LGBTQ

Queer Indians Review Queer Bollywood Characters

“Not all of us who are effeminate are vulgar and cheap and will rub our butts in your faces.”
June 25, 2020, 11:26am
queer bollywood characters

For much of the world, June traditionally means Pride Month, which traditionally means parades and parties. But as this year's parades and parties have been cancelled, we're taking Pride online. Over the next week, VICE is releasing a series of articles to celebrate the LGBTQ community, talk about the various roadblocks they face, question queer representation, and champion the individuals and collectives who push for greater visibility and equality.

In 2008, a Bollywood movie by the name of Dostana came out. It was touted as the first big budget movie to openly revolve around a homosexual setting. The cast featured big name actors including Priyanka Chopra and for the longest time, if you used “gay” and “Bollywood” in the same sentence, people would just automatically assume you’d be talking about Dostana.

But despite being a movie that profited off homosexuality, its plot did not actually revolve around… homosexuality. What little bits it did have about homosexuality came with digs and comedic remarks about it. It wasn’t that much of a disappointment though, because it was a big-budget Karan Johar production, and we had realised not to expect much of inclusivity from him. But after that, for the longest time, Bollywood forgot queer people even existed. Until Kapoor and Sons’ Rahul came along in 2016, played by Fawad Khan, the only queer characters mainstream Bollywood knew—and even those could be counted on fingers—existed for comic relief.

There was scattered representation here and there—mainly in lower-budget productions such as Aligarh and Margarita with a Straw. Back then, Bollywood had the excuse of same-sex intercourse being criminalised and so, there was more stigma attached to it.

But then in 2018, Section 377 was amended, and consensual gay sex was no longer criminalised. But even in a post-377 world, despite what you’d expect, there were barely any mainstream queer characters. Web series have fared better than the big screen productions though. From Sacred Games’ Kukkoo to Made in Heaven’s Karan, we saw queer characters who finally seemed to be getting the storylines and romances they deserved.

But while earlier Bollywood grappled with inclusivity, what now seems to plague it (and every other industry too, TBH) is tokenism. Despite some well etched out queer characters, the truth is they have mostly been played by heterosexual and cisgender actors. The industry profits off the community, but hardly seems to give anything back to those from the community.

Bollywood isn’t exactly the place to go to if you’re looking for marginalised representation, but the reason why it matters so, so much is because people do look up to it. Thus, in an attempt to figure out where Bollywood went wrong and how far we’ve come (or not), we asked queer Indians about the characters on the big screen that just don’t make the cut.

Meghna Mehra, 23, founder of All India Queer Association

WTF queer character: Dean Yogendra Vashist, played by Rishi Kapoor in Student of The Year

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“He was the principal yet was clearly shown hitting on the PT teacher, despite the teacher being a heterosexual man. It just promoted the stereotype that gay men are after heterosexual men. He said a lot of inappropriate things in front of his students and got away with it. He was also shown in a negative light as he was rude and caused drama, which stereotypes us. If someone is a horrible person, it is because of their nature, not because of their orientation. Moreover, he died alone which somewhere is stereotypical as it just shows queer people will not have partners.”

Rishi Raj Vyas, 18, queer and Dalit rights activist

WTF queer character: Abbas Ali, played by Abhishek Bachchan in Bol Bachchan

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“The character is extremely cheap and vulgar. Yes, to a certain extent, gay people are liberated about their sexuality, but we don’t borderline strip dance for a rich man just because he says “play music”, and that too on a classical song! And he makes those weird hand gestures and says stereotypical classical dance words. I mean, I know people who learn classical dance, I know people who are gay, and I know people who are gay and learn classical dance. And none of them do any of the things he does or have an overly emphasised seductive accent. Having a feminine voice or feminine features is what society says 'feminine’ is. And that’s fine, but it should be portrayed by real queer people who are like that. Not by someone who is forcing it upon the people just to make them believe that all of us who are effeminate are vulgar, cheap and will rub our butts in your faces. That is not going to happen.”

