Can Indian cinema get over the homosexuality hang-up?

Source : SIFY
By : Nandini Krishnan
Last Updated: Thu, Jul 04, 2013 17:12 hrs
Prepare yourself for a lot of drama in <i>Nautanki Saala!</i>

The world has been celebrating the landmark US Supreme Court judgment that has squashed the definition of marriage as a "sacred union between a man and a woman". This could mean that homosexual couples will be able to legally marry – and not just become civil partners – in several states of America in future.

The reaction to the judgment reminded me of a similar celebration in India a few years ago – a celebration related to the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and an alteration of Act 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

It has taken us too long to correct an archaic provision drawn from a Code that is modelled on the criminal code imposed by Britain when India was a colony. Chances are that it will be a long time before gay marriage is officially recognised in India.

But what presents a far more dismal picture is the fact that there is so little authenticity in the representation of homosexuality in our popular culture. 

True, there are non-mainstream films that focus on the subject of homosexuality. There are mainstream films whose gay characters are not entirely caricatures. However, our LGBT community remains stereotyped, misrepresented, and used mainly for comedy in cinema. 

Of course, there are very few films made across the world that portray homosexuality with conviction. This year, even the Cannes audience was shocked by a film that portrayed a lesbian relationship with overt sex scenes; the film eventually won the Palme D'Or, but the fact that an audience of film critics was shaken by explicit scenes featuring same-sex partners does indicate that the world isn't quite ready to get up close with the subject.
Perhaps it will be some time before we recognise that there are as many kinds of homosexual relationships as there are heterosexual relationships, that they can be equally complicated and equally beautiful, and that – most importantly – the differences are perfectly all right.

But, we need to start addressing the homophobia that is rampant in our mainstream films. Almost every week, I see a film that has a gag involving two men caught in inadvertently homoerotic positions. Recent examples among the better films I've seen are Nautanki Saala and Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola. 

Even more dangerous is the trend of Bollywood films that appear to speak for the community, while actually stereotyping it. One example is the film directed by Karan Johar for Bombay Talkies, titled Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh. The film does have a scene in which a gay character gets annoyed with his boss for trying to set him up another man just because both of them are gay. But it undoes this point by making the character unnecessarily petty, malicious, and wanton. It even goes on to hint that a man who is living a double life, because he doesn't dare come out, can let it all slide as soon as he gets the attention of another man.

One of my friends pointed out recently that several of Kamal Haasan's films are homophobic in nature. As a fan of the actor, I was initially surprised, and tried to argue. But I could remember lines straight away that supported my friend's argument. In an especially telling scene in the Gautam Menon film Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu, Kamal Haasan's character barks at the villains, asking with contempt whether they are "gays". I remember the audience burst out laughing, and even applauded.

In several films, hyper-effeminate men who flap their arms like birds that are learning to fly are used as comic relief. The first movies that come to mind are Madhur Bhandarkar's Fashion and Heroine. In those films, it appears all men involved in fashion are gay and catty.

I'm partial to politically incorrect humour in stand-up comedy, but there is a difference between intelligent observational comedy and crass caricature. When one uses political incorrectness for slapstick comedy, one invariably leans towards the latter.

The world over, coming out about one's unconventional sexual orientation is a challenge. In India, where people are intimately associated with the families they come from, and where most choices are blamed on upbringing, it is a tougher challenge.

While we are quick to blame crime on cinema, we aren't willing to acknowledge the role popular culture has in influencing society positively. One of the best films I have seen on gender and sexual identity is Chitrangada: The Crowning Glory, by the brilliant Rituparno Ghosh. Not everyone can make cinema that is as poignant and introspective. But, surely, they can refrain from reinforcing the ugly stereotypes we need to move away from?

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