In the tedious and strained equation between the queer community and the mainstream film industry, 2020 began with a glimmer of hope. In January, PVR Cinemas – the largest exhibitor in the country – put up a few screenings of LGBTQIA+ short films in an arrangement with the Kashish Film Festival. Weeks later, Neena Gupta’s The Last Colour, starring trans actor and model, Rudrani Chettri, made it to the Best Picture long-list at the Oscars. At the same time, large film production houses were scouting for and buying books written by queer authors hoping to turn them into OTT series and feature films.
And before we knew it, one of Bollywood’s most bankable stars, Ayushmann Khurana, was hitting the screens, aiming to carry the Rainbow flag into conservative homes that saw love only in a heterosexual form, with the romantic-comedy, Shubh Mangal Zyaada Savdhan (SMZY). While the film left the queer community divided on the authenticity of the narrative, it was still viewed as an important yet baby step of a ‘not-so-innocent’ adult called Bollywood.
By March, as it were, Covid-19 had taken over everyone’s lives, pushing large sections of the marginalized LGBTQIA+ community into a deep corner, a fact that most of the press invisibilized. This, of course, was to be expected given that the media at large is quite oblivious of lived queer realities and the distinction between gender and sexuality.
“If they don’t know us and our rainbow of diversity, what would they know about our hurt, pain, triumphs and love," said a queer anthropologist studying minority representation in the mainstream. In effect, “it is unlikely that the Fourth Estate is aware or sensitized about homophobia, transphobia, representation, and authenticity in what is written, shown on TV or delivered to society by the film industry," he said, pointing towards a grim reality.
No wonder then, most of the press lauded Akshay Kumar for taking up the role of a transgender in the film Laxmii, released on Disney Plus Hotstar, describing his effort as ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’. No question was raised on the depiction of the transgender which was nothing but a horrible 90s throwback where the queer individual is present only for comic relief! The media went on to praise Milind Soman and his ‘look’ (not that the trans-community has one) when he signed up to act as a transgender (too) for Zee5’s Paurashpur.
The natural instinct of the press, as we can see, is to rarely put scripts on queer stories under the scanner, question the depiction of the queer community or find out the role queer folks have played in the making of these films and soaps in front or behind the lens. The lack of insight and sensitivity is such that even the recent ‘historic’ cease and desist notice sent by the Trans Equality Society to MX player against the airing of Pati, Patni Aur Panga, has made little news even though the claims are serious, alleging that the content is ‘transphobic, misogynistic, defamatory and malicious’.
“The media at large does not understand queer lives," points out Onir, a National Award-Winning filmmaker and an openly gay man. As a result, “they tend to play into mainstream popular narratives", not knowing how it impacts the LGBTQIA+ community, he underlines.
The film Shakuntala Devi, released on Amazon Prime earlier in the year, failed to come off as ‘real’ and ‘full’ to many a queer eye since it hopped, skipped and jumped over the topic of homosexuality. For the uninitiated, Shakuntala Devi had alleged her husband was homosexual. She even wrote a book titled The World Of Homosexuals – considered by some as the first academic study back in 1976. A significant number of gay people who read the book found it to be compassionate and a guide of sorts, even though her intent was considered unclear.
Even before watching the film, mythologist, author and ‘out’ speaker, Devdutt Pattanaik took to Twitter and predicted the film will pussyfoot around the topic of sexuality. “Something tells me the filmmakers will skirt around homosexuality and the desires of a woman, after all, ‘maths and parenting’ are ‘safer spaces’," he tweeted. This was a mild quip but there was more to come from several voices including Onir saying the queer factor was made invisible.
Many who adore Vidya Balan and liked the film, argued that it was the right of the filmmaker to pick which narrative they wished. True! But how can one justify the consistent erasing of queer lives and presence in films, and in this instance, something very much a part of Shakuntala Devi’s life as it dealt with marriage and her views on sexuality?
There are, of course, many problems with what goes out as popular cinema and what it includes and excludes from our lives and how it appropriates our stories. Filmmaker and author, Tanuja Chandra, speaking at the Rainbow Lit Fest’s (RLF) Digital & One earlier this December, said, “A film that includes the flaws and frailties of human beings, our prejudices and misconceptions, is what a real film is." If it is about LGBT+ and other marginalised groups, the film should make your audience fall in love with a character that they have thus far resented, she added.
