In most of India, gay culture is still stuck in the closet. But there’s one place where it’s busting out into the open — the big screen.
India’s flamboyant movie industry, best known for its epic-length musicals, is starting to produce films with some great gay content.
The new Bollywood hit Dostana features plenty of queer characters, including a guy who sleeps with a facemask that says “Well Hung.” Its stars are even attracting a gay fan base. The Times of India recently ran a story with this amusing headline: “Sure, gays hit on me! Admits Bollywood hunk and beach boy John Abraham."
I haven’t seen Dostana yet, but I caught the other new movie that’s got the gay community talking. Fashion is the story of a young Indian model’s rollercoaster rise and fall and rise, and it’s a thinly-veiled remake of the camp American classic Showgirls.
There’s two types of supporting characters in Fashion — the gay pals who try to help the star, Priyanka Chopra, and the bitchy, backstabbing queens who stand in her way. Everyone in the movie is a walking stereotype, including the heteros, and they all fall prey to the modelling industry’s favourite vices, from hard drugs to drunk driving to casual sex.
Fashion is packed with music video-style runway montages and over-the-top plot twists. It’s destined to be a drag queen classic.
But homosexuality isn’t just being played for laughs in Bollywood. Three years after its release, all the guys I’ve met in India are still talking about My Brother Nikhil. The AIDS drama features a championship swimmer from Goa who catches the disease, gets ostracized from his community (including his parents), but finds loving support from his longtime male companion.
For the first hour, the film takes a nudge-nudge wink-wink attitude towards homosexuality, and you have to read between the subtitles to figure out what’s really going on. But then it gives the couples’ back story, and it’s portrayed in a totally positive way. Even the main character’s parents come around in the end.
There’s no gay kiss in My Brother Nikhil (and definitely no gay sex) but considering India’s laws against homosexuality, the movie is definitely ahead of its time.
Unfortunately, not everyone supports Bollywood’s progressive new attitude towards queers. Protesters in Northern India recently shut down a cinema that was screening the film Dostana. According to The New Indian Express, it took police an hour to stop the demonstrators.
The other reality to keep in mind is that most Bollywood hits are essentially fantasy films. They depict a vision of India — rich, clean and urban — that doesn’t exist for most of the population. But as the country modernizes, more people are slowly sharing in its success. Hopefully, Bollywood’s progressive views will eventually catch on, too.
Next week: Gay sex in India, past and present.
Read more columns by Kaj Hasselriis: