Growing up as an Indian Australian, although the “West” has heavily influenced my personal values, I’ve always felt a sense of indianness in the way I see myself; it’s an intrinsic part of my identity. A central aspect of interacting with this identity has been watching Bollywood films, which have often allowed me to keep in touch with contemporary norms in India. Other South Asian friends and family have remarked similarly, demonstrating that Bollywood films are an integral part of how many in the diaspora look to their homelands.
With the rise of Internet culture, however, Bollywood has left the confines of my parents’ living room, and I see it now in gifs and listiscles that construct Western understandings of Bollywood as a few staged fight co-ordinated dance scenes. These two-dimensional representations are problematic for myriad reasons, as are the stereotypes they perpetuate about an “exotic” India, but what’s particularly concerning is the way they erase the nuanced representations of Indian people that can and do exist in Bollywood. More specifically, Western representations have excluded Bollywood’s rich depictions of queer people in India. This has had a particularly powerful impact on the way many South Asians interact with the dynamic between what has been perceived as “Western” values and our culture.
Mainstream Bollywood is not without its flaws. In a hyper-capitalist market, where the box office appears to be the sole measure of success for a film, there is a clear incentive to pander to hyperbolised representations of queer characters. It is critical to note that for centuries, ancient Indian culture embraced and engaged with queerness in many forms of artistic expression. The rise of heteronormativity is a legacy of imperialism, which first criminalised homosexuality in British penal codes, thereby institutionalising conservative opinions. These attitudes have manifested in modern films such as Student of the Year and Dostana (the latter of which features straight men pretending to be gay), which have featured queer characters that often fit the stereotyped expectations of mass audiences: hypersexual, feminine and flamboyant figures. Student of the Year goes so far as to depict a gay school principal with a crazed sex drive whose perverse interactions with students are portrayed as apparently comical.
To the Western audience, these homogenous representations may seem backwards, a reflection of the inability of Bollywood to catch up with the rest of the world. However, this ignores context. It ignores that Hollywood obviously has its own problems with representation (see: The Danish Girl), but also the fact that homosexuality is literally criminalised in India. In 1998, the film Fire was received with instances of violence on streets and vandalism of cinema halls. In this context, even the emergence of queer characters, whilst undeniably flawed, is itself a notable step forward.
Encouragingly, a mainstream film, Kapoor and Sons, depicted a gay male protagonist finally coming out to his family. Given the aforementioned social pressures, it is important to note the magnitude of a large budget film featuring famous actors engaging in such issues. Furthermore, there exists a series of nuanced “middle genre” films that engage in queer issues and offer diverse representations of themes like homoeroticism. Such films are not a product of recent times, but gained notoriety during the 1970s and 1980s when movies such as Mandi featured intimate lesbian relationships. Whilst implicitly featuring queer interactions in the stereotypical setting of a brothel, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil’s characters in Mandi definitely moved away from the conventional hyper-sexualised portrayal of lesbianism that existed and still exists in mainstream cinema. The ground-breaking legacy of films like Mandi has flowed onto modern times, with celebrated movies such as My Brother…Nikhil, which depicts the tribulations of a gay man testing HIV positive. In this way, it appears there is space in Bollywood for queer narratives that is only increasing as more directors take on the challenge of engaging in these depictions.
As a member of the Indian diaspora, the ability of these films to foster a connection with my cultural background is very important. Against the backdrop of often conservative families, many young South Asian Australians can find it difficult to fit progressive views into their cultural identity, and are forced to reserve such views for university or school life. Films that start conversations about queer issues are empowering in their ability to discursively impact the ways in which we can interact with our culture, not just in India, but also in diaspora communities all over the world. Personally, these films have provided a platform through which I can discuss progressive issues that would otherwise be taboo amongst my extended family. More importantly, for queer people who often carry the burdens of community pressures, it can be very difficult to come out. In a society where insular South Asian communities often set strict norms to adhere to “model minority” expectations, films that present narratives of queer characters can play an important role in reinforcing queerness as compatible with embracing one’s cultural identity.
Mainstream Bollywood is hardly the ideal model for representations of the queer community, as these representations remain defined by limiting stereotypes. However, when analysing Bollywood films in a context where homosexuality is criminalised and discourse can cause violence, it is undeniable that current films need to be credit- ed with their empowering ability. The more such films receive attention, the greater the likelihood of more nuanced representations of queer people in Bollywood. As this happens, diasporic South Asians who grapple with the uniquely intersect- ing elements of their identity are able to look to Bollywood as a source of solidarity.