This article originally appeared on VICE India.
A few years ago, when you asked for queer representation on film and/or TV, we got Dostana. To this day, a lot of my friends think that the movie was pathbreaking, not realising that the only path it actually broke was the one that led to an actor’s taut derrière. What it could have done though is led to watching liberated queer characters in the mainstream. The director of the film—the industry’s golden boy, Karan Johar—has almost always been elusive about his sexuality, until some time back. It’s a shame that a movie that dealt with queer themes had two straight bros pretending to boink each other, while the world got a shallow perspective and saw gay men as lesser femme-type counterparts to the muscular dudes on celluloid.
Cut to 2019 in a post-Section 377 India, and you will see that mainstream Bollywood gave us Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. The film delved into the troubles lesbian couples face when their families are against their orientation, and hence their love. It took a good decade for Hindi films to strike a mature cord with its viewers, with this movie showing one of the top Bollywood actresses, Sonam Kapoor, playing a lesbian character. It also helped that the writer of the film, Gazal Dhaliwal, is a trans woman. When asked about what she feels about Bollywood’s coming-of-age in the queer sense, Dhaliwal told VICE, “I think we're surely living in very exciting times as far as queer representation in mainstream media is concerned.
Whether you look at my film or popular OTT shows like Made in Heaven, LGBTQ characters' stories are being told with nuance, empathy and honesty, while maintaining the mainstream parameters, which makes these stories accessible to a wider audience.
From what I've heard in the industry circles, I believe we can expect many more well-told stories in the near future. Needless to say, this is long overdue. Media truly has the power to bring about change in our collective social consciousness. And this change cannot come soon enough.”
Representation makes a difference. Dhaliwal is one of the few writers in the industry who has found success through her sheer talent. And if you ask any queer person, that’s all they want. A chance to portray themselves as a part of the cultural zeitgeist. Queer men and women have worked behind the scenes in the fashion industry too. Take Anjali Lama, for example. A transwoman from Nepal, Lama has found widespread success and walked on the biggest ramps in India, including the Lakmé Fashion Week. One year down the line from 6/9, she believes that change is happening around us, “I think there has been some learning and people are now delivering the community issues and stories to the world in positive ways,” she tells VICE. “Though the visibility and representation is in less amount, it will take time to have people like us in larger numbers.”
Being a comedian who’s openly gay is not so easy either. This is one of the most common questions I get asked in interviews and let me set the record straight (or gay for that matter). Very few corporate clients have reached out to me in the five years of doing stand-up comedy. Yet, since last year, the number of opportunities have certainly increased. Just a month ago, I got to audition for a famous OTT platform that put out a casting call for gay men and women. Now it’s not that we didn’t exist before, but we were always relegated to the background.
On the music front, we have talent oozing beyond compare. Talents such as BIDISHAH and Rani Ko He Noor (Sushant Divgikr) have released their own music online. Sushant, especially, has seen his share of public limelight, through shows like The Big Switch, Big Boss and Sa Re Ga Ma Pa. An actor, singer and drag queen, Sushant is a talent to behold, and has some stern opinions on the matter. “While earlier we had fewer roles for queer characters, now there is sense of tokenism, and everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of diversity,” he says. “But there have been people who took the first step towards being genuinely inclusive. After a year of the 377 verdict, I don’t see a lot of LGBTQIA representation, there’s hardly anything available as such for the community to celebrate. You can’t have one Sushant, one Laxmi (Narayan Tripathi), one Ashok (Row Kavi) doing everything. There are so many artists—be it photographers, singers, comedians or hairstylists—who are incredibly talented and will only come out if they are given opportunities. I also don’t see why gay, lesbian or trans people can’t portray straight characters. They have been doing it for years and getting away with it.”
But despite everything that Sushant has done to put his queer life on TV, have we really seen mainstream content streamlined for us? Another interesting opinion comes from author Jerry Johnson who explores issues of diversity, culture, and issues of identity in his works. “I want to say that movies and music have begun doing more positive representation of LGBTQ lives, but the real mass media of TV series hasn't done this yet,” he affirms. “That still needs to be cracked. Perhaps because they test real mass Indian audiences, who may be aren't yet sensitised to it. Netflix audiences are not entirely overlapping the TV mass audiences. We forget how powerful television still is and how minimal the reach of the English-speaking media in India is.” Johnson believes we risk underestimating the power of the non-English mainstream TV audiences and how they will continue to influence the politics and culture of this country. “We have seen this in our most recent national elections. If representations of masculinity, femininity, and the queer will ever have real impact on Indian society, it will have to emerge from this great mainstream.”
When I spoke to a casting agent friend of mine, she said that most directors reject trans actors who audition for trans roles because they look trans. Irony just shot itself back to the dark ages. And then there are production companies who employ queer talent in exchange for “exposure”—a point of frustration borne by my straight peers too but exacerbated in the queer community. “But I still have bills to pay,” says Sushant. “It’s basic decency to pay your talent, queer or not. I have personally dealt with this at close quarters and it’s shocking that this still happens. When it comes to entertainment, if you don’t have the money, then you shouldn’t be putting up a show. Also, how many of us can say that we’ve made it in pop culture? We are raring to go, but where is the work?”
When people ask me why it is so important to see gay, bi or trans characters on screen, the answer is fairly simple. I would like to see a protagonist, sidekick or an antagonist who resonates with my experiences. Don’t make us token characters. Tell our stories. We have some good ones, I swear. Then, maybe a year from now, we’ll have better stories of inclusivity.
Check out other stories on where India stands one year after Section 377 was read down here.
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