Monday, December 21, 2009

IFAC #21: Bollywood and queer theory; thoughts.

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 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.


Filmi Girl said...

What an interesting conversation starter!!

Obviously my first thought was the strong vein of bromances that runs through Bollywood history. I mean, Akki and Saif in "Main Khiladi Tu Anari"? There are quite a few Bollywood films in which the female lead(s) is a total afterthought. "Partner," anyone?

My most recent 'discovery' is the extreme fem-slashiness of Saira Banu's continual cross-dressing. She makes the cutest man...

It's true, though, that actual homosexuality has to be veiled - or made deliberately comic ("Dostana") or evil ("Page 3"). The only thing I would add is that Hollywood is not as open about homosexuality as they would like to think. The newest gay stereotype here is the flamingly gay best friend of the female lead. Gay men in the mainstream media are still very sexless - which is part of the reason why the Adam Lambert controversy was so big. It's okay for a gay guy to be your best friend but he can't actually have sexual feelings of his own.

And don't get me started on mainstream Hollywood lesbian characters who exist only to titillate men... "The L Word" is an extreme outlier in Hollywood.

Anita said...

I was actually thinking about this the other day and how some people believe that there is a lot of homosexual subtext in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. I think the main reason might be due to the questions surrounding Karan Johar's sexuality, leading people to believe he was trying to express himself in a very Indian way, while veiling his intentions.

It's interesting to note that in Dostana the Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham song is played as a parody in the scene where Kirron Kher finally accepts her supposedly gay son.

Obviously K3G could be taken at face value and still be perfectly relevant to any Indian family, but it is an interesting thought.

veracious said...

Filmi Girl - So true, it's not like Hollywood is completely accepting with regards to this, either. And yes, the bromances - whether people enjoy admitting to it or not - certainly can be interpreted in that manner.

You should watch the documentary, it talked about how lesbians are titillating to audiences whereas male homosexuality is considered "gross" and unwanted.

Anita - Yeah, I remember reading a post on the queer reading of K3G as a metaphor for coming out (family doesn't accept, disowns, eventually they come to terms with it, etc). Personally I can see it in a way I can see any interpretation, but it's difficult for me to view the movie with the interpretation in mind because it was my first film.

As for how the song plays in Dostana, personally I always just saw it as poking fun at Kirron Kher's melodramatic mother character but the throwback is interesting, too. :D

Ness said...

Ooooh very interesting about K3G - I had never heard that. I have seen that doco that sparked this, back when I did media studies at uni - I think it is a fascinating subject to look at re: bollywood. Regarding subtext - there's always a anger of reading TOO MUCH into a film, but I read something the other day suggesting that the tension between Akash and Sid in Dil Chahta Hai stems from unrequited love between them! Interesting to think about and watch with that in mind....

veracious said...

Ness - Yeah, that's a bit of a problem when there's no openness when it comes to discussing these things. It's clear not everything can be interpreted as subtext but it's also clear that some of it can be interpreted and probably is interpreted by people looking for representation in a cinema that doesn't openly grant them much.

I love DCH and the tension and the eventual peace-making by Akash and Sid was really well-acted and intensely emotional. Actually, that brings up an interesting thought I had.. because most of Hollywood acting is somewhat more lowkey than Bollywood acting, the shows of emotion between men are far, far more common. So that really changes things, in both ways; there's more room to read other things into the emotion-driven acting, but there's also a bigger chance of over-analyzing it.

veracious said...

I of course mean that shows of emotion between men are more common in Bollywood, not HW. We all know which industry produced "Yeh dosti". :)

Ness said...

I agree with you re: DCH - i adored that film and for the record, I don't look at the relationship between Akash and Sid as a homosexual one - I am of the school of thought that men can be close friends and love each other without being gay!

And I think that's a good point you make about the difference between Bollywood/Hollywood with Yeh Dosti as an example (oh a classic example too, how much do I love that song and that scene?!). I love that in Bollywood films, men can be openly emotional and cry and be affectionate and loving of each other and not have it reflect on their sexuality. I hate that even that sentence shows a very Western conditioned attitude that crying, emotion etc = 'gay' (which I am at pains to state I do not believe is the case, but it IS how 'gay' is portrayed stereotypically in western representations 90% of the time, unfortunately).

Maybe that's why films like Dostana have to resort to stereotypical humour, to get the "GAY" message or idea out there, because otherwise it wouldn't be picked up, because in Bollywood, male sensitivity and emotion isn't viewed with as much suspicion as it is in the West? So the other option is to resort to painting "GAY" with very broad, crude strokes of the brush to make sure people know that is the idea?

veracious said...

I am of the school of thought that men can be close friends and love each other without being gay!
Of course, of course.

You bring up a good point why Dostana would've resulted in such humor. But at the same time, why conform to stereotypes when you could just as easily draw better comedy out of non-stereotypical characters? Or situations, or whatever. I mean, in the end, you don't have to *show* a character is gay and have him be swishy and limp-wristed, if you show him expressing interest in another guy - I mean that's enough. But Dostana seemed to do that AND the stereotype which was unfortunate.