WTF queer character: Sameer "Sam" Gazi, played by Akshay Kumar in Dishoom

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“Once again, his character is so overly sexualised. He forces the protagonists to undress and then touches them without their consent, saying “karne de na (let me do it)”. That overt sexualisation just reinforces that we are out to ‘convert’ people. It not only creates more queerphobia but also misinterprets the entire queer community. It just leads parents to think that their child is queer because someone has converted them and that they can be ‘converted’ back. People are liberated about sex to a certain extent in the queer community because our entire movement is about sexuality and owning up to it, but it is not like we go and do stuff to people without their consent or if they’re uncomfortable. Harassers are of course present in the queer community too, but you can’t portray us as people who are so drowned in our sexuality that we go harass other people for it.”

Monisha Ajgaonkar, 31, queer rights activist and founder of The Photo Diary

WTF queer character: Tanya Singh, played by Isha Koppikar in Girlfriend

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“She has been shown as an obsessed lesbian character, and the portrayal of lesbians in the entire movie is just bad—over-possessive and abusive. The entire movie feels like the porn version of some C-grade movie—you can’t even watch for more than five minutes because the storyline is so badly done. They show a drunk scene where she takes advantage of her friend, which just looks so shitty. The entire dynamic is portrayed terribly. Some side gay characters have, once again, just been shown as cliched gay characters.”

Paridhi Puri, 18, student

WTF queer character: Dean Yogendra Vashist, played by Rishi Kapoor in Student of The Year

“His entire arc of how he was attracted to the sports teacher is very cliche and stereotypical. There was an entire bit of him having porn magazines in his office room. He was villainised to an extent—his students joked about him. It wasn’t presented very well. It's the Karan Johar brand of movie, so it is not like we expect a lot of sophistication out of it, but I don't think this depiction was respectfully written. Looking back, it hurts because you know the people who’d see it would fit it in their brains that ‘gay toh aise hi hote hai’, and that is where the problem arises.”

Betta Naan Stop, 27, drag queen

WTF queer character: The gay fielder from Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya

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“I don't know his name; I don't think there even is a name. They've made it so irrelevant that they probably decided not to name the character. But, this movie has personal trauma attached to me. It is a big-budget mainstream movie, and its last intention is to be inclusive. The character is just there for comedic relief. There’s music that runs in the background whenever there is a scene with the character, and it is genuinely annoying. The music is traumatising to me because I have been the victim of conditioning that this was how gay people were. Their representation in the media had personally scarred me because it was at a time I was having doubts about myself as well. It is scary because it fucks with your mind.”

Siddhant Talwar, 19, artist and designer

WTF queer character: Murli, played by Boman Irani, in Dostana

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“Despite the movie being about a queer setting, he was actually the only queer character in the movie. And while I have tons of problems with the film, it was my first exposure to queerness. I didn't even know queer folks existed before this or that being attracted to men was an option. So obviously, when I saw a predatory (almost sleazy) man, who was over-sexualised, to be made fun of on the big screen, I didn't enjoy it. I remember the way the audience was reacting; it took me seconds to connect gay to funny to disgusting. I think that movie set a lot of precedent for how I perceived queerness and taught me a lot that I had to unlearn to not hate myself. They're making a second one with Kartik Aaryan apparently, which… let's just say I might have a new faux queer character to hate after that.”

Akash, 23, student

WTF character: Kantaben, played by Sulbha Arya, from Kal Ho Na Ho

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“While she isn’t a queer character, the homophobia attached to her scenes, for comic relief, is equally disturbing. I don’t know if it’s her portrayal in the film or all the jokes that followed in real life, but she was downright irritating, with the quivering tray and all. What gets to me more is the repercussions and impact it had on regular people because KHNH at that time was probably the most popular film for a long time. I remember any time in school people would see two guys talking or even like walking together, people would snicker, “Aye Kantaben”. It became synonymous with shaming someone. Now that I look back at it, knowing that Karan Johar made that film, it baffles me how he could be so vehemently insensitive. And it makes me think about the internalised homophobia within the LGBT community. The fact that it was used for comic relief makes me sick to my stomach because homophobia, bullying, and non-acceptance is something most queer people deal with. It almost felt like it was us that people were laughing at.”

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