Rumours of a hot kiss between two of India’s top male actors in what’s being touted as Bollywood’s first gay film have sparked a buzz among Vancouver’s South Asian gay men and lesbians.
Not to mention a flurry of controversial reviews and blogs globally on whether Dostana (Hindi for “friendship”) is indeed a gay film that breaks ground or just more trite heterosexist or even homophobic nonsense.
The supposedly gay film has done brilliantly at the box office in India and abroad, attracting millions of heterosexual and gay moviegoers to Indian theatres in almost every major city in the world.
Aside from a small contingent of straight reviewers who have dismissed it as “vulgar,” most have given it a vigorous thumbs up.
One can see why straight people like it: Dostana is not about gay men at all.
It’s the story of two straight men who pretend, rather stereotypically, to be gay in order to share a stunning flat in a Miami high-rise with a gorgeous Indian woman that they both then fall in love with. Its premise is reminiscent of the excruciatingly silly TV sitcom, Three’s Company.
True, the actors actually kiss as buff, pretty-boy actor John Abraham grabs mega-star Abhishek Bhachan and plants a historic cinematic smooch on his mouth for a long 20 seconds.
But is it hot? Is this truly Bollywood’s first gay film? Is it even a gay film? Does it break new ground?
To appreciate Dostana, one needs a little context and background.
Bollywood is the popular name for India’s film industry, based in Mumbai, which used to be Bombay, hence the B twist on Hollywood. Says a lot for America’s global ascendancy that India’s film industry got its nickname from that much smaller industry in Los Angeles.
Fact is, the birth of India’s film industry actually preceded its American counterpart’s by 11 years, and churns out more films than any other film industry in the world, albeit a large majority tend to be trite, tasteless morsels of cine-fluff. But, like Hollywood, it does have its cutting-edge or watchable exceptions.
Bollywood is not the only act in town. India has a thriving indie scene that doesn’t begin to get the media attention and audiences it deserves. Groundbreaking gay films like My Brother Nikhil and Mango Souffle: Not Such A Straight Film by Sanjeev Shah and Mahesh Dattani have played to sold-out crowds at gay film festivals in India and elsewhere.
Then there’s Sridhar Rangayan’s shorter Pink Roses, Yours Emotionally and 68 Pages.
Perhaps best known to Canadians is Indian-born filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s Fire, which sparked riots in Delhi. I’d argue though that the reaction to Fire had more to do with its challenge of patriarchy and Hinduism’s oppression of women than that the main protagonists were two women in love, as the lesbian angle was largely dismissed as a mere reaction to neglect by their husbands.
Still, just as The L-Word has its context in the myriad of heterosexist dramas on mainstream TV, Dostana has to be seen as a beast of Bollywood.
The megabuck industry boasts a phenomenal viewership worldwide of four billion annually and its raison d’être, like Hollywood’s, is to sell.
Squeaky-clean musical fantasies that portray an India that doesn’t exist for the majority of its audience is what makes money. And Dostana’s creator, Karan Johar, is all about the megabucks, glamour and Bolly-power. He ain’t no indie filmmaker or gay rights activist.
So how do South Asian queers fit into Bollywood? They don’t, on screen.
Gay characters are almost non-existent and when they do appear, like in much Hollywood fare, they tend to be ridiculed, or objects of pity and even fear.
Social taboos and laws against homosexuality prevail in India, though more recently, Pride parades and gay activism have seen some gains and our realities are increasingly being talked about with more sensitivity than five years ago.
Off screen, many of us have on-and-off relationships with Bollywood, because it’s almost impossible to ignore it, if only because Bollywood exacts a lot of clout on the mores and values of those who watch it avidly. It sets a tone, certainly among working and some middle-class South Asians, of what gets talked about at schools, on the street, at the family dining table and at parties.
And it has aided and abetted the silence in India on gay rights for over a century.
I know. Like many of my peers, I grew up on Bollywood and it fucked me up. When I came out as a lesbian, I shunned it for its unforgivably patriarchal, homophobic, trashy takes on life.
