Gay subtext in Hindi cinema

If you are a visitor to Mumbai, a walk down Marine Drive can bring you face to face with a couple of surprising behaviour patterns. The first thing you notice is a male ‘couple’ walking past, hand in hand, oblivious to censure. It is a common sight, even though India is a country known to be conservative and cloistered, especially when it comes to matters associated with gay sexuality. So all this frequent hand-holding can sometimes make it seem that our social prejudices may have been over-stated.

Masculine Affinity
In reality, these homo-social patterns are rife in the Indian subcontinent, and indeed, across Asia. At its most harmless form, it allows expression to the affinity that men share, especially in cultures where there is a measure of segregation between the sexes. However, gay men sometimes camouflage romantic feelings with this very public licence to be bound at the hip, so to say, with their paramour, without anyone so much as batting an eyelid. It isn’t a stretch of imagination, therefore, that there may sometimes be much more than meets the eye to seemingly casual, but tactile, friendships.

Beautifully understated: A still from Valley of Saints

Gay Audiences
This is the parallel narrative that makes the sub-genre of the so-called ‘buddy film’ in Indian cinema so compelling for gay audiences. From Dosti to Sholay, these films provided a gay subtext that overpowered everything else on screen — a subtext that, although almost snatched from the proceedings, had become the inexorable parables for our lives. What we were led to believe was that being embroiled in a strong self-sacrificing friendship could be a viable stand-in for a love match—a tantalising prospect given how the closet manifests itself in India. The stray, mushy line or an adoring look or two, blown up on celluloid, suddenly acquired reserves of hidden meaning.

Abhorrent stereotype: Rishi Kapoor plays a gay principal in Student of the Year

Romantic Love
For instance, in Dosti, director Satyen Bose invests the friendship between two young men with as much tenderness, empathy, and happiness as romantic love. The film resonates for gay audiences at many levels — from the alienation felt by the two disabled men (one is blind, the other a cripple) acting as a cipher for homosexual repression, to instances of affection physically demonstrated, to the alternative hospice in which they take refuge, which is replete with androgynous dancers and women wrestlers (which, for all purposes, could be a gay ghetto).

Bffs: Charlie (Shahid Kapoor, right) and Mikhail (Chandan Roy Sanyal) in Kaminey

Fantasy Stuff
Whether it was Akshay Kumar and Saif Ali Khan, newly minted gay icons of the ’90s, getting all hot, sticky and wet doing a suggestive bump ‘n’ grind routine to the title track in Main Khiladi Tu Anari, or the men in Saathi, who spend their time longing for one another and expressing their ostensibly brotherly feelings with the most ludicrously poetic dialogue between two men ever, we lapped it all up, almost believing whatever it was we were projecting upon the screen. After all, wish-fulfillment is the stuff of fantasies.

Bicycle battle: Buddies compete for the trophy in Karan Johar’s Student of the Year

Male Bonding
When Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey was released in 2009, the film’s central relationship between petty swindlers Charlie (Shahid Kapoor) and Mikhail (Chandan Roy Sanyal) had caused much talk about it being essentially a ‘gay film’. In the film, as Charlie and Mikhail grow up together, they develop a kinship that plays out rather combustibly on screen. When they greet each other, it’s with whoops and kisses, head-butts and cuddles. When Charlie chances upon his ticket to the big time—a stash of high-grade cocaine—and breaks the news to Mikhail, then, after a skirmish involving fists and shoves, they wrestle on the floor in more than genial fashion, as Mikhail transgresses Charlie’s physical space. Charlie seems awkward and guiltily aware of the intimacy but doesn’t pull away, as he revels in consorting with the person he considers his soulmate, even though he’d probably never articulate it as such, even to himself.

This leads to the film’s only big production number Dhan te naan, where we are spared pole-dancing item girls and costume changes, but are instead treated to a celebration of male bonding. If one were to see the original video that was produced for Dhan te naan (for a TV special), replete with virile young men whose macho posturing finds expression in a series of deftly executed pelvic thrusts timed to pistol shots, you’d be forgiven for believing that this was always intended to be a gay anthem that derives much of its energy from pulsating homoerotic overtones.

