Late in May, Kashish, Mumbai’s only international gay and lesbian film festival, was attended by hundreds of queers, in what was an upturn in numbers from last year’s edition. On the final day, as is now the accepted practice at any self-regarding festival (even one with a social conscience), there was an awards ceremony, replete with some mujra-style dancing, acceptance speeches, a feverish RJ working the crowd with nudge-nudge-wink-wink innuendo, and a benevolent cameo by the guest of honour, Anupam Kher, who promptly raised the bounty for the best film by Rs 50,000. The sole category where the entries were exclusively Indian was that for the best narrative short film. When member of the jury, Renuka Shahane, much beloved of queer audiences ever since her role in Hum Aapke Hai Kaun..!, took the podium, she announced regretfully that there was to be no award this year as none of the films (which included a couple of crowd favourites) were up to the mark.
If cinema comes a cropper, then elsewhere too there isn’t much that is gratifying for a queer audience hungry for representation. Especially when we train our sights on the world of television. A place, where scores of channels frenetically vie for the same eyeballs, but where anything outside the mainstream is scarcely allowed to find its feet, let alone take a few awkward steps on a social platform that is only deceptively far-reaching. It’s a world in which airtime has already been apportioned in little bite-sized ways to a million saleable things. Minority programming in these TRP-infested waters are like petunias that die in the sun, shriveling up after barely a few minutes of airplay. Forget the queers, in these rarefied climes, national television has become the preserve of the chosen few.
The ‘nation’ isn’t the all-inclusive pan-Indian apna utsav that Doordarshan with its extreme tokenism was trying to engender at one time. In this world, the overriding theme is that of exclusion, and it can be said that, what is excluded simply doesn't exist. It’s not that gay audiences have been traditionally deprived of their idiot-box indulgences. They are notoriously adaptable, and prone to ‘double readings’ of absolutely anything out there. Soap operas may keep them engrossed thoroughly with their story lines and characters, but there is also the tendency to view it all through the eyes of ‘camp’, and surely TV melodrama with its hifalutin dialogue, umpteen reaction shots, and musical overload, makes for remarkably kitschy entertainment. Then there is gay culture’s investment in the diva phenomenon and it is no wonder that the long-suffering but perfectly manicured TV bahu (from serials like Kkusum, or Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki) in a nine-yard silk sari, brandishing a mangal-sutra like a primeval badge of honour, becomes an accredited member of the gay icon club.
Even if they cater primarily to women, and are apparently programmed by women, these serials seem seeped in a patriarchal mindset given the regressive constructs of femininity that they foist upon their audiences. It’s no wonder that homosexuality isn’t quite a part of this universe, despite the growing ranks of gay actors drawn to such straight-for-pay work, which explains the latent homo-eroticism on display. It is now di rigueur for the quintessential Bollywood male struggler, cooling his heels in a sub-par soap opera, to strip off before the camera and be pushed under a shower to prepare for a seduction routine in which he tries to entice a fully-clothed damsel in distress into an act of chaste love-making that still leaves very little to the imagination. Some actors have online shrines dedicated to the verisimilitude of their toned bodies. No wonder that the demographic that is most loyal to the k-k-k soaps are gay men, shorn of visibility, chipped on their shoulder as much as Indian women, lapping it up like manna from heaven.
Sometime, network recognition of this pink demographic results in a bone or two thrown their way. Earlier this year, the only show with a distinctly gay storyline ended its run. Called Maryada—Lekin Kab Tak, the show, while tinkering with all the tried-and-tested tropes of TV drama, was subversive enough to include plot-lines dealing with honour killings, or marital abuse, or the forced marriage of homosexual men, which remains one of middle India’s great secrets. In a role that made actor Daksh Ajit Singh the gay pin-up of choice, a married man opens up to his wife and mother about who he is, and rides away into the sunset with his male paramour. This is where the story line is abruptly yanked off the air, having served its ‘topical’ purpose. No doubt, gay men, who don’t see their lives as merely issue-based entertainment, would have liked to linger in the aftermath. Nonetheless, there is power in the show’s mature handling of a difficult subject, and Maryada remains politically correct in that it didn’t attempt to cure its leading man of his homosexuality.
