India is far from securing any sort of gay rights, socially or constitutionally. Religion will not have any of it. Society will not have any of it. Parents, even in 2008, continue to kick out their homosexual kids from their families. The reality is apparent, albeit sordid.
However, this is where the celluloid comes into play. Traditionally, the Indian film industry, especially Bollywood, has turned a blind eye toward the issue of gay and lesbian culture in India. We do not question why. Because we know just exactly why. Who wants to invest crores of Rupees into a venture, only for the film to be banned in various states, just because the male masses in a disgustingly patriarchal society find it difficult to digest that gay and lesbian relationships exist, and that too right around them?
The year 1996 saw Deepa Mehta’s film Fire opening to vandalized cinemas, numerous death threats to the director, extreme religious/ communal politics, angered fundamentalists, and a noticeable, small but noticeable, number of smiling faces.
The film aims to explore the relationship between sisters-in-law, Radha (played by Shabana Azmi) and Sita (played by Nandita Das), which, in a defunct family, takes a turn toward lesbianism. All members of the family, including their husbands, are somehow clinging on to some aspect of Hindu traditions, while at the same time seeking expression for their own personal needs and desires. It is interesting to note that the two protagonists are called Radha and Sita, the traditional epitomes of virtue in the Hindu society.
Mehta writes: “ ‘I’m going to shoot you, madam’ is a line one doesn’t hear every day, especially when its delivered by an incensed gentleman on the verge of going ballistic. This threat, along with a few others, was received after the first screening of FIRE at the International Film Festival of India in Trivandrum this past January. I had never seen so many explosive males and so many jubilant women in one place, all ready to have a fist-fight in order to support their particular view of FIRE.”
Yes, even now a rainbow flag is not exactly the most common sight in the Indian metropolitan, although gay and lesbian expression has been at an all-time high in the country, manifesting itself in various art forms, like literature, paintings, and films. However, a majority of these expressive art forms do not travel to the common man, because of various ‘censorship’ mechanisms. If a painting, book, or film is objectionable to the fundamentalist, then the artist responsible gets death-threats, massive public outcries against it, among other things.
In the recent past, a few films have made it past the narrow-minded ostracism of the masses, and made the country and the world take notice of certain issues that we cannot shelter ourselves from, in this day and age. Mahesh Dattani’s film Mango Souffle made in 2002, dealt with a gay man’s struggle and his consequential fight to come to terms with himself in a society that not only hated him for being what he was, but also at times just refused to acknowledge his existence. The protagonist’s life, as depicted in the film, was not exclusive to the character, but was a representative mechanism to tell the tale of millions like him. The film also depicted the first male homosexual kissing scene in Indian cinema. It is no co-incidence, then, that the scene took place underwater.
Another film-maker who made a mark internationally as well as domestically in this respect, was Riyad Wadia. His death on November 30, 2003, at age 36 came as a shock and an extremely unfortunate one at that, to not just the film community, but also the gay and lesbian communities across the country and also Europe. Hailing from one of the most influential families in the country, he was gay, and a proud flag bearer of the homosexual communities. Be it parties in Las Vegas or the slums of Dharavi, Virar, Borivali, no one that came in contact with him found him anything short of an iconic symbol of change in the face of a society trying really hard to hold on to its long decayed roots.
One story goes that in 1996 Bollywood director Kaizad Gustad introduced Riyad to gay novelist and poet R. Raj Rao. Based on the meeting and from Rao’s poems, emerged a film in 1996 itself, from Wadia, that remains to this day one of the most accurate depictions of gay life in an urban Indian metropolis. The film was called Bomgay. It starred Rahul Bose and had Raja Rao as well, as one of the characters. In a groundbreaking venture, he made the city, Bombay, his set. The aesthetically unpleasant realities that he showcased in the film, from gay men in the Victorian restrooms of Victoria Terminus, to morning scenes on a railway track, was a first of its kind in Indian cinema and a harsh statement, especially on a city that feeds on the dreams that the Bollywood celluloid weaves for the entire country.
The film rocked the country, in a manner not even youth films have been able to emulate. The film’s first words: “In the old days /The touch of some men polluted /Today is it yours/Viruses and all”, extract from one of Raja Rao’s poems, coupled with scenes of gay bashing in a local train, and a fantasy orgy in a library shocked the hypocrites and conservatives alike all across the world. Raja Rao’s poetry is haunting, even at times sarcastic. The films is shot in the form of various sequences, with aural poetry in the background. The films at first, does not seem to have a clear message associated with it. The first impressions are that it simply aims to show what the gay youth in Bombay is up to; and even Rao’s poetry provides no respite from ambiguity. Yet, one begins to understand, isn’t that exactly how the gay communities in India are forced to be like: ambiguous, dispersed, random?
According to journalist Vikram Doctor: “Everything Riyad did was done with style and splash, and that is exactly what the gay movement in India needed. Thanks to him, gay issues took their place on those society-people page 3s of newspapers.”
And in recent years, there have been more ventures, none of them of the same calibre and having the same impact as Fire or Mango Souffle or Bomgay; but there has been a consistent effort. Apart from the trash film Girlfriend, only My Brother Nikhil managed to impact the masses in any substantial way, albeit too weakly for the masses to sit up and take notice.
The dream of gay rights is still distant where India is concerned. While cinema, among other art/ media forms is contributing to change, yet one wishes there could be a bit more of such films in the multiplexes.
But the audience is the best judge. Isn’t it?
Vipul Ralph Shah