Queer Representation in Indian Cinema

Graphic by Anirudh Bhattacharya

Films have always been a big part of the entertainment industry, so to say that they have the power to make or break an image and catalyze social change wouldn’t be a stone thrown far away from reality. Cinema plays a significant role in society’s way of perceiving reality because they are often believed to represent actuality. For example, the normalization of eve-teasing by a large section of people in India can be to a large extent attributed to films and the social environment one has grown up in. Similarly, if we take a look at the way gender, specifically the queer have been represented or rather misrepresented in films by conforming and attributing to the formation and retention of stereotypes, it is safe to say that the representation at large has been a spoof of the serious subject matter.

If we look at Indian cinema, it is noteworthy that through the decades, the way queer people have been represented has slowly gained a more conscious effort. When Indian cinema started out, the portrayal of LGBTQIA+ was always as an aide to the protagonists who were seen, almost always non-consensually hitting on the protagonists or existed as only a laughing stock, male actors were seen cross-dressing but that was only to evoke laughter from the audience. The queerness of the characters was also established through a very stereotypical approach like making gay characters effeminate or making the protagonists their love interests, etc, and were given horrible reputations. Even in Dostana, which was one of the first movies to deal with the theme of homosexuality overtly, the characters were only pretending to be gay which raises important questions regarding representation. Films like ‘Kya Kool Hain Hum, ‘Partner’, ‘Style’ and ‘Masti’ have some of the most terrible queer representations ever seen in the Indian cinematic diaspora. These movies may be entertaining to watch, however, the question of appropriate and dignified representation still presents itself as a question mark and it is important to hold Hindi cinema guilty for the terrible and highly demeaning portrayal of the LGBTIQIA+. 

In the last decade though, the Indian cinematic diaspora has seen some serious representation usually portrayed through the complex and layered life of the queer or by their coming-out stories with movies like ‘Aligarh’, ‘Ek Ladki ko Dekha toh Aisa Laga’, ‘Made in Heaven’ and with visionary movies like Bomgay (1996)  and Gulabi Aaina (2003), Hindi cinema has come a long way from where it started but with tropes like ‘hero saving the day’ as in the case of ‘Ek Ladki ko Dekha toh Aisa Laga’, there is still a long way to go when it comes to queer representation. There is a shift and change that has taken place in more recent Hindi films in which queer and themes and representations are becoming slightly more visible and fluid, however, there is still a need for movie-makers to move away from stereotypes and do justice to the queer characters. 

Another reason why it might have been difficult for LGBTQIA+ movies to gain traction and representation for people belonging to this community, in the Indian cinema diaspora stems from queerness being a social taboo and therefore not making it to the mainstream cinema or receiving low funds to go through with the projects which has partly been solved by the increase in the Queer Film Festival culture such as Chennai International Queer Film Festival (since 2004), Dialogue: Annual Calcutta LGBT Film and Video Festival (since 2007), Bangalore Queer Film Festival (since 2006), Kashish-Mumbai International Queer Film Festival (since 2010) and Nigah Queer Festival, Delhi (since 2011), have encouraged Indian filmmakers to screen their films, supported by NGOs and film production houses, these film festivals have not only made international queer films available to the Indian audience but also have played catalyst in the production of homemade queer cinema, which is a huge step towards normalizing homosexuality. 

The engagement of the LGBTQIA+ community in the art and film sphere needs to be more proactive in order to normalize homosexuality, however, in comparison with the past few decades, it is safe to say that the Indian LGBTQIA+ community has moved collectively ahead by accepting its identity and gaining increasing acceptance and representation in a predominantly heterosexual world of media portrayals.

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