In India, most people who identify as queer have had to wait for many decades to see themselves represented on the silver screen. However, the journey to representation and acceptance in mainstream storytelling has not been smooth sailing. The LGBTQ community has seen themselves portrayed as villains or comic reliefs in several films.
In 2021, when there are so many stories about Trans, Gay or Lesbian folk in Bollywood, we have to take the visibility with a pinch of salt because these characters are usually played by straight and cis-gendered actors. While a lot of LGBTQ screenwriters and filmmakers have rallied to bring authentic queer stories to Indian celluloid, real representation will come when LGBTQ actors get a chance to showcase their talent and tell their own stories.
Still, the visibility of Gay (Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan, Kapoor and Sons), Lesbian (Hum Bhi Akele, Tum Bhi Akele) and Trans (Super Deluxe) people in cinema can at least be considered as a step towards acceptance. However, there is one sexual orientation that is still not represented enough in Bollywood, i.e, Bisexuality.
People who identify as Bisexual have had to face scrutiny from both the LGBTQ+ communities and heterosexual people. People are often labeled as ‘confused,’ ‘flaky,’ ‘promiscuous’ and even ‘cheaters.’ We have seen this in popular culture too. Take this dialogue from Friends for instance, where Phoebe Buffay sings, “Sometimes men love women, Sometimes men love men. And then there are bisexuals, though some just say they’re kidding themselves."
In Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw says, “I’m not even sure bisexuality exists. I think it’s just a layover on the way to Gaytown." Carrie is a columnist who writes about lifestyle, sexuality and relationships and this dialogue goes on to show how wrong TV is about bisexuality.
In Bollywood too, Bisexuality is next to invisible. A lot of queer characters in Indian cinema have been labeled as Gay or Lesbian, while their actions and decisions say otherwise. Sure, a lot of these characters might be closeted, but many others are just people who are attracted to two genders.
In Deepa Mehta’s revolutionary film Fire, Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das) start a passionate relationship with each other because they are unhappy in their respective marriages. Fire has been touted as one of the first films to have shown a lesbian couple authentically, without objectifying them. However, both Sita and Radha can also be considered as Bisexual women.
Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi’s Begum and Muniya in Dedh Ishqiya, who trick their lovers out of money to live together, have been considered as a witty portrayal of a lesbian relationship. However, considering their affinity for Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi) and how they entrap them using their sexuality, we can actually view them as Bisexual.
One solitary film that got Bisexuality right is Shonali Bose’s Margarita With a Straw. The film, like its protagonist, is complex. It is the story of a woman’s resilience in the face of disability, it is a coming of age story where a young girl finds herself after moving out of her parent’s home. It is also a cross-border love story. However, most importantly, it is an unabashed celebration of Bisexuality.
When Laila, a young woman with Cerebral Palsy goes to study in New York, she meets Khanum, a Pakistani artist who is blind. When she falls in love with Khanum, Laila realises that her life is more complicated than it was ever before.
The scene in which she comes out to her mother, saying “Main Bi hoon (I’m Bi)," and her confused mother saying, “Mai bhi Bai ban gayi hoon (I have also become a maid)," is one of the most endearing scenes of the film. It was the first and only time in Bollywood that a character explicitly identified as Bisexual. This gave a lot of Bisexual people, the courage to live their truth.
This is also because Shonali Bose is openly Bisexual. In an interview with Hindustan Times, she said, “I know I am bisexual because before, I had a boyfriend and it felt very natural to me, then a girlfriend too before I finally got married to a man. After my marriage ended, I was again with a girl followed by a man. So, I do know that there is a thing like bisexuality and I am genuinely at ease with both men and women."
While Margarita With a Straw is highly appreciated, there is also a need for more films that explore Bisexuality. Cinema is a powerful tool that has an immense power over the masses. Hence, the easiest and most powerful ways to ensure that people know, and accept Bisexuality is through the silver screen.