Queering Bollywood is an exhibition and demonstration of a collection of queer readings in Indian cinema. It is open and collaborative in nature. The idea for doing something like this was born at the Queer film festival organized by Pedestrian Pictures in 2003. The idea was to initiate the process of analysing and collecting information on queer representations in cinema, especially in the Indian context, by creating a database of resources ranging from articles, film clippings, magazine stories etc., aiming eventually to create:
note: some of links below point to archived versions of the original pages as the original sites have since removed the content or made it inaccessible.
Buddy films with queer possibilities (male and female)
Movies with a gay/lesbian character in side role
Lesbian undertones in film or scenes
Movies with gay subtext in film or scenes
Potrayal of hijras
Movies accepting homosexuality, but not main theme of film
Homosexuality as main character/theme (or one off) in movie
Chakkas or the sissy as the side character
Gay icons/divas at different points of time and images in erotic circulation
Queering Bollywood is a series of conversations - each conversation with a person, whether the guy at the video parlour, or friends, or anyone interested, led to more ideas and suggestions about movies to watch. Often recollected vaguely from the subconscious - yes, there was a controversy, a moment of seeming stillness in a film, an intaken breath. Speculation about same sex activity in cinema or its reflection on celluloid is not however confined to today, but seems like there have always been moments of anxiety, whether a film like Utsav, or Rajnigandha from the 70s-80s, or popular films like Zanjeer, or controversies like the Saif Ali Khan attack controversy.
Shohini Ghosh in her article on queer pleasures, talks about the privileging of romantic love in Hindi popular cinema as opposed to any other emotion, and also the romanticisation of friendship - we will die for each other, we will never forget each other, best exemplified by the Sholay song - Yeh Dosti. This is also reflected in Raja Rao's article on homoeroticism in cinema especially reflected in the songs. The article also gives an interesting insight into rendezvous' in cinema halls amongst men watching Amitabh Bacchan films.
Another film that Shohini Ghosh talks about is Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (the song - Didi tera dewar deewana), the so called "family film" that contains a moment of queer pleasure which is carefully hidden and coded, but nonetheless is there. This also points to an interesting facet that it is the super blockbusters of Indian cinema, like Sholay, Hum aapke hain kaun, Kal ho na ho that seem to contain these moments of queer pleasure. This genre that envelops many others - which gives action for action fans, romance for romance fans, songs for all the music lovers, drama for the family film, also has somehow included within its repertoire, moments of homoeroticism.
However the art films or offbeat films do have a very important role to play as well. The ones that bravely take a stand like Fire, Bombay Boys, Mango Souffle or even ones like Bollywood Hollywood, Bend it like Beckham that contain minor gay characters, confront issues directly, but also cater to a limited audience of middle class English speaking people but this audience is not necessarily a non-homophobic one. Here the focus, because of limitations of space rather than anything else, is for that moment encoded in the film, and about conversations such as this one about the gay stuff in Kal ho na ho on a web based bulletin board. The obvious films circulate within the community of those aware, including films like Happy Together, Wild Reeds, Wedding Banquet, Antonia's line and many more.
A similar exercise of coming out of the closet was done for Hollywood in the form of a book by Vito Russo and the film - Celluloid Closet, and numerous articles. Richard Dyer's article on the responsibilities of a gay film critic and several of the interviews in the film, reveal a trajectory of slow but steady coming out - a movement from ridicule to villainous to .... a main character who is multi-faceted, but unfortunately dying as in Philadelphia. Richard Dyer's comment on stereotyping is in fact also reflected in certain Hindi movies like Raja Hindustani and Excuse me where the sidekick of the woman masquerading as the maharani too is obviously kothi. The slight playing of stereotypes is also evident in Kuch na kaho. In his article he also talks about how stereotypes infact become useful in recognizing certain characters as queer. What marks the documentary as a journey through the history of Hollywood is that it is interspersed with personal comments about reactions to movies and the meager space that some - abysmally few do provide.
What is different from Hollywood, and is most evidenced by the documentary film Celluloid Closet (available for borrowing from Pedestrian Pictures in Bangalore) is the lesser possibility of homoerotic pleasure for women. Madhav Prasad talks about the enveloping of the women centric genre into the social genre in the context of Indian popular cinema, which is probably why there isn't a form of women-centric cinema as there is in Hollywood (Thelma and Louise style).
In Indian cinema the physicality between women is much less obvious, even in a self-conscious copy of male buddy films like Paisa Vasool, the images don't offer much queer pleasure or desire, but they do offer a sort of montage of lives of two women together, sharing a bed, cooking, walking on the beach like couples and hatching an evil plan that they eventually do succeed with, which is very unusual. Hindi popular cinema has often almost reveled in negating women's desires. Whether this is Sangam that entirely ignores the women's desire, or Jism that allows a sensual Bipasha Basu to rule the roost till near the end, and then kills her off. Paisa Vasool also has moments of affirmation of friendship and love between the two women and juxtaposition against heterosexual desire (couples on the beach). The clip about the Morocco in Celluloid Closet, reveals the possibility of expression of lesbian desire, not yet explored even in a coded manner as popular male buddy films like even Sholay do. Fire did break some of the rules, but also came in for critique for its depiction of the relationship between two women as some kind of lesser choice, because of the failure of both their marriages. Similarly the upcoming movie Girlfriend's (www.girlfriendthemovie.com) storyline also is about a possessive best friend who comes between a couple, and rather than reciprocated desire it is about one slip by the character played by Amrita Arora.
