Over the last century,
queer visibility in Western film has undergone transformation after
transformation on the coattails of social progress – from the era of sexual
liberation in the 1960s to the rise of the gay movement in the 1970s and 1980s.
Such history has been the foundation of a modern movement to normalize queer
representation in cinema amongst other forms of media.  And yet, it would
be several decades before mainstream Indian filmmakers made efforts to even
broach the topic of homosexuality through their work. Instead, cinema
reflected, and continues to reflect, a less open society which has begun to
associate any and all queer representation as an inappropriate encroachment of
Western influence on the new wave of Indian cinema both in the mainstream and
otherwise.

Mykki Blanco’s Out of
this World provided a comparable experience in the interactions of men in
South Africa – emphasizing the difference in what was socially acceptable in
those interactions. There was a clear gap in connotation of what actions may be
taken by Westerns to imply homosexual tendencies, primarily through the show of
affection between men or more traditionally “feminine” presentation, connoted
completely different implications in South African society. This is highly
comparable to what has been the non-heterosexual reality of Indian society.
From the Western perspective, the underlying awareness that exists of the LGBT
presence in populations seems to cause Westerners to hold masculinity under a
social microscope. Nearly all male interactions exist within boundaries in an
anxious landscape of judgement through the public eye. Like in many other
areas, the West seems to be alone in this practice.

While toxic masculinity
exists and oppresses as a result of the global patriarchal structure, and it is
foolish to think such a concept is entirely western (when clearly, looking at
India for example, the rape epidemic, the numbers on domestic violence, and so
on say otherwise) the way that it is interpreted in non-Western society is very
different. A perfect example is that presented in Out of this World and
is closely mirrored in Indian society is the acceptance of affection between
men. In Indian society, two men holding hands in public is hardly an uncommon
sight – and in fact, the farther one ventures away from the necessarily more
modern city environments are further into the more rural, village landscapes,
the more common this occurrence becomes. While between a heterosexual couple,
this type of interaction would certainly be seen as romantic, between men (or
women) it is quite nearly never associated with homosexuality – which, overall,
creates a fascinating contrast in a society that remains to this day outwardly
homophobic. In fact, homosexuality is explicitly criminalized in India under
section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Penalties of convictions based on
homosexual transgressions can be as extreme as life in prison, torture, and
execution. Despite this, a man can be more affection towards another man in
India than he could in the United States without inherently attaching a
romantic/sexual connotation to that action.

It is simply an
undeniable truth that public homosexuality can often fall under the guise of
friendship or familial relation – purely out of the collective denial of the
people. In Western society, the opposite exists as Westerners often will jump
to the immediate assumption of the existence of a romantic/sexual relationship.
Some may interpret this strange penchant for accepting such male affection as
tolerant. However, it is anything but. To be tolerant implies a standard
recognition of such interactions as being inherently homosexual and accepting
them nonetheless. In reality, such ‘tolerance’ stems from the collective
blindness built out of an outright denial of homosexuality. In a paradoxical
turn of events, it appears that it is society’s intolerance that seems to be
protecting homosexuals from being as heavily persecuted. To a much lesser extent,
a parallel can be drawn between this behavior and the common denial of
lesbianism in favor of relegating seemingly homosexual interactions to close
female friendships (or ‘gal pals’) in the United States. This further
underscores the existent heteronormative lens of Western media, though it is
nowhere close to reaching the stakes of passing under the radar present in many
other parts of the world.

Religion has
historically played an integral role in shaping Indian traditions and customs.
Central texts in Hinduism have never explicitly touched on the specific subject
of homosexuality, however Hinduism has over time taken varying positions from
positive to negative. One of the four sacred texts of Hinduism known as Rigveda
cites Vikruti Evam Prakriti (what seems unnatural is also natural), which to
some scholars is foundation for recognizing the cyclical consistency of
homosexual/transsexual dimensions of human life, like all forms of universal
diversities. Textual evidence from religious literature indicates the
prevalence of homosexuality across the Indian subcontinent throughout history,
and specifically that homosexuals were not necessarily considered inferior in
any way. Today though, India is still largely in the closet, based on
colonially influenced archaic law which continues to criminalize homosexuality.
In the media, the Indian censor board imposes stringent rules which disallows
portrayals of non-heterosexuality.

