Gay Times June 09 - Issue 369
Forget the epic dance numbers and coy innuendos. Sally Howard finds that it’s lights, camera, and boy-on-boy action in today’s Bollywood…
The Miami air is as steamy as the gaze between the two men as they dance, bodies pressed together, to a throbbing Mambo beat. The two could be of Mediterranean extraction: sharp white tuxes contrasting with two-day stubble, coal-black eyes and cocoa skin. A dance documentary, perhaps: all foxtrots and simmering tantrums? Or porn, with an above-average investment in inter-coitus narrative? Nope, this is Bollywood, the world’s largest movie industry and – in popular belief at least – Hollywood’s conservative cousin, where Asian family values reign supreme. An industry that’s becoming a reflective glass for the breakneck changes afoot in Indian society. An industry that’s suddenly – improbably – smitten with the comi-tragic possibilities of man-meets-man.
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“Dostana indulged all the clichés in the book,” says Rajinder Dudrah, author of Bollywood: Sociology goes to the Movies (Sage Publications, £15.99). “It featured matching sailors’ outfits, campy interludes. Yet this was a watershed moment in Indian filmmaking. Here was a big-budget blockbuster shot in the US, featuring two of Bollywood’s most bankable young male stars, and the plot device is that they’re pretending to be gay. It would have been unthinkable a decade ago.”
Dostana (meaning friendship) was a landmark for representations of gay culture on the Indian silver screen. Inspired by the 1980 film Dostana – produced by legendary film magnate Yash Johar and starring Bollywood’s Richard Gere, Amitabh Bachchan – Dostana 2008 was an expression of the behind-the-scenes dynasties in Bollywood: produced by Johar’s son Karan and starring Amitabh’s six-packed offspring Abhishek Bachchan.
But this comic farce of two best friends warring for a woman’s heart was very different in the retelling. In Dostana 2008, Abhishek and dishy ex-model John Abraham pretend to be gay to secure a covetable apartment lease, recreating a plot tension expressed in 1980 via the men’s conflicting jobs (one a police officer, the other a solicitor bailing criminals).
“Dostana was powerful,” says Wendell Rodericks, a Goa-based fashion designer who’s one of the few high-profile out gay men in India. “But as much about the rumour that Johar and his production partner, director Tarun Mansukhani, are gay as anything to do with the plot.”
It’s a poorly kept secret that gay guys are well represented amongst Bollywood’s brightest and best. Rodericks cites a sea-change in the industry in the mid-1990s. “When Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen [Miss World 1994 and Miss Universe 1994] entered the film industry, they brought with them a fashion entourage – make-up artists and stylists who would never have worked in Bollywood before, many of whom were gay men.”
Into the noughties, this off-camera gay culture began to spread onto the big screen. In Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come), also a Karan Johar production, a character refers to the intimated gay relationship between two men with the line “there’s nothing wrong with any relationship, as far as love is involved”. And 2007’s Life In A Metro (starring Shilpa Shetty, of UK Big Brother fame) pushed boundaries for a rom-com when Rishi K, love interest to Shetty’s sister Shruti, admits he can’t pursue a relationship with Shruti because he prefers men.
Of course, it all sounds rather like the denuded, sugar-dusted take on “gay” offered up, in its Western incarnation, by the likes of Will & Grace. But train your perspective beyond the glossy patina of the mainstream and it’s a rather different picture. At the fringe of Indian film there are some remarkably sensitive depictions of gay life in India, notably 2005’s My Brother Nikhil – a tender portrait of a gay Goan swimmer and his death from Aids. In 2008 the Queer Media Collective (QMC), a think-tank of Indian journalists, launched the QMC awards, to celebrate fair and accurate portrayals of queer issues in Indian media and entertainment across print and film mediums.
“Bollywood is the most powerful medium for communication in India,” says QMC convenor Nitin Karani. “But too many films have used it to put out mocking views of the queer community. Dostana, for example, pushes that old reductive notion of all gay men being effete man-eaters. The few films that avoid doing this really stand out, and last year no film stood out more than our Bollywood award-winner, Honeymoon Travels.”
A tale of six honeymooning couples heading to Goa, Honeymoon Travels explores the tangled truths of human attraction. One character, a recently married NRI (non-resident Indian), the closeted Bunty, is ineluctably drawn to another groom, extrovert bisexual Vicky. “I enjoyed Dostana,” says Honeymoon Travels’ director Reema Kagti, “but these weren’t gay characters. I wanted to explore something more real.”
However, says Kagti, there are unique frustrations for any filmmaker hoping to depict realistic love stories on the Indian screen. “We’ve all seen film techniques such as a couple mistily moving in for a kiss before the camera pans to two birds, or an opening flower,” she says. “They’re clichés, but they show how strict censorship laws can be on the subcontinent. It’s one of the ironies of filmmaking here that rape can be shown, but consensual sex can’t. So you get the casting couch scene in Life In A Metro where a corrupt casting agent gets a young male acting wannabe to give him a blowjob. But a tender version of a sex act – homosexual, or heterosexual – is hard to come by.”
In some ways the development of gay presence in Indian film has followed a trajectory laid down by its celluloid cousins in the West. Early gay characters were the Shakespearean jesters, or sexless Kenneth Williams figures, often used as a comic sub-plot. “In the 70s and 80s, gay guys in Indian film were always the butt of the joke,” says Rajinder Dudrah. “And old habits die hard in this respect.”
Yet, Dudrah says that some of the earliest depictions of ambiguous sexuality in Indian film seem remarkably cutting edge by Western standards. “The first Bollywood film with any queer content was Raja Harishchandra in 1913, in which all of the women were played by men. Then, and now, it seems a little odd to us, but Bollywood has always investigated womanly men and manly women and all spectrums in-between. This idea that the Bollywood heroine is a demure, fragile thing is absolute codswallop.”
Visit a spa in any major city in India, where male spa-goers outnumber women, to understand this concept. Metrosexuality is in the water here, and pretty boys are 10 a penny on Bollywood billings. “That heterosexual Hollywood trope of a male hero having to be a manly man simply doesn’t translate to Bollywood,” agrees Dudrah.
Such Bollywood gender-bending was seen to delicious effect in a recent red-carpet incident involving 54-year-old Bollywood matriarch Rekha. The beauty of 1980s film, Rekha was rumoured to have had an affair with the then-married Amitabh Bachchan. Now mooted to be a lesbian, Rekha turned up to a recent awards ceremony with the woman she’s believed to be in a relationship with, the latter dressed in drag as a young Amitabh Bachchan. “Can you imagine?” says Dudrah. “It’s like Demi Moore turning up to the Oscars with a toy-girl got up as Bruce Willis.”
But for every such breathtaking moment in rising India, it seems there’s an equal and opposite repression. In June 2008, Delhi’s first gay pride attracted hundreds of marchers, who carried rainbow flags and danced to Bhangra beats. Yet the fact that many of the marchers wore masks to conceal their identity hinted at the bigger picture in a nation where heterosexual family structure is all and where the Penal Code (Section 377, instituted by the British) criminalises homosexuality as “unnatural sex”.
Undoubtedly though, things are changing. “More films are coming through that express our changing society,” says Nitin Karani. “Hopefully they’ll get closer to our realities as gay men and women, and non-judgemental about gay lifestyles.” After all, perhaps Bollywood has the last laugh. For all of its indulgence of gay stereotypes, Rajinder Dhundra remains unsure about Dostana’s plot. “In the end, boy gets girl,” he says. “But, you know, you are left very much wondering about the two male protagonists. Did they? Do they?”
Words: Sally Howard