Pride Month – June, celebrated globally – is 52 this year. Every year, we use this month to highlight the various issues that continue to plague queer people, but we also use it to celebrate the lives of the queer. Here, I’m going to talk about Indian films and shows that were about queer lives and that meant something to me when I watched them – as a queer person, yes, but also as someone who likes to think about how films reflect our lives. This is a personal, very subjective list and is obviously not definitive.
Indian movies have long skirted around queer issues: gay men were usually jokes, trans people were scary villains, gay women were virtually non-existent. But in the last ten years, as things have opened up socially (and the godforsaken Section 377 was read down in its reference to homosexual sex in 2018), our films have began to dip their toes into queer representation as well.
I think the film about a gay man that stayed in my mind longest was Kapoor and Sons (2016). For a film and a character conceived and performed largely by straight people, Kapoor and Sons was alive to the struggles of being gay and thirty-something in a middle-class Indian household. The Kapoors live in a bungalow in Coonoor, they eat apple pie, they have all the comforts of an educated family – yet their son Rahul (a heartbreaking Fawad Khan) is struggling to come out to them. He’s tired of being their ‘perfect’ son. Luckily for him, he has been able to forge a life for himself away from the narrow confines of his Indian home: he lives with his boyfriend and works in London. The only time he has to confront prejudice or engage in secrecy is when he makes the occasional trips back home.
The same luxury, however, was not available to Professor Ramchandra Siras, whose tragic story was interpreted in Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh (2015). Siras is a professor in a small town – he does not have the resources to move abroad (or even to a bigger city) and live his truth openly. Aligarh is a rare Hindi film that looked at a lower-middle-class gay man. Siras doesn’t speak English fluently; he’s a mousy man not given to great eloquence. The film is based on a true story, so Siras couldn’t get a fairy-tale happy ending either. In the process, Mehta and his writer Apurva Asrani (an openly gay man himself) exposed the homophobia that continues to run deep in our country – the prejudice that we, in our privileged, upper-middle-class, urban circles, able to attend Pride marches and with access to queer narratives from across the world, sometimes forget still exists in our backyards.
Another queer film set in a small town that I loved was 2019’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, in which Sonam Kapoor played Sweety, who is gay. She even has a secret girlfriend. But hers is a traditional Punjabi family, and they want her to marry a boy.
Ek Ladki was unusual for being the first mainstream Hindi movie to centre a lesbian, but it was also the first time I could recall watching a Hindi film that emphasised queerness in childhood. Queer people have been queer all their lives! When we are children, we are unalloyed by worldly filters or methods of concealment: we behave in the most ‘natural’ way, until we begin growing up and learning what is acceptable to the people around us. In Ek Ladki, when Sweety’s father learns of her homosexuality, he is at first upset. But then he discovers the diaries she has kept all her life, he reads about her queer feelings when she was a child, and he realises that they are as natural as his heterosexuality. In the end, he delivers a sweet line when he says that everyone thought Sweety was like her mother, when in reality she was like her father: he likes women too!
The next year, another film was released that featured a queer child prominently. In Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, Pappu likes wearing ‘girls’’ clothes and using the girls’ toilet. The authorities in school and Pappu’s mother Dolly (Konkona Sen Sharma) are very worried. While Pappu hasn’t yet developed the protective heteronormative façade so many queer children must, there is an awareness of the consequences of such behaviour. Dolly finds Pappu dressed up in a gown once in a museum; all Pappu says is, ‘You’ll hit me when we get home, so let me enjoy myself for now.’ By the end, Dolly has rid herself of the shackles of an unhappy marriage, and this new freedom she has acquired gives her a new perspective on Pappu, to whom she gifts a pink hairband. (You see something similar in Kapoor and Sons, when the initially upset mother comes to form a tenuous acceptance of her queer child after she suffers a loss: the fear of losing her son as well, should she refuse to try to understand him, helps her overcome her uneasiness at his sexuality.)
I also want to touch briefly on Four More Shots Please!, the glitzy Amazon Prime series about four upper-class women in Mumbai, dealing with life and love. One of the women, Umang (Bani J) is bisexual and much of her track is focussed on her relationship with a closeted Bollywood actress named Samara Kapoor (Lisa Ray). In the second season, Samara proposes to Umang, and the two begin plans for a massive destination wedding in Rajasthan. I remember when I watched that, something clicked in my head: I had always kind of accepted that a proper, blow-out gay marriage ceremony was an impossibility in India, but something about the way the plans were being made in the show altered how I had seen the situation. Maybe it could happen. Yes, the women in the show are wealthy, educated and urban: they live in a privileged, liberal bubble. Yet there was something fulfilling about seeing a no-questions-asked approach to a big, splashy wedding … for two women. It gave me hope.
Pride Month is a time to celebrate – and the collective appeal of films lends itself naturally to celebration. Indian queer cinema is still in its nascent stages, but I believe there is already cause to celebrate. This Pride Month, I wish you so much queer joy, and so many films!
*This essay was written by Sahir for Pride Month.