However rather than critique, this exercise is meant to be creative, innovative - seriously frivolous. As Susan Sontag says in Notes on Camp - "The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to "the serious." One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious." Queering Bollywood is a project that mixes the sense of frivolous about the serious and the serious about the frivolous. Its serious about subversive, queer readings of popular Hindi cinema which many consider extremely frivolous. Its frivolous about the deadly serious nature of ownership of cinema, freely copying and mixing from various sources.
One of the things done is a remix of a popular film Kal ho na ho. KHNH is categorized as a film which has a gay subtext (like Saathi, Anand, Main khiladi tu anaari) - the very notion of two men who are competing for the same woman supposedly, becoming friends so easily and remaining close, especially physically throughout the movie, is a very thin disguise for a gay love story. The remix attempts, on an average PC with pirated software and a pirated copy of the film, to unearth this story of 2 gay men and a woman in between. Several stories are actually possible, versions of which were even made. One of them is bisexual and the other is gay, the woman is the third angle. Both of them are gay, the girl falls for one, or the version that both are gay, but one is forced to get married because of his parents to an unsuspecting girl.
Infact many collections of lesbian and gay literature like Scripts, Facing the Mirror contain stories and poems that refer to Bollywood. Films like Gulabi Aaina, Tedhi Lakeer thrive on the imagery and songs of cinema.
Kal ho na ho takes unlikely men with conflicting interests (for the same woman) and puts them together. Unlike this most other films take very good friends, even brothers and it is between them that there are moments. In the song Yeh Dosti from Sholay, both the characters flip a coin to see who will get the girl, and the coin stands on its edge. This gives neither of them the girl but ostensibly leaves them with each other. Sholay also has the interesting conversation between Amitabh and Mausi, because of how he tries to prevent his friend's wedding. A film that seems to follow from Sholay is Saathi, apparently made keeping a gay audience in made. Saathi uses some of the same imagery of two guys on a bike and the movie revolves around the intense relationship between the two men. The songs are about their friendship elevated to love, and also in the fight scene between the two men the woman in Mohsin Khan's life is obviously made the villain who came between them. The song Yaarana has them dancing together like usually men and women in Hindi films dance with each other at that point of time (P.T. style facing the camera).
Another film Main khiladi tu anaari that also led to the controversy of the attack by Saif Ali Khan because he was called gay, has several delicious scenes, especially one where the two men get up close and personal only to be interrupted by a woman, who in the film is going to be the love interest of one of them. How believable is that? Waugh in his article wonders who - the dance choreographer, the director came up with the shot of the pelvic thrust by one man, and the response by the other in the background of the frame in this song.
The scene in Silsila has been mentioned by Shohini Ghosh as well, where two men are bathing together. The undercurrent between the two in the beginning of the film is completely lost and layered over by subsequent stories of death, Rekha, adultery etc.etc. Two other brothers who are again "suspect" are in Parinda, where they role-play as man and woman, and also significantly disappear inside a closet. And in Naam again the song seems to say what can't be said in dialogues, about love and loss between people of the same sex.
There has been an anxiety about the representation of the private in Indian cinema for a rather long time it seems, as is evident from the informal prohibition on kissing that Madhav Prasad talks about in detail. The idea that this prohibition on kissing on screen was not a law but something that the cinema industry took on voluntarily does in some senses say a lot - but about what? That kissing is not part of Indian culture as the argument raised by the people in the industry at that time, but that argument discounts the existence of sexual vulgarity. The inference could be that this prohibition on kissing actually targets the representation of the private, and the private in Indian cinema is invented in and through the relationship of the family to the State. If the private itself is so contested, then how could desire and pleasure find expression, unless affirming the role of the modern nation State in society.
Several statements in public seem to keep gay bollywood in the papers in some way or another, whether it is Shobha De on television talking about the gay gaze in Indian cinema making the hero and several gay directors and actors in the industry, or Karan Johar's oft-repeated ravings about Shahrukh Khan, or the new movie Girlfriend - there seems to be a buzz. Remixes, the bad child of the media industry, too play with identities. Chod do Aanchal by Bombay Vikings ends with the girl dipping the guy at the end of their dance, signifying changing times. Another song Gori hai kalayian is about two girls competing for a guy, who eventually decide to stop fighting with each other and dump the guy. The last moment, often left out by the music channels who play snippets of the song, has the two women looking at each other, while the guy walks away. The most obvious in the pop genre is Falguni Phatak, whose music videos repeatedly involve a guy who looks extraordinarily like her, and in this video she seems to have gone past that, but there are still some sensual scenes between women that account for the major portion of the video.
Often cinema is viewed as the product solely shown in cinemas, but media is an extremely disaggregated form. Even posters, stickers and other such paraphernalia has some erotic circulation, some of which must be queer as is evidenced by Thomas Waugh's article that talks about posters and images also. Audiences in specific spaces also make a lot of difference. Gayatri Gopinath talks about the queer reception of films such as Hum aapke hain kaun by a queer diasporic audience. The same family film and even the same scene wouldn't raise a single doubt in any cinema in Ahmedabad catering to a completely Gujarati family audience. She draws a connection between the scene where two women disappear under a sheet, and the quilt in Ismat Chugtai's Quilt. Hence it is important to look at queer readings distributed over different forms that cinema takes (posters, pirated VCDs, images, screensavers, webpages, gossip sites, magazines etc.), different spaces that cinema inhabits (cinema, video parlours, homes, collective screenings etc.) and also the content of cinema which is then read in different ways because of the form and the space that it encounters.
Compiled by Namita Malhotra, Lawrence Liang and many others at Alternative Law Forum and in Bangalore.