The treatment of
homosexuality in the social landscape is key to understanding the grand
discrepancy between what exists in reality and what is painted on the big
screen. On side of the coin, Indian cinema has also been oft read as queer.
Andaz (1949) and Sangam (1964) both feature love triangles which in which “the
real love plot is the friendship between the two heroes…. The female lead is
there only to lessen the homosexual sting” (Merchant 1999). And on the other
side of the coin, a familiar figure in Bollywood cinema has become the
cross-dressing male star featured in comical songs and sequences, a perfect
example shown in ‘Laawaris’ (1981) with a sari-wearing Amitabh Bachchan.
The first explicitly gay character in Bollywood was featured in the film Mast
Kalandar (1981), which managed to capitalize on both the comical depiction of
homosexuality and the villainization of it to create the new, and yet painfully
old in taste, character: Pinku. Dressed in bright pink or yellow suits in every
scene, the character entered every scene he was in with a stereotypical tune
and everything short of a laugh track for his every action. Pinku is spends the
film plotting heinous deeds, and in his downtime, chasing men in a predatorial
behavior constantly associated with queer-coded characters in such films.

From Mast Kalandar’s
Pinku to today’s queer representation in Indian film, a lot has changed. And
while, over the decades, the presentation of homosexuality in Indian cinema has
undergone a hefty transformation, but in more recent years the slow stride
towards progress has garnered great social criticism. Beyond all of the
criticism based on the expected homophobic reaction to such content regarding
LGBT subject matter, this criticism is most heavily rooted in the creeping
Westernization which has recently begun to infiltrate aspects of mainstream Bollywood
films. Such an association of these films with Westernization is incredibly
damaging – this fundamentally represents the clash between generations in
today’s society. Older generations see it as threat to customs and traditions,
while younger generations are far more ready to accept it.

One parallel to the rise
of Western cinema is that the Indian film industry has penetrated Indian
culture in an incredibly defining way over the course of the last century.
Bollywood has traditionally featured different aspects of India’s complex
culture and religion through its many films, such as through the iconic musical
numbers Indian film is often linked with. Over time, Bollywood film in
particular, as opposed to the lesser known Tollywood and Mollywood which are
film industries based around regional languages, has become modernized under a
distinct Western influence. Filmmakers have taken to adopting Western cinema
traditions and tropes in order to appease to foreign audiences, rather than
catering directly to their original Indian audience. This exactly what has
garnered great criticism in India, primarily from older generations that see
this as a creeping attack on the traditional values boasted by older film
styles.

Additionally, such
Westernized displays in Bollywood film have been blamed for the slow but steady
changes in Indian society as a whole – a perfect example being the rise of
‘love marriages’ as opposed to arranged marriages amongst young people. Older
generations feel further affronted by Westernized Bollywood film for showcasing
couples kissing and the like (which, even ten years ago, would have been
completely unheard of in mainstream cinema) and consider it to be the source of
changing behaviors amongst younger populations. On one hand this is certainly a
perfect display of how older generations may simply be looking for something to
blame for these changes in social behaviors, while on the other hand there does
seem to be legitimate support in the way Bollywood films have begun to
romanticize a Westernized India. These films themselves exist in a hyper-westernized
version of India, which is translated into a rich, “modern”, sophisticated
version of India that seems to lack the fundamentals of what one would
experience simply walking down a street in India – a much cleaner, safer
alternative clearly meant to look more like the streets of the U.S. or U.K. It
is apparent to see why such a direction for Bollywood may come off as flippant
and almost disrespectful to Indian culture and customs. Many feel as if
Bollywood is putting out the message that such a Western way of living is to be
coveted or outright superior compared to the ‘lesser’ way of living which is
experienced by the majority of the Indian population.

It is in these Western
Bollywood movies that there has been a slow movement towards mainstream queer
representation in recent years. Thus, any queer visibility in film has
immediately become associated with the resented Westernization of Bollywood and
has come to represent yet another facet of the transforming film industry that
older generations feel is warping the behavior of the youth. This also plays on
the existent tendency of Indian society to simply not acknowledge or outright
deny non-heterosexuality – to now begin to address queer identities in film
again makes it out to be a departure from classic Indian cinema and a double
layered affront to traditional values. In recent times, many have come to
attribute non-heterosexuality to what has been deemed as toxic Western
influence through Indian film and media, ultimately acting to pervert audiences
and twist young minds into a non-traditional way of thinking.

