, a reading which its director Kamal Amrohi neither accepted nor rebutted. Perhaps, he felt the very notion was absurd.

First Sightings and After

Sexual attraction between men, without any obfuscation, was first noticed in Badnaam Basti (1971). The arthouse film’s black-and-white print may be fungused by now or it could be languishing in the archives. As for Adhura (1995), an unconventional bid to explore the attraction between Irrfan Khan and art gallerist Ashish Balram Nagpal (who also directed), the 90-minuter has stayed in the vaults right to this day and age. Irrfan Khan’s portrayal of a married man who’s in a secret male liaison in Mira Nair’s short film Migration — to create AIDS awareness — has been scarcely seen.

Saqib Salim and Randeep Hooda in Ajeeb Daastan Hai Yeh from Bombay Talkies

Steadily with the onset of the new millennium, films on same-gender equations have been sneaking out of the closet. Karan Johar’s segment Ajeeb Daastan Hai Yeh for the anthology tribute — Bombay Talkies — by four directors to the Centenary Year of Indian Cinema, was a sharp focused look at the subject, a first from a Bollywood A-lister.

Without much ado, the screenplay looked into a loveless marriage interrupted by a male ‘woh’, a close-up of bisexuality which hasn’t yet been delved into by mainstream entertainment. And what do you know? Johar’s segment was praised as the one most-attuned-to-the-times in the anthology whose other contributors comprised Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Bannerjee and Anurag Kashyap.

Saif Ali Khan and Shah Rukh Khan in a publicity still from Kal Ho Na Ho
The Karan Johar-produced Kal Ho Naa Ho (with overtly gay repartee between Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan) and Dostana (inspired by Cage aux Folles) were indicators of the much-needed permissiveness to come. Designed as a laugh-raiser set in Miami, Dostana advanced a strongly-worded passage of dialogue addressed to a mother about how any son’s sexual preference should be regarded as a natural instinct, and not as sexually deviant behaviour.

Onir’s My Brother Nikhil and I Am, have persuasively argued that there’s no point in being in a denial mode about same-gender sexual relationships. To a lesser impactful degree, Sunil Sharma’s Dunno Y..Jaane Kyu, playwright Mahesh Dattani’s Mango Souffle and Bomgay have dealt with gay characters, without reducing them to caricatures exemplified by cross-dresser Bobby Darling. Or the punk weirdo enacted by Anupam Kher in Rahul Rawail’s Mast Kalandar and then as a gay stereotype in David Dhawan’s utterly forgettable Dulhania Hum Le Jayenge.

Lamentably, the sensation-spewing Madhur Bhandarkar has used gay encounters exploitatively. Case in point: Page 3 which depicts consensual sex between males as a career-boosting opportunity. Moreoever, in Bhandarkar’s Heroine, a wine-soaked dalliance assumes ridiculous proportions. The morning after, Shahana Goswami darts a Cheshire cat grin at Kareena Kapoor to issue a clarification, “Come on, I’m not a lesbian.” Quite.

Amrita Arora and Isha Koppikar in a publicity still from Girlfriend

About the only lesbian relationship which has rung true is Deepa Mehta’s Fire, the performances by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das investing restraint and conviction to the progressive theme. By contrast Karan Razdan’s sleazefest Girlfriend achieved notoriety because of right-wing protests. Glass window panes, displaying Isha Koppikar and Amrita Arora in a clinch at Mumbai’s New Empire cinema were smashed, but the controversy merely boosted the tickets sales

All factors considered, it would have seemed that Bollywood still has to move to the next level. That has been taken, without any misstep by Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh.

Beyond shadow of doubt, then, Cyrus Mistry and the legion of critics and analysts, needn’t look for hidden meanings any more.

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter.)

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