For as long as one can go back, the depiction of love and sex in Bollywood, characterized by melodrama or cliché, has only included heterosexual portrayals; passed off as the bar for anything normal. Even if we ignore that these characters were mostly dramatized and very far from reality, we cannot ignore the trend that Bollywood seems to religiously follow of using homosexual characters as merely a comic relief in deadpan scenes.
This brings us to a crucial question: Was there even a distinction between effeminate and homosexual characters before the 90s? We saw Sanjeev Kumar playing an effeminate character in A. Bhim Singh's Naya Din Nayi Raat, which obviously had to be subtle. The heroines’ dance teachers in the 70s and 80s were effeminate men, with no reference to their sexuality. Cut to late 90s and early 2000, mediocre movies like Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya, Dulhan Hum Le Jayenge, and Mujhe Kuch Kehna Hai continued with vague representation of homosexual characters used mainly in comedy scenes. The only change seen was a jump from no portrayal to slapstick, piteous portrayals. Verdict: no distinction identified.
The 90s also saw the release of India’s first official homosexual film, Bomgay that starred Rahul Bose. A 12-minute long film, based on an adaption of 4 poems written by R Raja Rao, Bomgay deals with the warped sense of gay identity in urban India. Films such as these didn’t take too long to be termed “parallel cinema”. Deepa Mehta’s Fire, which is a movie about two Delhi housewives who fall in love with each other, faced a similar response. Both Fire and Karan Razdan’s Girlfriend received extreme hostility from the religious fundamentalist groups in Mumbai.
However, the turn of the millennium saw a minor change in perspective. Movies like Kal Ho Na Ho and Page 3 had open portrayals of homosexual characters. This change is noteworthy because these are mainstream movies imbibing a previously “abnormal” phenomenon in their stock characters. The comedy reaches a new level with these movies, which arguably reflects a sense of acceptability. This is seen best in the ‘Kantaben’ joke in Kal Ho Na Ho and the conversation between Konkona Sen Sharma and Rehaan Engineer in Page 3 where she tells him to imagine if a woman sitting next them is pretty, how good looking her brother might be.
Still slightly dramatized, these depictions have a long way to go to be closer to reality. Then again, the multiplex going audience don’t seem to want to see brutal truths on screen, which is why candy-floss films only use the medium to spread the message in a light-hearted manner, Dostana is a primary example of such type of movies. Released after the amendment to Article 377, the movie depicts two mainstream bollywood heroes, Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham, as gay lovers. Open discussions of an alternate sexuality seems like a minor but appreciable leap for writers and directors across.
There is a fundamental error in films, which work on homosexual typecasts to bring out comic elements, but Hindi cinema is slowly evolving. New age directors like Onir have already lit the candle with movies like My Brother Nikhil, which became a landmark film for a positive portrayal of homosexuality, or in the least an impressive beginning to a healthy trend of realistic depictions and stories. We might have a long way to go before homosexual characters and love stories are accepted as normal, and don’t work on forced drama, but Rome wasn’t built in a day!