In a way, you need to break away from being “politically correct" suggests film director, Sudha Kongara whose recently released Thangam is trending on Netflix as part of a series called Paava Kadhaigal. Engaging with the painful realities of ostracization of a transgender by society and their family, Kongara gets you to fall in love and emote with Saathar, the central character. As a result, you can’t help but dislike the villagers while admiring the strength and generosity of Saathar – characteristics that are patently ‘owned’ and ‘reserved’ for cis-gender heterosexuals.
The root of many problems is the patriarchal mindset that dominates mainstream Bollywood and pop culture ensuring that just about every film revolves around a male hero and a few formulas for ‘success’.
Film director and scriptwriter, Alankrita Shrivastava, argues mainstream cinema “often reflects the biases nurtured and perpetuated in society", and is “not challenging it". If you scratch the surface a bit, you’d find that there is “less diversity and representation behind the camera", which doesn’t auger well for authenticity in storytelling. Her recent film, Dolly Kitty Ke Chamakte Sitaare released on Netflix, was warmly welcomed for the depiction of female sexual desire as well as a young son, Pappu, struggling with their gender identity.
In the making of the popular Made In Heaven, there were three women scriptwriters including Shrivastava bringing a “strong" female gaze to that series. “It is a critique of patriarchy and there is no deification of the heterosexual cisgender male hero who sits on top of the privilege pile," allowing, as one sees, space for all kinds of ‘real’ characters including a gay man at the centre of the script.
While Made In Heaven was edited by a gay man, Apurva Asrani, who also wrote the much acclaimed Aligarh, Tanuja Chandra’s Monsoon Date (amongst the films shown at PVR Cinemas this January) had film scriptwriter and trans-woman, Gazal Dhaliwal penning the story. Similarly, several queer people directed a number of heterosexual individuals in what are very LGBTQIA+ sensitive films. Onir directed My Brother Nikhil with Juhi Chawla and Sanjay Suri in lead, Sridhar Rangayan directed Mona Ambegaonkar in Evening Shadows and most recently, Faraz Ansari directed Sheer Qorma, starring Shabana Azmi, Swara Bhaskar, and Divya Dutta.
According to Ansari, partnerships and collaborations are important and representation need not always be in front of the camera. There is more to the idea of opportunity, he argues while speaking at RLF’s Digital & One: “We had a trans-woman playing a cis-het person in Sheer Qorma!" While Ansari’s queer eye brought authenticity and pathos to the love story of his short film, Dhaliwal speaking as part of the same panel felt SMZY missed that bit of authenticity due to the absence of a queer person in the making of the film, even though the effort was earnest.
In the making of Thangam, Konagara had a bunch of friends from the trans community on the sets and at times even at the editing table. “Nadiya Banu, the trans activist, would look over my shoulder and give me feedback even while we were editing," she revealed. The story itself is based on co-author, Shan Karuppusamy’s real-life experience.
Many would argue that the ideal situation for the community or an ‘authentic’ film is when the main actors are gay themselves. According to the Independent UK, between 2000 and 2019, 25 actors have been Oscar-nominated for playing LGBT+ roles. “Of those 25 actors, not a single one was openly queer", finds the report. If we were to assume that 2-3 of these actors are queer (based on the premise that at least 10 percent of any given population is from the community), it is apparent that the cis-het dominance is huge. And that may not change even if there is queer talent ‘worth investing in’ after actors such as Rupert Everett who came out as gay in 2009, saw his prospects dwindle.
“From music to film, often it is straight people who are reaping the rewards of queerness becoming more mainstream," reveals a December 2019 report in BBC’s Culture section. In effect, this is appropriation, a claim that any from the queer world could make against an Akshay Kumar who did more for himself than for the community.
Ansari admits that since he does not compromise on his identity, he is often overlooked or side-lined, and that applies to many others from the queer world. Sadly, as Dhaliwal puts it, “we are that stage where we need more stories" and hence we may need to give in to some painful realities, yet we should not give up on our want for true depictions. According to her, even if the role of a queer artist is small or secondary, the aim should be to get into the “mind-space of the viewer".
