Bollywood has either invisibilised or hyper-sexualised LGBT characters. On silver screen the stereotype of the flamboyant gay man was persistent and primarily used as an accessory. Representation of female desire even among hetero couples has been rare, portrayal of female desire in a same sex loves story, for the silver screen, was unthinkable.
The mainstream has suffered from lack of representation within mainstream cinema and the minuscule representation that made its way, is problematic at its best. However, there has always been a few rare offbeat cinemas, even within the mainstream, which shook up the largely conservative audience and showed on silver screen the portrayal of queer characters, queer desire and quietly left its mark on the audience. Here are a few films that got LGBT representation right.
Fire made in the year 1996 and directed by Deepa Mehta, it shocked the traditionalist audience to the core. Some might even say it is way ahead of its times. However, 24 years later it continues to be way ahead of its time as portrayal of female desire within a same sex relationship continues to be a taboo subject.
Married into a traditional Hindu house, Radha and Sita are sisters- in- law, both stuck in unhappy marriages and a mundane domestic life. They find love, intimacy and companionship with each other, surrounded in a world that forbids female desire. The film was banned in India and created public outrage from the traditionalist and conservative sects. Standing the test of time it continues to be a standalone film for an uninhibited depiction of female desire.
My Brother Nikhil
My Brother Nikhil, made in the year 2005, and directed by Onir, touches upon the AIDS pandemic in the gay community during the 90s and early 2000s. It touches upon the stigma of AIDS within an already marginalised community and the impact it has on the members of the gay community.
Told through the lens of the family of a closeted gay man, who is forced to come out of the closet because he has been infected with AIDS, it is a poignant tale of love. It is the journey of a man who is shunned by his workplace and parents because of his sexual orientation, only to be supported by his sister and lover. It is a tale of struggle, love and, life, which continues to be relevant even after 15 years.
Made in Heaven
Made in Heaven, a series directed by Zoya Akhtar is a tale of weddings in India which is about love, money, power, caste and inequalities deeply entrenched in all of us. The male protagonist of this show is a closeted gay man, living in a world where Section 377 of Indian Penal has not been de-criminalised. Hence, outwardly he leads a successful professional life as a wedding planner but inwardly he knows he will treated as a criminal if he comes out.
It shows the struggles of being gay in India before Navtej Johar read down Section 377, which includes a nosy neighbour, a police arrest and custodial violence. It is the journey of a man to accept himself and live in a society that struggles to accept same sex relationships.
Margarita with a Straw
Margarita with a Straw, directed by Shonali Bose, is an intersectional representation of disability, queerness and gender, told through Laila, the protagonist played by Kalki Koechlin. Laila is a young woman who has cerebral palsy who shares a close relationship with her mother, who is also her primary caregiver. She goes off to Manhattan for her higher studies and discovers her bisexuality when she develops feelings for a visually impaired disability activist.
It is a tale of a woman navigating an ableist world, coming off age and dealing with her sexual orientation. It is also a tale of struggle of acceptance as her mother struggles to accept her bisexual identity. Ultimately, it tells a tale of universality of desire, love and acceptance.
Aligarh, directed by Hansal Mehta, is based on the life of Professor Ramchandra Siras who taught at the famed Aligarh Muslim University. The professor is forced to come out of his closet when he is caught in an intimate moment with another man. This is followed by a harrowing tale of violence and intolerance from groups of conservative society and his workplace that suspends him on grounds of gross misconduct.
The role of Siras is played by veteran actor Manoj Bajpayee. The film starts off after his sexuality has been discovered and he is contacted by a young journalist played by Rajkumar Rao about this incident. This film shows the long drawn battle of being charged under Section 377 of India Penal Code. Professor Siras was finally acquitted by the Court. However, he was found dead in his apartment a day before his acquittal and the subsequent reinstating in the University.
Why It Matters?
In a post 377 world, it is crucial that queer narratives, love, life and desires are brought to the forefront. Stories have the power to heal and bring acceptance. Hence, Bollywood, since it is the flag bearer of mainstream cinema needs to bring the queer stories to the forefront as it has a mass appeal. Queer narratives needs to be normalised and telling stories are perhaps a crucial step towards that.