February 18 2019
Will mainstream Indian queer cinema move on from the coming-out saga?
03 July 2018

As Pride month draws to a close, we need to ask where the Indian LGBTQIA+ cinema stands today

The Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival this year had the Asian premiere of Vandana Kataria’s Noblemen, where Kunal Kapoor is a drama teacher who deals with bullying and homophobia in a boarding school.

After the screening, one viewer stood up and accused the film of depicting gay men in an unflattering light. “It does nothing for the gay movement,” he declared. Another viewer defended the film, saying Indian queer films rarely go beyond the coming-out experience.

Coming out is undoubtedly a milestone in a queer person’s life, especially when it’s coming out to the family. This innately dramatic moment, when depicted on screen, takes the shape of a perfect conflict, enough to drive an entire film.

When a college-going Varun comes out to his mother, he is asked to leave home in Lokesh Kumar’s Tamil film, My Son Is Gay. There is ample weeping, some slapping, and a few slammed doors. Sridhar Rangayan’s Hindi film, Evening Shadows, makes the process even more melodramatic by setting it in the middle of a lake.


A still from Evening Shadows.

A still from Evening Shadows.  

Karthik and his mother are in a coracle, rowing around leisurely. When she becomes aware of her son’s sexuality, she is crestfallen and confused. Confined in the boat, her inner conflict is brought out through melancholic music and a long shot of the lake against the setting sun. In a more mainstream set-up, Sunita (Ratna Pathak Shah) stumbles upon her son Rahul’s (Fawad Khan) photos with his partner in Kapoor & Sons (2016)Her favourite child is no longer flawless.

While these mothers do come around (with varying degrees of comfort with homosexuality), the primary source of conflict in the stories of gay men remains their hidden sexuality. In Kumar’s film, Varun (Ashwinjith) discreetly consults a psychiatrist when he is attracted to men in his gym. The doctor takes him under his wings, introduces him to his gay activist son and explains the normalcy of homosexuality, almost as if addressing the viewer.

Queer films certainly provide a fertile ground for education, but not without the imminent threat of being didactic, or worse, painting queer lives as those destined to doom. So the big question is: where is Indian queer cinema today?

A few regional independent films like Nagarkirtan (Bengali), Khejdi (Hindi) and Irattajeevitham (Malayalam) are bringing in diverse narratives.

Suresh Narayanan’s Irattajeevitham chronicles the post-transition life of a transman in a small coastal village in Kerala, and is narrated in a sombre tone, as if mourning the loss of a pre-transitioned body.


A still from Irattajeevitham.

A still from Irattajeevitham.  

One could attribute the grimness of Indian queer films to the largely hostile environment that surrounds LGBTQIA+ citizens in India. It is hardly surprising then that directors rarely make homosexuality incidental to the story.

Bucking the trend is Sudhanshu Saria’s English-Hindi film, Loev (2015). It’s a story of two young men who, over a weekend, explore the various facets of attraction: friendship, intimacy, love, jealousy and violence. Sexuality isn’t necessarily a conflict and orientations are kept ambiguous. In a 2016 interview, Saria said, “I don’t want [Loev] to be looked at as an ‘Indian’ or a ‘queer’ or an ‘Indian queer’ film. I want it to be looked at as a movie.”

This call for “universality” of queer narratives is being felt in mainstream Hollywood. Whether it is Call Me By Your Name (2017) or The Kids Are All Right(2010), the fine line between “them” and “us” is being deliberately blurred to attract a bigger audience. In the trailer of the gay coming-of-age film, Love, Simon, the protagonist says, “I’m just like you, except I have one huge-ass secret: nobody knows I’m gay.” In the pursuit to be “just like you”, queer films have often been criticised for pandering to the straight gaze and eliminating “queerness”. Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, for instance, diluted the explicit lovemaking and sexual explorations of André Aciman’s novel, making the film palatable to a larger audience. If Western progression is to be aped, how susceptible is Indian queer cinema to gentrification?

In Loev, the Utopia-like world isn’t a far cry from reality. The protagonists are a Mumbai-based musician and a New York-based Wall Street hotshot, and the only time we’re reminded of their sexuality is when the caretaker of the guesthouse they’re staying in gives them one room with two single beds. The fleeting sequence opens up another discussion on class and sexuality, and whether “relatable queer films” can only be made with protagonists of privilege, and in the case of Hollywood, with white people.

Indian queer cinema is still in its infancy, and one can hope that with time, it’ll grow to form its own canon that captures the defiance, fragility and robustness of queer lives.



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