When Akshay Kumar’s Laxmii was announced and once details about the film surfaced online, it was touted by certain sections of the media and by Bollywood at large as some sort of boon for the LGBTQ+ community. And, in doing so, it showed the world just how out of touch the Hindi film industry is with the queer community. While the movie itself left a bad taste in one’s mouth, it was also extremely dangerous to the transgender community because of its problematic portray of a “transgender ghost” out to seek revenge. This is in line with Bollywood’s history of portraying queer people, especially those from the trans community, as being predators and dangerous individuals. The joke here is that many Bollywood celebrities took the “Laxmii challenge” where they took selfies with a huge red bindi on their forehead and spoke about how Kumar had done a great job for the queer community. That’s not all, the makers of the film, especially its lead actors, Kumar and Kiara Advani, also tied up with Laxmi Narayan Tripathi who is actually despised in the community for her skewed views on equality but who is the most visible trans activist in India. Film Companion’s Rahul Desai wrote that the film “manages to be both Islamophobic and transphobic at once, not to mention logic-phobic and taste-phobic.”
View this post on Instagram
And this was 2020. Bollywood has a long, long history of portraying transgender bodies as evil and disgusting. Think about the 1991 film, Sadak, where actor Sadashiv Amrapurkar played the role of a transgender pimp. Now, is that to say that there aren’t members of the transgender community who are pimps or who partake in anti-social acts? No. There are people from every community who are dangerous to their fellow men. However, when you portray an already marginalised and feared community in villainous roles, you end up cementing fears in people’s minds. It’s like Hollywood’s long history of showing Black people as slaves in high-budget films or Muslims as terrorists. Think about all the movies in the past few decades where you’ve seen a Black woman as a successful lawyer or a Muslim man as a budding entrepreneur? We bet you can barely think of five.
“Historically, what we have seen in Bollywood cinema is a constant need to show the (transgender) body as a horrific, grotesque body. It’s the same old stories about hijras being some kind of supernatural creatures, of transgender people having the power of both male and female identity and all of these myths you hear around you. There is this whole idea that (hijras) have the strength of five men. It’s the same kind of mystification, rather than actually allowing them to tell their own story in their own terms, humanizing them and seeing them as human beings like you and me,” Sonali Pattnaik, a professor at St. Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad told CNN in an interview. “The demonization of the community (also comes from) this idea that they cannot naturally have children, so they desire,” she added. “They desire other people’s children, and hence they become a threat to heteronormative reproductivity.”
With its problematic portrayal of a transgender character, Laxmii joins the ranks of Amrapurkar’s Maharaaniin 1991’s Sadak, Ashutosh Rana’s Lajja Shankar Pandeyin 1999’s Sangharsh and Prashant Narayanan’s Dheeraj Pandey in 2011’s Murder 2.
And that’s just the transgender community. Gay men, on the other hand, have been mocked and satirised in Bollywood while lesbians have been fetishised in movies. Think about Kal Ho Naa Ho which is one of the most endearing films to come out of Bollywood. It was a lovely movie with one exception – the character of Kanta Ben, while seemingly funny, was actually an extremely homophobic character. Not to mention, the makers of the movie played on Kanta Ben’s fears by constantly showing Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan in “compromising” positions. Then, there was Dostana which is accepted by the queer community only because we got to see a hunky John Abraham in next-to-nothing yellow briefs. The movie, in itself, was a complete mockery of queer relationships right down to the kiss between Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan. Then, there was Boman Irani’s portrayal of an actual gay man which utilised every offensive gay stereotype there is.
However, for every Kal Ho Naa Ho, we have a Fire. For every Laxmii, we have a My Brother…Nikhil. For every Sadak, we have a Kapoor & Sons and for every Girlfriend, we have a Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. In recent times, with the change brought about in society, Bollywood too has made an attempt to change. We’ve been increasingly seeing sensitive portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters. In what came as a massive breakthrough, we saw a commercially viable actor like Ayushmann Khurrana put his muscle behind Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan which did its absolute best to not mock or satirise the gay community. Khurrana went as far as to kiss another man on screen because he probably knew that it would drive people to the theatres and subsequently, help them see the more nuanced aspects of the movie.
