Yesterday, at around 2 pm, I was treated to a series of unexpected social media pings. The sort that can push a journalist into the throes of a panic attack. The notification icon on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were popping unheard of numbers for an average Indian man – 12 unread messages, 6 tags.
What did I do wrong? Did I awaken a troll army? Did someone discover that though I am Bengali, I’m yet to like a Sourav Ganguly’s fan page? Have I been branded an anti-national for watching a Deepika Padukone film? Nope. The trailer of the new Ayushmann Khurrana film had just dropped, and my inbox was flooded with messages.
Some things in life don’t make sense unless you happen to live in India. This, is just one of them. You see, when a mainstream film depicting a homosexual love story, starring Bollywood’s favourite woke-boy releases, it’s but natural people will reach out to the nearest, (out) gay person and tell them, look, ‘there is a Bollywood film about YOU guys now’.
Apologies for sounding cross. I know it’s probably a gesture of genuine kindness and warmth. Just like the gesture of setting up your gay friend with the first queer person you come across.
For we all know how poorly the queer community has been treated by Bollywood. The first openly gay character in Bollywood was Pinku, in Rahul Rawail’s Mast Kalandar (1991), played by Anupam Kher, with a potent mix of theatricality and leeriness. With limp wrists and an orange mohawk, he more than lives up to his requirement of being a running joke. His highpoint? The scene where he confesses to be turned on by Dharmendra, when he is actually trying to strangle him. Because that’s how gay men are, right? Since then, we have had a chequered history. If there was a stray My Brother Nikhil, there were ten Dostanas and Kal Ho Na Ho, from those very filmmakers who identify as queer, if I may add.
In 2016, Kapoor & Sons happened. And all was forgotten. But can we really forget the years of being made to feel ashamed for who we really are?
The point to be made here, is that the shame of this history is not for the queer community to bear. As the historic 2018 Supreme Court Judgement said, ‘history owes apology to the LGBT community’. If today, there is a film that is celebrating a homosexual love story, keeping all the trappings of a Bollywood blockbuster in mind, don’t tag us in its trailer and feel woke. Ask yourself why such a film was not made before.
For we all need a world where a queer love story doesn’t need to be celebrated. We all need a world where you need to tag the handful of queer people you know in a trailer of a film that is about them. We all need a world where “them” is “us”.
Here is an anecdote that might give you an idea of what it means to be queer in urban India.
Sometime last year, my closest friend, also gay, met me after work. He was visibly shaken. We met at a South Delhi coffee shop for dinner. He ordered a slice and cheesecake and ate it with theatrical enthusiasm. I asked him what was wrong. He said he was subjected to homophobia at work that day. I chuckled, not because it was a defense mechanism, but because when you are a gay man in your late 30s, you have seen it all. Well, almost. We don’t expect anything better from this world.
He smiled. “It was my boss this time. He said he was okay with gay people as long as they don’t influence his growing children. This was at a team dinner,” he said. This, he claimed, was pointedly directed towards him.”I felt so dehumanised. I thought this was a safe space,” he said.
I suggested he lodge a complaint. I didn’t want to linger on this topic much, because no one likes to dig dirt. Then he said how his female colleagues chose to show solidarity. “They made him apologize to me. But I didn’t want to look him in the face,” he said.