Yesterday I watched a really fascinating documentary called The Celluloid Closet (1995) about the depiction of lesbian and gay characters in Hollywood films. Naturally my thoughts turned to Bollywood, where a lot of the similar patterns were recognizable, but the social context is so different, that the depictions vary as well.
It goes without saying that in a country where homosexuality was made legal only a short while back, the depiction of gay and lesbian people in cinema has been very limited, very veiled and often completely unspoken of. With gay rights movement making strides in recent US history, it felt like the scriptwriters of the 50's could now sit down in front of the camera and admit to writing homosexual relationships and characters in a veiled manner. They could admit they knew what they were doing, writing the subtext, and so could the actors, without fear of stigmatization. Bollywood doesn't seem to have this freedom, and it's not likely that it will radically gain it in the next couple of years.
Censorship is one massive part of film-making I think we fans - including myself - often forget about. Reading the little I have about the Hayes code that affected Hollywood for decades and the tough censorship that continues to affect Hindi cinema. The hoops directors have to jump through to get their film out there are incredible, it seems like a constant debate and compromise to please the censors, whether the issue is cursing, violence, sexual content or depiction of religious groups. So it's no wonder that even if a director is brave enough to tackle a subject like homosexuality openly, the issues they might run into when trying to release the film could be paramount.
But what have we seen? We've seen characters possibly coded - or definitely coded - as homosexual, often as the stereotype of the feminine male character, or as the documentary labeled the cliché in Hollywood films old and new, "the sissy". The idea naturally being of gay people as existing in some sort of state between sexes - they're not fully male, but they're not fully female, either. The Hollywood stereotype doesn't quite extend to the Bollywood one, because the Indian context has no great lack of "third gender" individuals in the form of hijras. I'm not Indian, so I can't really analyze hijras or their significance - based on what I've seen in movies, it seems like there's an ambivalence towards them. In a lot of scenes, they are there to make somebody uncomfortable. They're rarely heroes, but they can be of help to the hero (like in Amar Akbar Anthony).
We've seen some honest-to-god gay characters in cinema in recent years. The best one that deserves to be brought up and applauded, has to be Onir's My Brother Nikhil. The story of a Goan swimmer (played by Sanjay Suri) who becomes India's first HIV-positive patient and the ostracization and humiliation he faces is touching and gripping, and the fact that Nikhil is gay and has a boyfriend, Nigel (played by Purab Kohli), is merely one string of the plot. In a very Indian manner, the struggles he faces also affect his family, and particularly his sister (Juhi Chawla) is there for him.
Then there are Konkona Sen Sharma and her characters in Life ..in a Metro as well as Page 3. In both films, her briefly brilliant boyfriend turns out to be a closeted gay man who she walks in on having sex with another man. Now, gay or not, that's a scumbag thing to do to a girl - cheating, that is. So while both films are somewhat understanding of the circumstances, as it's not easy being gay in a country where the group struggles for rights and for visibility, the depictions are not very positive.
I suppose very telling of Bollywood's attitudes and how much there is still left to go is the film Dostana, which I've discussed - and ranted about - extensively before. Dostana has a field day on depicting gay people as "sissies". Dostana also takes great joy in playing with the idea of homosexuality between its male leads, but pedals back before you can even begin to process the possibility, at least when it comes to the film's marketing. Lure them in, but then pull back - no, no, no, they're straight, so straight, I can't believe you would even suggest they're not straight! Even though everything from the first promo is flirting non-stop with the very same idea.
But I suppose social change has to happen before the cinema that millions and millions enjoy catches up.
Another topic that was brought up in the documentary film, and which feels very strange for me to discuss in this context, is the question of subtext. Nowadays Hollywood script writers can feel comfortable discussing the subtext they wrote into their movies, slyly depicting homosexuality at a time when it was strictly forbidden. But when it comes to Bollywood, the question of subtext is a lot blurrier and tougher to pin down. What movie has it, what does not? In the end it's an interpretation as any other, but is it really there? Is it intentional or entirely imagined by the viewer who chooses to see things like that? I don't feel comfortable labeling films, apart from a few exceptions, because of my obviously different cultural background. And I'm sure not even the bravest of journalists would be courageous enough to bring up movies that may have subtext up with directors, writers or actors, and ask about their intentions. Did they do it intentionally, did they not? Even if they did, could they admit it?
These are just unorganized thoughts for a conversation starter. I don't claim any sorts of expertise on the subject, and haven't really looked into queer theory beyond watching the above-mentioned documentary. I trust you to comment on this intelligently, but should any homophobia emerge in the comments, I'll make sure to delete that crap straight away.