Dostana became one of the first ‘masala’ films to bring homosexuality into its prime plot albeit inside the mechanism of a comedy-of-errors format. The male leads, John Abraham and Abhishekh Bachchan, only pretend to be ‘gay’ while validating their heterosexual machismo pursuing their female flatmate, Priyanka Chopra. Madhur Bhandarkar, might be lauded by some for having homosexual characters in his films, but their character graphs are often pre-empted by a sense of guilt and need to hide their sexual orientation. Ashley Tellis, an LGBT activist from Tamil Nadu retorts, “It only goes on to show the dominant homophobia of the Indian heterosexual imagination.” But practising filmmakers like Mehta and Onir think the stereotyping of homosexual characters should be understood in the larger context where Bollywood tries to cater to the masses and adheres to mainstream notions. As Onir aptly says, it is not “conscious homophobia but a lack of knowledge about the issue.”
On the other side of the spectrum, the onus of homosexual love has somehow come to rest on the men. Except the rare Fire, a hint of female homosexuality in a mainstream film that comes to mind is the sinister chemistry between Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi in Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya. If gay love is a realm of ridicule in mainstream cinema, then lesbian love becomes the sphere of exotica and titillation whose best manifestation was Karan Razdan’s 2004 film that was very cleverly named Girlfriend. Mehta whose Aligarh also concentrates on the ‘gay’ side thinks that women’s issues are generally ignored in popular films and it is no different when it comes to homosexuality. “Though the recent trend of ‘woman-oriented’ and the new breed of heroines who helm films without heroes offer hope,” says Mehta with an afterthought.
However, this lack of knowledge seems to further fester due to the economics of the movie business. If the audiences have indeed progressed from having conflicting emotions about Deepa Mehta’s Fire to showing their support on social media and otherwise for Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, can then mainstream cinema be entrusted with initiating a healthy conversation on the issue?
While Hansal Mehta thinks that the audience is far more ‘evolved’ than the distributors are willing to believe, Onir thinks that alone is not sufficient.“The satellite channels straightaway refuse to buy the rights to such films because of their subject matter,” he explains. “Hence, there is a dearth of necessary platforms when it comes to spreading awareness. Then when small-budget films are made on homosexuality, media agencies refuse to take them up as they would grab a large number of eyeballs. The onus is thus left on independent filmmakers who are left without any proper channels of distribution and exhibition.”
Even when a Karan Johar comes forward and makes a short film on homosexual love and awakening for Bombay Talkies to mark 100 years of Indian cinema, it is still a scratch on the surface. The film which was part of an anthologyshowed a middle-aged married man struggling with his sexual orientation when he is confronted by a practising homosexual.“I have a problem with this idea of a ‘humane look’ as well,” opines Ashley Tellis. “Often, these so-called progressive films tend to show only a desexualised, domesticated and heteronormatised gay desire.” In a Hindi film, a homosexual man cannot seem to be just a character. Instead, the fact of his homosexuality invariably becomes a significant plot point.
In light of issues of stereotyping going hand in hand with the lack of channels of distribution, it is heartening that a massy production house like Eros International is financing Aligarh. Bollywood might be perpetually worried about churning the money mills, however, it is certainly becoming more experimental when it comes to story ideas, where a Shah Rukh Khan can certainly play both the superstar and his admirer.
As Mehta concludes, “At the end of the day, a filmmaker’s job is to tell a story well and evoke introspection in the audience.” With the rise of multiplex audience, films with greater inclusivity and flexible storylines might just become the new norm.