Then came the softer 2000s, when a burgeoning middle class forced the formula of Bolly-films to cover increasingly complex socio-economic and political issues. Or maybe I was just looking for a sense of cultural connection?
Whatever the reason, I got swept back into its clutches and today am the captive owner of more than 400 Bollywood titles. I share this fetish with the vast majority of my South Asian LGBT friends.
Armed with this Bollywood savvy, I ventured out to watch Dostana, fully aware of what Bollywood serves up (not much substance), how it treats LGBTs (badly), and the fact that straight people love this film (a bad sign).
I went in the company of like-minded Bollywood-savvy gay, lesbian and queer friends, with whom I shared low expectations and a dread that gay realities were about to be ridiculed once again.
From the moment the opening credits came on, I sensed a discrepancy in the reaction between our queer posse and the rest of the audience. As a sultry half-clad Shilpa Shetty gyrated through the opening dance number, heteros in the audience sat in rapt attention, while my friends and I collapsed in laughter.
The camera so obviously favoured the shirtless muscle-rippled John Abraham over Shetty’s sultry moves, the message was instant. Pay attention! This is about you! Abraham’s disinterest in the gyrating actress and Bhachan’s entry in a pink Cadillac confirmed it.
Which led me to suspect that Dostana is two films layered on top of each other. It is a film made for gay South Asians, in that it most certainly has some gay authorship, cinematography and direction. The film is thickly layered with inside gay jokes and allusions to Bollywood and Western queer culture that only insiders could know about or get.
But it is also not a gay film because the film is ultimately about three straight men in love with the same woman, two of whom pretend to be gay.
Still, despite being a farcical comedy, Dostana evokes some of the most poignant moments of gay life.
From her initial reaction to the news her son is gay (she faints, histrionically), to the outrageous song “Maa Ka Ladla Bigad Gaya” (“Mama’s boy is ruined”), Kirron Kher as Bhachan’s mother highlights the not-so-supportive experiences so many of us have had, albeit not so comically.
In the latter song, mom suddenly becomes aware of gay men at every turn and from all walks of life, as she obsesses about whether her son or Abraham’s character is the bride or groom.
If there’s one pivotal scene in film for me, it’s where Priyanka Chopra’s character (the fag hag) tells Mom: “Your son has been hiding the most important truth in his life to protect your happiness at the expense of his. If he could tell such a big, painful lie about his life to protect you, why would you, now that you know, as a mother, deny him his happiness?”
This is followed by yet another poignant moment, where Mom pulls her jewelry off, which she has been saving for a daughter-in-law, and gifts it to Abraham’s character then performs traditional religious rituals of welcoming a bride in the home.
It’s both hilarious and ultimately the film’s subversive message, for these rituals are sacred, religiously reserved for straight couples.
Kher has been criticized for turning her character into broad caricature but I experienced her role as the most serious in the film. Sure, I laughed. But it was through tears.
So is Dostana Bollywood’s first gay film? No.
Bollywood’s first attempt was a lesbian nightmare called Girlfriends in 2007. It merely reinforced every stereotype of the maniacal, out of control, self-hating and predatory lesbian, à la Hollywood films on the subject into the 1980s.
Is it the first positive gay portrayal in Bollywood movies? No.
Johar, the man behind Dostana, first toyed with positive gay subtext in 2003’s Kal Ho Na Ho, where two of India’s top actors, Shahrukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, play along with the maid Kantabahen’s mistaken belief that they lovers.
Honeymoon Travel PVT Ltd in 2007 also attempted a positive spin on a gay character.
But the prize goes to My Brother Nikhil which, while a low-budget indie venture, did get major Bollywood distribution. There’s no kiss between the two gay characters but it flouted India’s homosexuality laws like no other before or since.
That said, Dostana most definitely takes a leap forward. It breaks ground. It takes us all back to where we have come from and where we are now.
Dostana may not look like a gay film when seen through a Western lens. But it is. Not because its protagonists are gay, but because it was made for gay people.
It is the most widely distributed Indian film to portray positive relationships between straight and gay characters and normalize the existence of South Asian gay men to date. And its box office success sends a message that more of the same would go down well.
If that’s not groundbreaking I don’t know what is.