Love stories about going against family or societal norms are common in Bollywood.
The story of an emperor-in-waiting who falls for a courtesan despite his father’s objections is told in the epic “Mughal-e-Azam” from 1960. The two non-resident Indians in the rom-com “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge,” which debuted in 1995, follow their hearts despite the fact that one of them is getting married through an arranged marriage. A romance between a Hindu Indian rescue pilot and a Muslim Pakistani woman that transcends religion and borders is depicted in the 2004 drama “Veer-Zaara.”
Even though taboo relationships have been a favorite subject for Indian filmmakers for a long time, relatively few mainstream Hindi films have dealt with LGBTQ characters’ romantic relationships.
However, there has been a change over the past few years. “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga,” a comedy-drama starring Gazal Dhaliwal and Shelly Chopra Dhar, depicted a queer woman’s attempt to come out to her family shortly after India’s top court overturned a law from the colonial era that criminalized homosexuality. The film, which starred Bollywood legend Anil Kapoor and his daughter Sonam Kapoor, was groundbreaking for its portrayal of a lesbian relationship, albeit in a restrained manner.
The story of a gay man and a lesbian who wed out of convenience to please their families is told in “Badhaai Do.” They each pursue their own romantic relationships despite being married. Collection Christophel/Alamy Since then, a number of mass-market Bollywood rom-coms have emphasized LGBTQ relationships. Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, which comes out in 2020, “Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui,” which comes out in 2021, and “Badhaai Do,” which comes out in 2022, all have gay or transgender characters in relationships who eventually have to deal with family members who don’t like them. The films follow the Bollywood formula and feature dance numbers and happy endings.
They make you care about and emotionally invested in this love story. Ulka Anjaria, a Brandeis University professor who teaches South Asian literature and film, stated, “They make the parents the enemies of love and force them to change their minds.” It simply demonstrates the full splendor of queer romance.
In some ways, LGBTQ-focused plotlines are radical for the Hindi film industry. However, according to Anjaria and other academics, same-sex desire and longing are not a completely new subject in Indian cinema. Instead, the way it is explicitly presented has changed.
The way was made by movies in the 1990s and 2000s. Nearly 30 years before “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga,” Deepa Mehta made a drama called “Fire” about a sapphic relationship.
Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das were prominent Indian actors in the English-language film “Fire.” It was about two sisters-in-law in an Indian household who, after being neglected by their husbands, find consolation and sexual pleasure in each other.
The 1996 film “Fire,” directed by Deepa Mehta, focused on a sexual and romantic relationship between two women. Despite its critical acclaim, Hamilton-Mehta Productions’ “Fire” was met with opposition from far-right Hindu groups that characterized it as antithetical to Indian culture and values. Those who objected said that the movie would make Indian women corrupt and signal the end of marriage as an institution. The film was also criticized for portraying same-sex desire as something that arises from sexual frustration rather than being inherent by some queer activists.) Still, it sparked a discussion about sexuality and LGBTQ rights in modern India because it was one of the first Indian films to show homosexuality on screen.
Anjaria stated, “‘Fire’ was really important in bringing that conversation to the forefront and getting people talking about it.” In that sense, it is regarded as a pivotal moment in India’s quest for queer legibility.”
After her film “Fire” was pulled from several theaters in 1998 due to objections from right-wing groups, director Deepa Mehta attended a candlelight vigil. John McConnico/AP In the years that followed, films like “My Brother… Nikhil” (2005) and “Margarita With A Straw” (2014) sensitively depicted queer characters. “My Brother… Nikhil” is about a man with HIV who fights homophobia from his parents and Indian authorities, while “Margarita With A Straw” is about a bisexual teen with cerebral palsy who falls in love with a young blind activist.
However, it was more prevalent in Indian films to stereotype LGBTQ characters or to use homosexuality for comedic purposes. A gag in the blockbuster “Kal Ho Naa Ho” from 2003 features a maid mistaking the two leading men for a couple and reacting in horror. A classic illustration of the “bury your gays” cliche can be found in the 2004 film “Girlfriend,” which features a lesbian character who suffers a tragic end as a result of her jealousy and vengeance. Additionally, the smash hit “Dostana,” released in 2008, depicts two men pretending to be a couple in order to share an apartment with a woman.
Nowadays, it is generally accepted that such films are homophobic. Even though they haven’t held up well over time, some of these examples, according to Anjaria, helped pave the way for today’s more explicit LGBTQ representation. For instance, in the movie “Dostana,” the character Sameer’s mother is initially devastated by the idea that her son is gay, but she eventually learns to love and accept his (fake) partner as a son-in-law. This scene is relatively forward-thinking for its time when taken out of its actual context.
Anjaria stated, “Even though that ended up being unnecessary because they’re not really a couple, that scene actually became really important for a model of what would look like actual parental acceptance.”