The question though is whether there are enough of us ‘out’ there. The answer is ‘no’. Dhaliwal pointed out that the obsession with a cis-gender male hero “creates a fear in queer artists to come out and be comfortable in playing those (queer) roles". Even “straight actors fear playing such roles" leading to a slim space for real-life LGBT+ stories.
In short, it is a play of the market and market economics. “Every film is more a product than a film in the real meaning," claims Onir and the industry has a limited sense of social responsibility. Also, “we don’t have queer people in decision-making positions in studios," he says and therefore they aren’t’ calling the shots. So while “we should have at least one queer-centric mainstream film out of a 100, we hardly have two or three out of a thousand!"
What this approach of the industry leads to, is the challenge of funding those who don’t follow the mainstream formulas. While Rangayan had to turn to the community and allies through a crowd-funding platform to cover costs for Evening Shadows, Chandra and Dhaliwal signed up Konkona Sen for Monsoon Date which helped them bring in the big bucks. The presence of Sonam Kapoor Ahuja for Ek Ladki Ko Dekha “helped me with budgets and reach".
But sometimes this isn’t the option available for a film and the kind of casting it requires, which is why Ansari believes that it is important to look outside of the sub-continent for funds and support. If he were to reach a road-block here, he would happily produce a film internationally and let it trickle into the India market through festivals and OTT platforms.
For many queer film-makers searching for funds, the answer has been friends, family and good-will entities such as Lotus Visual Productions in London. Led and conceived by Neeraj, one of his concerns has been the fact that “funding coming from India, may come with strings attached in form of clauses around morality or subverting unpopular messages". This would be counter-productive when “queer stories, biographies and history deserve to be cherished for future generations as a source of knowledge, support, encouragement and for visibility," he says.
Yet, the fact is that the mainstream cannot be dismissed, nor can the need for authenticity and representation. And the two, as it were, hardly tango.
The saviour, as it appears, has been OTT platforms. They not only cut across geographies, ideas, cultures and politics but they give space to stories that don’t fit into the formulas of Bollywood. Not just that, they allow “a character to be built over several episodes" points out Dhaliwal who was the lead writer for the very youthful series – Mismatched. “People grew to adore the queer character who was initially holding a side role but was at the centre when the first season ended," she explains.
This is exactly how the role of the gay man in Made In Heaven, Karan, evolved. “You are not one aspect of your identity," Shrivastava says explaining that there is so much to each person be it choices, love “economic status, family, class, caste and religion".
While OTT appears the way to go for authenticity and varied stories, supporting ‘real’ cinema is critical too. National Award-Winning Film critic, Namrata Joshi had told an LGBT+ gathering that “patronizing your own productions and stories" is not just about solidarity, it is about creating a market and a space that is determined by the community. “It is disappointing that many of the community come to a festival, watch a film but rarely support or show solidarity when the film enters cinema halls," observes Onir. In a way, this reflects a certain subservience to the mainstream, points out the anthropologist, adding that it is a sign of weakness within and not strength.
Ultimately, for good cinema to happen and survive, it comes down to “greater diversity behind the camera as that is what can lead to a tectonic shift in the representation of LGBT+ characters," says Shrivastava. And with that, “what a director stands for, their politics and idea of life will have a bearing on how stories will be told," contends Chandra.
Ansari believes, just as many other queer film-maker or artists do, it is hard to give up as it isn’t an option. As a community, we pretty much have to chip away at the monolith of mainstream cinema and patriarchy. Yet we need films that are not necessarily only queer-centric where queer individuals literally play a role in the larger universe or kaleidoscope, for example, something like a Modern Family, a Kapoor & Sons, a Made In Heaven, and the like.
It took eons for women to grab a seat behind the lens, bringing their gaze to cinema and stories. It will be a long journey for LGBT+ to get there too, not because of a Laxmii or a Pati Patni Aur Panga, or the absence of ‘visible’ queer talent but due to access to a system that nurtures their realities. If there is hope, thought, it lies in the hands of so many who have cracked the space, bringing themselves and their sensitivities to our stories. As Shrivastava puts it “It’s not just that a filmmaker belonging to the LGBTQI community can only bring greater sensitivity to LGBTQI characters. I think he/she/they can bring greater authenticity to a heterosexual love story too."
The writer is the author of Straight To Normal – My Life As A Gay Man and Festival Director of the Rainbow Lit Fest – Queer & Inclusive
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