"Does art reflect life? In movies, yes. Because more than any other art form, films have been a mirror held up to society's porous face."
~ Marjorie Rosen, screenwriter and journalist.
There is no one word that can perfectly explain Bollywood's attitude towards LGBTQ characters in cinema. Complicated? Twisted? Apathetic? Problematic? Insufficient? How do you describe the queer characters in Bollywood movies without throwing your hands up in the air in utter frustration?
Five years before Naz Foundation filed a PIL challenging Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised gay sex, Deepa Mehta directed Fire, starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. The film explored the intimate relationship between two women who were stuck in a loveless marriage. But the Indian audience in the 1990s were not quite open to the idea of a woman seeking love outside the wedlock and a lesbian relationship, on top of that, was unthinkable.
Yet, as Shabana Azmi herself pointed out in an interview, the space for LGBTQ characters and films have really opened, especially if you take into account recent examples like Made in Heaven or Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. Hence if cinema really is a reflection of its contemporary society, films and web series like Made in Heaven indicate that the Indian audience would be more receptive to such characters and on-screen relationships. But of course, the journey hasn't been a bed of roses.
It's been a year since Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was scrapped. While this has definitely led to a boost in pink economy and equal job opportunities for queer communities, has this really affected mainstream Bollywood movies?
While cinema around the world has managed to shed the ridiculousness and stereotypes associated with gay and lesbian characters, Bollywood, collectively seems to be rather confused and incapable of forming a definite opinion on how it sees its LGBTQ characters.
For instance, remember Kantaben in Karan Johar's Kal Ho Naa Ho? She trembled at the mere thought of two men in a bed together. Now one might say that Kantaben's character shouldn't be considered offensive, since her being a homophobe was what made us erupt in giggles. But what about Johar's other problematic gay characters? Take for example, Dostana. John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan pretending to be gay may have been funny, but on what grounds? The fact that they were pretending to be gay is not the issue here; the issue resides in the way they were portrayed. In fact, all they do is ridicule homosexuals throughout the film.
Also, what's with this weird stereotype that gay men wear obnoxious, bright coloured clothes and have OTT fashion choices? (Remember Jay 'Gay' Mehta in Prem Aggan?)
We're not kidding. Take a look at Suresh Menon's gay characters in Partner or Mastizaade. Menon's talent as a funny guy has been grossly ignored in an attempt to typecast him as the effeminate gay dude, who can only be the leading lady's best friend. Because apparently, a gay guy and a straight guy can't be friends. You'd expect a veteran actor like Rishi Kapoor to bring in a wave of change as far as portrayal of homosexual characters is concerned. But his role in Student of the Year only strengthens it. Or maybe Akshay Kumar in Dhishoom. He plays a gay character who seems to be lascivious in nature and lusting after every straight man he sees. Yes, really.
As a matter of fact, Prem Aggan's Jay Mehta or one of Suresh Menon's many characters attains a symbolic role in this case - symbolic of the faceless, quintessentially queer character in Hindi cinema, who is nothing less than a clown dressed in bright clothes, with a squeaky feminine voice. He has no role other than cracking jokes.
From making homosexuals the butt of jokes and punchlines meant only to induce laughter, Bollywood has certainly come a long way. For example, we now have films like Aligarh or Kapoor and Sons or even Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga.
In regional cinema, Arekti Premer Golpo, by Rituparno Ghosh, can be considered to be one of the prime examples of what a film on queer relationships should be. The critically acclaimed film explores the upheavals that a transgender has to face, owing to social stigma and negative stereotypes.
Kapoor and Sons, unlike others, manages to portray a leading character in a homosexual relationship without making silly jokes that are uncalled for. Fawad Khan's sexuality is revealed only towards the end of the film and at least attempts to start a conversation about how coming out of the closet can affect family dynamics.
What is most striking about Aligarh is not just the fact that the film advocates gay rights but more importantly, it is a study in human emotion, of loneliness and the feeling of being isolated. Suffice to say, the film covers the full spectrum of emotions that an LGBTQ individual experiences during the course of his life.
The most recent example is Amazon Prime's Made in Heaven. Now here's what makes it stand out from the horde of LGBTQ films and shows that have come out recently. Arjun Mathur's sexual relationships form just a minute portion of the show, which eventually culminates into a bigger story dating back to his adolescence. The show is not about his sexuality, and that's what makes a lot of difference.
Of course, the queer community still continues to be one of the most marginalised groups in India and naturally, Hindi cinema tends to tiptoe around the topic. Directors and actors would rather play it safe than say something that might stir up a controversy. All we ask is that you treat your queer subjects in your films as you would their straight counterparts. Costumes, persona and other such aspects need not be drastically altered in an attempt to mould characters into society's idea of what a queer person should be or how he or she should behave.
After all, isn't that what equality is all about?