From Underrepresented to Misrepresented: Bollywood’s Portrayal of the LGBTQIA+ Community
Alongside gifting us years of entertainment, Bollywood has also subjected us to quite an unhealthy dose of homophobia and transphobia that an already apprehensive society clearly did not need. It’s relationship with the LGBTQIA+ community has been full of ups and downs and what’s upsetting is that even in the twenty-first century the downs are quite sizeable. Initially, the industry took the easy way out and was as hush-hush about the community as the society with minimal to negligible representation. But over the years, inclusion increased and you would best believe that representation means a good thing, right? On the basis of every Sajid Khan that I have unfortunately been subjected to and never recovered from, I’d say No.
The way Bollywood has handled heterosexual romantic courtships is certainly questionable with its blatant misogyny, glorification of toxicity, male chauvinism, objectification and a continued list of carelessness that many of us accepted as normal for years. So, if hetero-normativity is so weakly represented, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the representation of the LGBTQIA+ community is beyond problematic. But well, with us being more aware of such sensitivities thanks to social media, abolition of the Section 377 and people in India speaking up for the inclusion of this community, is it okay for Bollywood to still act so sloppily with no accountability towards an entire community? Together we’re going to decode this superficial display of inclusion, talk about some films that have thankfully got it right and overall look into why it’s so important to give this community a voice and the representation they so deserve!
Unacceptable yet Normalized Tropes
There’s a whole spectrum of misinformation that incorrectly represented characters began to pass on as they were being written and portrayed in an extremely stereotypical manner - too loud and flashy along with saying the tackiest rhyming lines simply for comic effect. For instance, Suresh Menon’s character in Partner –so frivolous, overtly overdone and loud yet added in the movie simply for a laugh. Gay men are also often represented as horny and hell-bent on courting straight men and transgender people as heartless money-laundering or brothel-running villains. Loud inappropriate cross-dressing by superstars that represent cis heterosexual male characters and cross dress just for comedy is another problematic trope. Being at the receiving end of the hero’s crude remarks for a laugh, being shamed for being feminine and enjoying supposedly feminine things are also routine and overlooked as nothing wrong when it came to mainstream cinema but its high time we address it.
There’s so many more subtle nuances that we’ve become accustomed to over the years unknowingly. Overall, let’s look at effeminate portrayal of gay characters. Sure, in real life some of them are, but not all of them. Being gay and being effeminate is not mutually inclusive, but movies often find it difficult to portray gay men without making it too loud and obvious. What also comes to mind is how there’s a need to blatantly throw homosexuality in our faces. These characters don’t exist ‘simply’ or ‘normally’ like any other character. The entire point of their existence is reduced to their sexuality and it’s literally the only trait they possess. The going out of the way to represent ‘he is a gay’ or ‘yeh toh who hai’ also draws attention to a certain ‘us’ and ‘they’ culture.
One trope we can’t discuss in detail is the representation of lesbian relationships- simply because they’re even more scarcely paid attention to. Patriarchy has a huge contribution in this as men find it hard to come to terms with the fact that women can exist happily without needing a man for providing for her be it necessities or pleasure. One movie however that represents the culture appropriately was Deepa Mehta’s Fire, made in the year 1996 that shocked the traditionalist audience to the core. Some might even say it is way ahead of its times. The movie Fire even 24 years later continues to be way ahead of its time as portrayal of female desire within a same sex relationship is still considered to be a taboo subject.
A Closer Look…
Talking about misrepresentation might seem like a first world problem where many would think that characters are being written about them, now how much more do they want? The problem here is that the characters written are making an even more negative impact that will further strengthen an already existing bias. Blatant misrepresentation can be found in massy slapstick comedies like Humshakals or Mastizaade that one doesn’t expect much from to begin with. However, equally horrid are the subtle and overlooked instances in rather celebrated and commercially acclaimed movies. Take Kal Ho Na Ho for instance, I’m sure like me, the film would be a comfort movie for so many of us. However, the entire sequence of the house help being filled with disgust on finding the two attractive lead actors in compromising positions is what further deepens a stigma that this community is something to be looked down upon. It’s also sad that this comes from the banner of a filmmaker that himself belongs to the community and is okay with this problematic projection.
Talking about his work, how can one not mention Dostana. The first-time mainstream commercial cinema actually watched a movie centered around homosexuality, made with all glamour and jazz and treated just like any other Dharma film was none other than well, another mishap! Where I can cut some slack to the central characters played by Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham as they were at least pretending to be gay (which also was treated stereotypically to the T) but Boman Irani’s character being an actual representation yet so loud, tacky and desperate is what the real disappointment was. Coming from Karan Johar - someone with the power and the voice to make a difference, even though a bold attempt in its central conceptualization, we believe that was nothing but poor execution on his part! On digging deeper, many films that are commercially successful have sequences that are problematic, and even films that are aimed at inclusion get it wrong, often defeating their own purpose.
Like a Laxmi Bomb that states it represents the transgender community but then is completely taken over by a cis male superstar that clearly missed the theme and instead thought it’s still a Sajid Khan film or even a Student of the Year where Rishi Kapoor’s character’s life crux is is simply being gay. It is the reason the sun shines for him and the whole point of his existence. Which means that even though he is the Principal of a school, he openly hits on the sports teacher. Man, Karan Johar had been messing up big time! There’s countless such examples that are parts of or entire successful movies. Even though the numbers are decreasing with years, with a woke generation like this, exposed to newer media and content from all around the world, the hope is to completely be done with transphobic and homophobic tropes altogether.
