With giddily risky films like Dostana, South Asian film enters a brave, gay world.
Yes, there’s a full man-on-man kiss in the Bollywood buddy comedy Dostana by metrosexual director Tarun Mansukhani. And amidst the cheese (flaming queens, effeminate affectations), there’s a huge side of beef (John Abraham of Water) who flaunts his physique at the drop of a hat. Or his shirt. Heterosexual male gaze be damned—oye hoye hoye!
Yet even though the two lead characters only pretend to be gay in the story in order to secure a luxurious Miami apartment, Bollywood has made its first tentative dance step toward broaching a largely unspoken subject (homosexuality is still illegal in India).
Alex Sangha, who created Sher Vancouver, a local Punjabi LGBT support group, acknowledges the film’s weaknesses but still applauds its effort. “The men were attractive, and there were many intimate scenes between the two men and male bonding and hugging as friends,” he says by phone, “which I thought for an Indian movie was very risky but well done.”
The overall message is one of tolerance and acceptance, and Sangha hopes for more. “Bollywood is very influential, and I think Bollywood is getting on board now with the supporting of gay rights and combatting HIV and AIDS. I think once the industry starts making more movies and films and portraying more actors in a positive portrayal, attitudes will start to change.”
Although Dostana may be new territory for a mass-market masala feature, art-house South Asian films led the charge in tackling this complex taboo. BOMGaY (1996), based on the gay poetry of R. Raj Rao, shocked audiences with scenes of a naked Rahul Bose (Before the Rains) having anal sex. My Brother”¦Nikhil (2005), which played at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival in 2006, tells the story of a closeted champion swimmer whose secret is exposed when he discovers he’s HIV positive.
One of the earliest representations of gay desis came from the diaspora. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), written by Hanif Kureishi, was ahead of its time. It featured a young South Asian Brit who opens a Laundromat with his white boyfriend (Daniel Day-Lewis). Gay kissing and sex scenes? Interracial love? Ethnic minorities in leading roles? It’s no wonder the gay celluloid canon embraced it as a classic.
Gay acceptance has long been complicated on the Asian subcontinent by the tradition of arranged marriage and religious beliefs. But Sangha points out that Indian society has come a long way since the time when extremists held violent protests at theatres playing Fire by Canadian director Deepa Mehta (Heaven on Earth). The controversial 1996 drama dared to feature both lesbian sexuality and independent women. More recently, in 2004, Canadian director Ian Iqbal Rashid wrote and directed Touch of Pink, a dramatic comedy starring Jimi Mistry (Partition) and Kyle MacLachlan about a South Asian Canadian who struggles to come out to his mother.
Although Sangha clarifies that most of these diasporic films were in English and geared toward western audiences, India-born American director Mira Nair (The Namesake) released the 2007 short film “Migration”, aimed at audiences in South Asia. The Mumbai-set AIDS drama, in Hindi, stars Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire) in a closeted gay relationship.
But hold on to your auto-rickshaws—there’s more on the horizon. I Can’t Think Straight stars Canadian actor Lisa Ray (Water) in a lesbian love story about a Christian Jordanian of Palestinian origin who falls for a Muslim Indo-Brit. The Ode, by Nilanjan Neil Lahiri, based on the novel by Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla, is a biopic based on a true story of a gay Indian son who leaves his Kenyan home for Hollywood.
More signs of change are evident in the attitudes of Bollywood actors. From Arshad Warsi to Ranbir Kapoor, many have voiced their willingness to play gay roles. Still others, like Anupam Kher (Mast Kalandar) and Harsh Chhaya (Fashion), have already played such parts as supporting characters.
Most telling, however, is Dostana’s box-office performance. In spite of some protests and a ban in Pakistan (which was eventually lifted), it pulled in $9 million internationally in 10 days. Bollywood executives—particularly those still wincing from the Salman Khan bomb Yuvvraaj that opened shortly thereafter—could be taking notes. Sit back with your bucket of chutney popcorn and turn off your cellphones, then—the tamasha may be only just beginning.