(An edited version of this book review was first published in Hindustan Times.)
Every Bollywood release with gay characters is marketed as the first film of its kind to break the silence around homosexuality in India. While this approach helps to create hype, it obscures the long history of Hindi films that depict same-sex relationships, engage with homophobia, and create visibility for people who are marginalized in society because of their sexual orientation. While activism and litigation were the front-runners in ensuring that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was read down by the Supreme Court, Bollywood films too have played a significant role in widening the discourse around gay rights in India.
Himadri Roy’s new book Reel and the Real: Portrayal of Gay Men in Bollywood Films (2020), published by Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, makes an effort to chronicle a large number of these movies. Eight of them are discussed in detail — My Brother Nikhil (2005), Yours Emotionally (2006), Dostana (2008) Fashion (2008), Pankh (2010), Dunno Y Na Jaane Kyun (2010), I Am Omar (2011), and Bombay Talkies (2013). The author makes an important contribution to the public record around how popular culture has shaped up alongside developments in grassroots organizing and academic scholarship. He teaches at the Indira Gandhi National Open University’s School of Gender and Development Studies.
Does increasing visibility in Bollywood films ensure that gay men in India are treated with respect? How many of these films use gay men only to provide comic relief in a heteronormative script? Are gay men presented as deviants, or as people who have a right to exist on their own terms? Do filmmakers reduce them to their sexual orientation, or explore multiple aspects of their personalities? How often do they get to experience love, warmth and fulfilment? Is the audience invited to empathize with them, despise them or just feel sorry? Roy pushes readers to think about these questions as they go through the ten chapters in his book.
Before delving into how economic liberalization opened up space for greater representation of gay men, Roy looks at the tropes of homoeroticism and bromance in Bollywood films. Some of the examples he offers are Dilip Kumar and Nasir Khan in Ganga Jamuna (1961), Shammi Kapoor and Anoop Kumar in Junglee (1961), Feroz Khan and Rajendra Kumar in Arzoo (1965), Rajesh Khanna and Sujit Kumar in Aradhana (1969), Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in Sholay (1975), and Akshay Kumar and Saif Ali Khan in Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1994). He also documents various instances of cross-dressing by seemingly heterosexual characters in Half Ticket (1962), Kismat (1968), Rafoo Chakkar (1975), Laawaris (1981), Khalnayak (1993), Andaz Apna Apna (1994), Baazi (1995), among others.
This context helps readers understand that the heavily publicized Bollywood film Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020) did not emerge out of thin air. It stands on the shoulders of predecessors who have portrayed gay men on screen in more conservative times. Also, the kiss between Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar was not the first ever expression of sexual intimacy between two gay men in a Hindi film. Roy’s book provides multiple references for readers who would like to catch up on older Bollywood films such as Page 3 (2005), Traffic Signal (2007), Life In A…Metro (2007), Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. (2007). Though Bombay Boys (1998) and Mango Souffle (2002) were made in English, they did feature actors who have worked in Hindi films.
This book began to take shape in Roy’s mind while attending a certificate course in film appreciation at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. It was taught by Richard Allen, a scholar who writes on film theory and has worked extensively on Indian cinema. Those classes gave Roy the intellectual tools to analyse the movies he was watching, and discussions with his classmates encouraged him to look at ‘queer cinema’ as a genre in itself. The journey of writing this book started in 2012, and it got completed in 2017.
In the preface, Roy writes, “The whole politics of survival of the queer community was already at its brim with murders, suicides, raids on NGOs, and several extortion cases getting media attention. Such news disturbed me a lot, and I decided to work on the community’s representation in media, especially cinema.” While he devotes several pages to remarks on the precarious legal status of gay men’s sexuality, privacy and identity, the book makes only a passing reference to the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in the Navtej Singh Johar vs Union of India case. This is indeed surprising because the book was published in 2020, and the author had sufficient time to update his research.
What Roy deserves appreciation for is his candid acknowledgement about the limited scope of his study. He eventually decided against using an umbrella term such as ‘queer cinema’ because he does not claim to speak for the entire spectrum of LGBTQIA+ identities. “I have mainly focused on the gay and bisexual men of the community…In the name of the community, the whole attention is taken by the gay men,” he writes. People who identify as lesbian, hijra, kothi, panthi, transgender, queer, intersex, non-binary, asexual or genderfluid face their own unique set of issues, and these merit a more rigorous study.
This would have been a richer book if Roy had used theoretical frameworks rooted in the lived experiences of gay men in India rather than relying so heavily on the work of American scholars such as Vito Russo and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. His book would have also benefited from a more meticulous editorial process. The sharpness of his arguments gets blunted at times from repetition and rambling. What makes this book worth reading is Roy’s frank discussion about the sexual abuse that gay men face in a heteronormative society, particularly from cops who are meant to be protectors of the law. He also addresses topics such as cruising, effeminophobia, mental health issues, promiscuity, parental violence, sex work, and the stigma surrounding AIDS — all through the world of Bollywood films.