Even as it sympathized with the plight of the wronged wife, it didn’t demonize the gay men at its disposal. In another affirmative portrayal, the True Blood spin-off, Pyaar Kii Ye Ek Kahani, features a love triangle in which a man (played by Gautam Gulati) falls in love with his best friend. It’s a cute part in a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and Gulati’s character isn’t singled out for mockery or self-pity. These gay men are all delineated in non-stereotypical ways, which in many ways is progress (and a few steps ahead of the frivolous portrayals of queers that continue to emerge from the big screen). Although, whether it is an actual trend or just last season’s flavour remains to be seen. This year, however, there have been no notable additions to this slim repertoire of queer stories on the small screen. Where fiction fails us, reality TV, scripted or not, comes to the rescue. Television is not interested in authenticity though. Sensationalism is more its creed. Leaving aside news channels, which hold the flag high for reality entertainment in their own right, we find several instances of gay content served up in palatable ways.
One of the highlights of last season’s Bigg Boss was the participation of hijda activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, who took on the ignorance of her fellow contestants head on, and was rewarded by unqualified public acceptance even if it was in the form of 15 minutes of fame. Music channels have often shown the way, with even train-wreck shows like Emotional Atyachaar including an episode, which featured a philandering gay man.
Sometimes, their agenda can be a little suspect. Producers from a reputed music channel recently made the rounds of gay parties to pick up young eligible, openly gay men to take part in a spin-off of straight dating shows like Temptation Island. They were assured that they would be cast in a non-stereotypical mould and the program would be an authentic representation of contemporary gay culture. However, when they turned up for their audition interviews, they were asked to amp up the ‘gay’ and asked to cross-dress or act swishily. The producers were trying to make a cutting-edge TV show but evidently they couldn’t look beyond stereotypes.
MTV Roadies, the popular game show, is helmed by Raghu Ram, who’s built a formidable reputation both as a hard taskmaster and a big bully, due to which Roadies sometimes gives out mixed messages. On the one hand, the hosts pride themselves on their reformist credentials, happy to expose the innate hypocrisies and bigoted ignorance that seem to almost define the youth. Homophobic bullying is sometimes part of the ragging-style auditions, ostensibly to uncover a participant’s own latent homophobia (or indeed repressed homosexuality).
Sometimes the bait snares a victim and it makes for entertaining TV, but sometimes it makes for uncomfortable viewing. At this year’s Roadies, a young boy was continually derided for being gay, which provoked him to come out on national television. MTV decided to persist with the footage even if they later blurred his face out. The harm had been done. While there are several reasons why many gay men continue to be closeted, the decision to emerge from the closet rests inviolably with the person concerned. The lack of sensitivity perhaps exposes the progressiveness of these TV shows as only a kind of lip-service. Sometimes television, though not in India, gets it right. Gay audiences have always identified with misfits and mavericks. This explains the queer appeal of such mainstream shows like Glee, now playing in India, whose universe is populated with a motley collection of social misfits—“the jock who wants to sing, the overweight African-American, the Goth Asian, the pregnant cheerleader, the Jewish diva (ironically, raised by her two gay dads), and yes, the closet homosexual.”
There are shows like Queer as Folk, designed unabashedly for gay audiences, and Will and Grace which focuses on one of the more ubiquitous relationships of our times, that of a gay man and his female best friend. Young urban audiences are waking up to these affirmative (and bitter-sweet) portrayals of their own lives. A gay group in the city organizes marathon sessions of Will and Grace in Kalina, that are always well-attended.
These shows don’t exist in the world of social constructs and rigid gender roles, instead giving us real lives and real situations laced with identifiable humour and tangible emotions. Perhaps we need homegrown television programming that offer up a similar portal of access for mainstream audiences to peer in and look at how the other side (if indeed there is an other side) lives, and what it does so differently. More often than not, it is the universality of these tales that would come strongly through. India, still unsettled and still groping with these ideas of difference, may not quite be ready for the utter normalcy of it all. Or perhaps it is, and it just needs someone to bell the cat again and again.
The writer writes on queer community issues