The Wide Gap
The difference of treatment in films is not something changing simply with time – the graph is not linear. It’s not like it began from Maharani’s character- the evil transgender pimp that runs a brothel in the movie Sadak decades ago and now has transformed to Fawad Khan’s character in Kapoor and Sons– an attractive, likeable and honest gay man that has layers beyond his sexuality in the twenty-first century. Even years ago fewer but yes, better films have existed and even now there’s a need to address horrible attempts like Suresh Menon most movies. Hence, time even though essential, is not the only factor – the treatment and thought-process behind is. Accurate representation is a choice and being mindful and socially responsible about how you treat and present your characters is what leads to them being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ representatives for the community. When members of LGBTQ+ community get cast in stereotyped and negative roles in films, it simply reflects the existing hatred in the real world and further strengthens it. Even though films have become more aware now, there’s still a long road ahead. That’s why films curated with a more mindful approach are so important!
The appreciation for good representation is incomplete with mentioning the spine-chilling masterpiece Aligarh that was based on a true story and can be observed as a cinematic site for defining the institutional modalities of sexuality and the homophobic structure of the Indian society. In the year 2010, this film managed to rightfully represent what the community goes through and also shed light upon how society’s inability to accept these individuals is given more importance than the dignity of the LGBTQIA+ community. This also sparked conversations around this subject as it made the audience grapple with various questions ranging from topics of individual sexuality, morality and privacy.
Margarita with a Straw, with Kalki Koechlin as Laila is another bold exploration of intersectionality where she dares to explore her bisexuality despite already being prejudiced against owing to her condition – cerebral palsy. Another such example would be My Brother Nikhil, made in the year 2005, and directed by Onir, that touched upon the AIDS pandemic in the gay community during the 90s and early 2000s. One of the later examples as mentioned above, would be Fawad Khan’s character in Kapoor and Sons, who was portrayed as being at ease with his own homosexuality, cutting Karan Johar finally some slack and redemption for his previous mishaps! However, even though problematic tropes still exist yet the twenty-first century is seeing a great shift in treatment of these subjects and this can be credited to mainstream cinema welcoming these subjects more positively, OTT platforms gaining popularity and superstars representing the community more responsibly.
The Commercial Cinema and OTT Wave
I always wonder how it felt growing up and feeling a certain way, yet not being able to find any representation on screen for what you feel? I mean I grew up over-romanticising SRK and Kajol but for someone who wanted to watch his/her/their dream love story on screen there was barely any representation to look up to. That’s why I feel the twenty-first century is so important especially the last 2-3 years because for the first time I see homosexuality being represented on mainstream cinema with superstars like Ayushmann Khurrana and Sonam Kapoor in the lead roles!
The innocence of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga that presented a lesbian relationship as its central plot highlighting their internalised shame, societal pressure yet their tenderness of love was a considerable even though not perfect (a cis heterosexual man as their voice throughout) attempt that came almost decades after the movie Fire. Another commercial success was Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan about a gay couple and also incorporated the impact of the abolition of Section 377. These movies even though not idealistic in every aspect yet are so essential because they show the community in a positive light and that it has more than just people living an oppressed, isolated, outcast life that they supposedly should. When such movies perform well at the box-office they further encourage more filmmakers and actors to take this task up of better representation and a wider reach. Even though slightly over-the-top than the movie should’ve been, just simply the fact that a teenager can watch and listen to a romantic tune from Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and finally feel like he has somewhere to relate to, is one big step forward.
Not to forget the contribution of OTT platforms like the milestone and exceptionally written character of Karan Mehra from Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar’s Made in Heaven, featuring Arjun Mathur as a gay man who surprise, surprise! has so much to himself other than his sexuality. He isn’t stereotyped or limited by a box, he can enjoy a soap opera as well as sports, or have wine and also chug beer; he can dress in the most casual or the chicest outfits there are! Finally, someone cracked the code on highlighting what he goes through while still letting him be his own person. Not just him but overall the show treats homosexuality extremely sensibly. Last, but not the least Karan Johar has further gained some redemption with better representation recent anthologies like Ajeeb Daastaans and Bombay Talkies that are stronger and much-needed representations of the community.
Why It Matters?
Bollywood inhibits the voice and power to influence masses and if used correctly it can do wonders for the community. Destigmatisation of homophobic and transphobic trends passed down through generations is beyond essential and its high time we put an end to it. The + in the name LGBTQIA+ provides an insight to how fathomless and infinite the community is and there’s so much we’re yet to learn about it. If explored well, there’s also so many inspirational and beautiful stories waiting to be told!
Since there is still so much confusion about what constitutes gender and what is one’s sexuality, and how it is not interchangeable, filmmakers are responsible to spread rational information, be extra sensitive when dealing with such subjects and show the community in a positive light! As super-idealistic as it may seem, treating someone’s representation humanly with respect and basic dignity should is not rocket science, its bare minimum and absolutely necessary. The next time I watch a movie that has even the smallest sequence of representation of the community, I wish it’s so organic that my heart smiles thinking about the teenager who finds himself in that character and feels he’s simply as normal as all of us.