Gay relationships still a gray area in India — but not for Bollywood

While the West has become more accepting of same-sex relationships, the concept is still frowned upon in India. Nonetheless, the creative minds of Bollywood are not easily daunted. Some Indian filmmakers have made their mark by exploring gay and lesbian relationships, and their movies have created a new breed of viewers, who have wholeheartedly accepted this community.  

Pakistani actor Fawad Khan’s portrayal of a gay man in the film Kapoor & Sons has won many positive reviews. However, Karan Johar, the film producer, has revealed in an interview that there was a point when they were stuck because top actors, including Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Shahid Kapoor, Aditya Roy Kapoor and Farhan Akhtar, refused to do that role.

While gay relationships continue to be illegal in India and many actors may have second thoughts about playing such roles, it is phenomenal that Bollywood has not shied away from dealing with the subject.

In fact, it is commendable that moving away from western social perceptions, Indian filmmakers have been able to deal with the issue of gay relationships in the most sensitive manner within the Indian context.

Starting with the cult film ‘Fire’ that showed the path to Indian cinema, I list five must-watch films that have a realistic take on gay relationships.

Fire

Released exactly 20 years ago in 1996, Fire was initially criticized for its portrayal of a same-sex relationship that converts two straight women into lesbians. But director Deepa Mehta’s script was so strong that Fire, till date, continues to be a path-breaking film.

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A still from the movie ‘Fire’.

Two women played by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, married in the same home to two brothers, develop an emotional dependence and bond because their relationship with their respective husbands is strained. While one brother chooses celibacy and expects his wife to follow his ways, the other has a mistress.

The inevitability of the emotional bond between the two women turning into a physical one has been brilliantly portrayed by Mehta.

Needless to say, the film has a tragic ending.

My Brother Nikhil

Released in 2005, this beautiful film is about a gay swimming champion who finds out he is HIV+. His father immediately asks him to leave home and friends shut their door on his face but his sister stands by him and so does his partner.

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A still from the movie ‘My Brother Nikhil.’

The focus of the film is the protagonist’s social and physical struggle with the disease especially at a time (1987-1994) when there was zero AIDS awareness in India. He was even quarantined for days by health officials in Goa for contracting the virus. The film is based on the real-life experiences of an AIDS awareness activist Dominic D’Souza.

In the midst of this, the portrayal of gay relationship fits in seamlessly in the storyline. There are no jarring dialogues or over-the-top emotional scenes. One particular scene in which the protagonist doubts his partner’s fidelity is particularly bold and sensitive. The main role was played by Sanjay Suri, actress Juhi Chawla plays his sister, and Purav Kohli plays his partner.

Honeymoon Travels and Fashion

Both the films are not based on gay relationships but the subject is an important part of the script because in both these movies, the gay men have to get married to escape the ire of their Indian parents.

In ‘Honeymoon Travels,’ two men are on their honeymoon in Goa and sparks fly. While one is aware of his own sexual preferences and has deliberately chosen a girl on the internet just to satisfy his parents, the other experiences a sexual awakening after meeting him. The portrayal is sensitive and the conclusion realistic.

In ‘Fashion,’ a famous gay designer played by Samir Soni, once again talks to a model, played by Mugdha Godse, into marrying him just because he can’t handle his mother nagging him to get married.

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A still from the movie ‘Fashion.’

He is honest about his sexual preference with his wife-to-be and continues to have a relationship with his boyfriend after marriage but the friendship he shares with his wife is also beautifully portrayed.

Aligarh

If Fire was one landmark film, ‘Aligarh,’ released in February won critical acclaim and is being upheld as another landmark film. Based on the real-life story of Dr Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, who taught Marathi at Aligarh Muslim University, the movie makes one sit up and think.

Dr Siras was sacked from his position of Reader and Chair of Modern Indian Languages, on charges of him being gay. On the behest of the university, a sting operation was conducted by a TV channel which showed him in an embrace with a rickshaw puller at his house inside the campus.

The character of Siras has been played by the talented Manoj Bajpai. It shows the battle of a man in the court to get his dignity back and how he refuses to cower down to a society that doesn’t want to separate a man’s academic achievements from his sexual orientation.

 I am

This 2011 film by director Onir had four hard-hitting stories of which Omar was one and was based on a gay fling. Two men, Omar and Jai, meet, have dinner and then get cozy at a public place only to be intercepted by a policeman who harasses them and asks them to pay Rs 1 lakh ($2000)  to avoid landing up in the lock-up. Jai coughs up the money only to later realize that Omar and the policeman were part of an extortion gang.

With Rahul Bose and Arjun Mathur in the lead, ‘I am’ fetched Onir the National Award for the best film in 2012. This is especially an achievement in India, considering that gay rights continue to be a gray area in the Indian legal and social system.

Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times. 

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