View this post on Instagram
“Our film is one of its kind. It is a giant leap for Indian cinema where we are portraying two men as homosexuals, and we are very front-footed about it. It is also the reaction of the family when they find out that their son is gay. The comments that we have got on YouTube for our trailer are unanimously positive. It is a very healthy sign for Indian cinema and our society in general. This film could be like an induction for the Indian audience. It is not something that is very serious. It is mainstream and commercial. It is a popcorn entertainer,” Khurrana had told The Indian Express in an interview.
When asked about instances of stereotyping gay characters like wearing a nose-ring etc, Khurrana was candid.
“The thing is that we are catering to the boomer generation. We are catering to people who have these stereotypes in their minds. So, though we have not overplayed these stereotypes, we have really toned them down. Of course, there is a nose-ring, but I am not that feminine in the film. There is a hint of it somewhere but not always. Jeetu is the one who is very subtle. I am the one who is over-the-top. We are two different sides of the coin. At the same time, it was important to cater to every single person out there. It is not just for people who are sensitised towards homosexuals. It is for people who are against the LGBTQ community. That’s our target audience. That’s why we cannot be overly sensitive. As I said, it is the induction or the first introduction of homosexuality for the regressive Indian audience. So, we had to give that commercial tonality to the film. We had to make it funny. We have songs, dance, family drama, humour – we have everything. It cannot be a serious film. In the end, a message will be seeped in without them even realising it because they will consume entertainment, and it will be like subtle messaging with entertainment,” he had said.
The reason behind this sensitive portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters in Bollywood is also because of the rise of OTT platforms which introduces the urban Indian to a large variety of global cinema which is far advanced. Take Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, for instance. While it was critically acclaimed, it wasn’t a Box Office success. However, the film has done exceedingly well on OTT platforms.
“It’s one of my best-reviewed films. But I think the audience found it difficult to understand it. I was surprised to see the film doing well on the OTT platform. The only thing that I can say is that people were afraid to go and watch the film, especially with their families. I am yet to understand why that happened. Usually when a film gets good reviews and has actors whom people love to watch, it does well. However, the kind of respect I have got for ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ is insane. A lot of people connected with me after watching the film and shared that they have come out to their friends and family. For me, that was more important,” Kapoor told a leading entertainment platform.
“In India, you can’t see a straight man and a straight girl kiss each other. Like, you don’t want to see Salman Khan kiss on-screen. Now imagine, if it’s about two girls or two boys kissing each other. It makes people squeamish. We wanted to normalize it without making people uncomfortable while watching it. The only criticism that came for the film was for not showing the physical intimacy. But, my director never wanted to explore that because then, the film would become about that. It was a well-intentioned film. We didn’t want people to come to the theatres for the wrong reasons. We wanted people to understand that acceptance from yourself and your family is important. Love is love; whether it’s between a boy and a girl, a girl and a girl or a boy or a boy,” she added.
OTT platforms and shows are miles ahead of Bollywood movies and that’s probably because producers are still unwilling to risk big bucks on a gay-themed movie for a theatrical release. On OTT platforms, we’ve seen one of the best portrayals of a gay characer in Made In Heaven. Arjun Mathur’s portrayal of Karan Mehra was a welcome change as it showed him having a life that wasn’t tied to his sexuality.
View this post on Instagram
This article would be incomplete if we didn’t mention Fawad Khan’s turn as a man coming to terms with his sexuality in Kapoor & Sons. While the film wasn’t based on a gay character, the fact that a production house as big as Dharma Productions and an actor as successful as Fawad Khan decided to take on this issue in their big-budget film is commendable. The film also starred big names like Alia Bhatt, Sidharth Malhotra and Rishi Kapoor which guaranteed a good run at the Box Office.
And yet, if you want to see a truly genuine portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters and relationships, you have to go back to Apurva Asrani’s Aligarh which dealt with the real life story of Aligarh Muslim University professor, Dr Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras. This Hansal Mehta movie was light years ahead of its time. And, if you are willing to go beyond the boundaries of Mumbai, there is the iconic Jatra and Arekti Premer Golpo in Bengali cinema. While Arekti Premer Golpo showed legendary filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh play a melancholic transgender filmmaker who is obsessed with a bisexual cinematographer, Kaushik Ganguly’s Jatra deals with the subtler issues of gender-identity itself.
[Image Credit: Ayushmann Khurrana]