Even within ‘Western’
Bollywood films that feature some queer visibility, it is outstandingly
limited. Though in recent years there has been movement to broach the subject
of sexuality from a sympathetic angle, often these mainstream films fall into
the same trap of propagating existing stereotypes. Madhur Bhandarkar’s ‘Page 3’
(2005) which features the female protagonist’s horrified discovery that her
boyfriend is actually gay and having an affair with another man, and Reema
Kagti’s ‘Honeymoon Travels’ (2007) which features a closeted gay man’s rush
into a marriage with a romantically troubled woman as one of six relationships
the film follows,  are both more recent examples of films within the
mainstream that have made attempts at queer representation, but have only
managed to further perpetuate stereotypes. Even more popular mainstream films
like ‘Dostana’ (2008) and ‘Student of the Year’ (2012) which flaunt more
openness in showing romantic interactions between their heterosexual leads fail
to do much more with their queer characters than use them as comedic props. The
extent of the representation they provide ends at anything beyond spoofing
homosexuality, making it very difficult to distinguish whether or not there has
been real progress for queer visibility since Mast Kalandar’s Pinku.

Bollywood’s slack has
been picked up in other, less mainstream avenues in film, primarily through
documentary film. ‘Summer In My Veins’ (1999) by Nishit Saran focused on a
coming out story and the struggle of a mother to come to terms with her son’s
sexuality, focused on Saran’s own personal experiences. ‘Bomgay’ (1996) by
Royad Vinci Wadia and Kaizad Gustad’s ‘Bombay Boys’ (1998) were considered to
be breakout films in openly discussing homosexuality in urban life. Such films
have also faced the criticism as Saran and Gustad studied film in the States
while Wadia studied in Australia, and have thus been accosted for the ‘Western’
influence imbued in their films. The content of the films didn’t necessarily
help, such as ‘Bombay Boys’ which focused specifically on three men in India
who are all from outside of the States to create a fish out of water situation.

Another major film often
cited to have been significant in the gay narrative outside of mainstream film
was Dev Benegal’s ‘Split Wide Open’ – a film which to this day is considered to
be one of the most controversial films in Indian history. It explored the
intersection of sexuality and poverty from a moral perspective in the slums of
Bombay, even delving into more often than not ignored topics like child
prostitution and pedophilia. On top of its explicit content, which immediately
raised red flags in the often more conservative and strict cinematic landscape
of even the underground documentarian style in India, it was put out by an
American-trained Indian filmmaker who created the film in distinct ‘Hinglish’
which further emphasized the opportunity for audiences to link the inherently
queer content of the film to the Westernization of film. For all its struggle,
the gap that was left by mainstream Indian film was still filled by such short
films, documentaries, and features to educate the public. Other films that were
significant to the cause included ‘My Brother Nikhil’ (2005), ‘Arekti Premer
Golpo’ (2010), ’68 Pages’ (2007), and, the highly controversial and
twice-banned film cited to be the first to maintain its sole focus on Indian
transgenders and homosexuals, The Pink Mirror (2006).

Indian cinema has
followed an ebb and flow of progress when it comes to queer visibility
on-screen – the jury is still out, however, on the extent of that progress over
the last few decades. While certainly the frequency of films of which include
queer characters or queer themes has noticeably risen in recent times in
paralleled response to social progress on LGBT issues, to many Indians this is
simply a symbol of the creeping Westernization of Indian cinema as a whole –
slowly, but effectively threatening the roots of Indian culture in modern
Indian society. This is in no small part a result of prevalent homophobic
attitudes in Indian society, as well as an aversion to what is perceived as a
Westernized openness of sexuality that is incompatible with standard
traditions. Despite these issues, underground cinema and even some breaking
their way into the mainstream continue to slowly push the needle towards
providing more queer visibility thereby normalizing it further than what could
be observed fifty years ago.

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