Forceful Return
This year, the buddy film returned with a vengeance. Screened at last month’s Mumbai Film Festival, Valley of Saints is a languorously beautiful film on Kashmir. It links the survivalist zeal that is still very much alive in the valley, with Srinagar’s lake culture. Even when curfew has crippled life in the town, the Dal Lake teems with life and vitality, its denizens living out the confounding daily mysteries of an uncertain life. The filmmaker, Musa Syeed, spent much time in Kashmir, reconnecting with his roots. His father was Kashmiri but he had never been there. His host was the boatman Gulzar Bhat. They became close friends, had intense conversations, shared meals, and slept under the same mosquito net. Some of these homo-social patterns are faithfully reproduced in the film in its portrayal of a friendship between two men. When curfew was imposed in the valley during the making of the film, the filmmakers had to forgo much of their crew and equipment. Which is why the limpid-eyed Bhat had to step in as lead actor. Bhat is gloriously unaffected in what is his first acting role. Another first-time actor, Afzal Sofi, plays his friend, and the film tenderly observes the yin and yang dynamic between the two men.

It is no wonder that wherever it was screened, the film resonated closely with gay audiences, for whom, if the spectre of societal constraints were to be lifted, perhaps these men, so incandescently bound to one another, could seek out an alternative destiny. This reading is not an intended one, and the director points this out when the question comes up in umpteen Q&As. Yet, sometimes, there is a great impasse between what a filmmaker intends and what is ultimately taken home from a viewing, especially by an audience as hungry for representation as us, always eager to interpret what we see with what we know.

Unkind stereotypes

Where Valley of Saints was engaging and lyrical, Karan Johar’s Student of the Year came as a complete contrast, chock-filled as it is with the most drippy gay subtext. Johar supplies us with two very attractive young actors, bronzed to perfection, gift-wrapped in various stages of undress, even as the film plays out as a love-hate romance between the two (Siddharth Malhotra and Varun Dhawan), but with the usual disclaimers. When they reach to caress each other, they must first announce, ‘I’m not gay, ok?’ What was subtle and unsaid in the Kashmiri film, becomes explicit yet unstated in Student of the Year.

The pink demographic that Johar has cultivated over years of candy floss and six-hanky weepies, wouldn’t have balked at the sight of so much eye-candy if he had stopped at that. Instead, eager to create a counterbalance to the unfulfilled romance between straight dudes, he gives us the unfulfilled life of a gay man, in the person of a flamboyant Rishi Kapoor as the school’s principal. Kapoor tones down the effeminacy (always a sore point for gay people eager to be represented in ‘regular’ ways), and ends up suitably endearing, but the self-defeating message is clear. Another student (played by Kayoze Irani) outs himself in a climactic scene and announces people like them end up alone—a death-wish that Kapoor readily embraces, and is promptly hospitalised.

Whatever the merits of Kapoor’s performance, to classify the role as an affirmative portrayal would be incorrect. And to have the baton pass on to yet another loser-type (Irani) wallowing in self-pity, is an example of the double-edged influence wielded by the persona of Johar himself. Nobody cares if he really is gay (most people seem to have made their minds up about it already) but through his films, and on his chat show, he offers enough clues of his own leanings which can sometimes be immensely progressive — a world in which differences dissolve and coalesce into a beautiful wholeness. But he also plays on unkind stereotypes that reflect the kind of self-loathing that so many gay men are afflicted with, and that so many find abhorrent.

As we grow increasingly wary of subtext, the buddy film has been found out. ‘Our’ cinema had turned out to be the albatross around our necks that inhibited us from venturing into untested waters as gay men who wanted more than just the idea of another man as a heroic counterpart; but men in the flesh, who could be losers or slimeballs; men who were the objects of our carnal desire and a kind of adoration that wasn’t quite the stuff of epic films; men who gave us love-bites and nothing else besides; things that we hadn’t quite seen on celluloid. The buddy films and our unflinching devotion to them became slowly anachronistic as we learned, without any help from popular culture, that love needed no surrogates. Gestures were more important than nuance and that stories of homosexual love needed no longer be seen as merely fine print, to be read only between the lines. The films have yet to catch up.

When Kaminey ends, we see Charlie naming his bookie-counter Mikhail & Co., after his deceased ‘beau’. Although he has now acquired a trophy girlfriend with the anglicised name, a marker for the trappings that good fortune brings you, his life force still stems from this other most significant relationship, and gay audiences wonder why this kind of love should be called by any other name.

In the world of formula Hindi films, where once a triangle of two women and a man meant that one woman would have to take a bullet to her heart, maybe we’ve reached a point where there can be two men, but one of them will die. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that these men may have been straight or gay or of unstated sexual preference. By flirting with something that they did not fully comprehend, by allowing themselves some time in an alternative dimension, they have enriched their own lives and ours.

Vikram Phukan writes on diversity and gay issues. 

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