The evolution of on-screen queer characters in Indian cinema is a reassuring testament of inclusivity and acceptance
Mainstream cinema’s obsession with love stories that furnish a relationship between a man and a woman predates the medium. Particularly in Indian films where they’ve been woven into the narrative irrespective of whether the film happens to be a courtroom drama or a whodunnit. But over the years, only a handful of films and shows have covered same-sex relationships. Once considered a taboo subject that no filmmaker wanted to touch with a yardstick, has now become synonymous with pop culture and films and shows are celebrating them too.
Even so, the question remains, do films and shows today fairly, if not accurately, depict LGBTQIA+ characters?
Looking back, Fire, a film that released in 1996, showcased the deep love and attraction between two women, played by Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi. This critically-acclaimed film triggered a much-needed conversation about alternate sexualities but didn’t garner enough commercial success. Years later, My Brother…Nikhil (2005), directed by Onir, was also a film that sensitively portrayed a special bond between two men but failed at the box office.
More recently, it was the 2015 film Aligarh that realised the true life story of a sting operation conducted on an Aligarh University professor to determine his sexual orientation. Played by the versatile Manoj Bajpayee, the film shows the professor establishing a special bond with the journalist who covers his story. While the film garnered rave reviews, it was considered a box office failure.
Award-winning filmmaker Apurva Asrani, who wrote Aligarh, recalls that many who reached out to tell him that “Aligarh changed their life”, watched the film online instead of on the big screen, fearing that they would be perceived as homosexual. “This is where OTT platforms come in and give viewers a chance to consume content free of judgment from the comfort of their home. They have liberated storytellers to a great extent,” says Asrani, in conversation with OTTplay. He feels that films such as Margarita with a Straw and Kapoor & Sons are some of the recent films to have sensitively depicted characters from the queer community. The 43-year-old filmmaker still believes that films that do not conform to the mainstream theme of a heterosexual man romancing a heroine usually do not get their due, especially in theatres.
In the streaming space recently, titles like Ajeeb Daastaans, Loev (Netflix), Made in Heaven (Amazon Prime Video) and His Story (Alt Balaji) gained some traction for authentically portraying same-sex relationships. Earlier this year, ALTBalaji produced, The Married Woman, starring Ridhi Dogra and Monica Dogra which detailed a lesbian relationship. What sets this show apart from others is that it focuses on the emotional connection between the leading ladies. In a Zoom interview with Faye D’Souza, producer Ekta Kapoor mentioned that her vision for the show was to be real and normalise lesbian relationships without making them look sleazy and provocative. Speaking about the same series, actress Ridhi Dogra told OTTplay, “The fact that the audience and critics have accepted this show is evidence that society is evolving. I believe this is a step in the right direction.”
Cinema has forever been considered to mirror society and Asrani feels that the problematic representation of homosexual characters has much to do with the attitude many held towards queer individuals. “Earlier, we had not come out of the closet ourselves. In a patriarchal and hypermasculine world, homosexuality was spoken about only to make fun of it,” Asrani further told OTTplay.
Asrani feels that there has been a drastic change in the portrayal of LGBTQIA+ characters in the last 30 years. In the series Arya (2020), for example, a supporting character, ACP Khan, is insinuated to be gay, even while his sexual orientation is only peripheral to the show’s plot. Asrani commends the show for its portrayal of a homosexual character, as his sexual identity is inconsequential to the turns in the story. He explains, “There is a lot of tokenism attached to same-sex relationships on screen and since it’s trending, many have jumped onto the bandwagon. I would love to be in a space in which we celebrate the community and go beyond just talking about their trials and tribulations.”
With the recent slew of films and shows delving into alternative sexualities, one would want to believe that we've come a long way but there’s certainly a lot of ground to cover. In the same interview with D’souza, Ekta Kapoor points to the difference between tolerance and acceptance and shares that society must move from tolerating those from the queer community to accepting them before we can expect any real change.