When I think of queer characters in Indian cinema, my mind immediately goes to a scene from the Bollywood film Desi Boys, featuring Akshay Kumar. In the courtroom scene towards the end, Kumar’s character uses two markers to determine whether or not a person is gay. The first being that the man’s closest friends should predominantly be women and secondly, his favourite song should be ‘Aadmi Hoon Aadmi Se Pyar Karta Hoon.’ The scene is barely a minute long but has stayed with me for much longer considering its sheer ridiculousness. Such seemingly humourous scenes filled with playful (and insensitive) banter may seem harmless but have managed to seep into public consciousness and create a very narrow-minded understanding of who queer people are. Of what they look like, how they act, talk or even think, for that matter.
So the inclusion of characters in this list, unfortunately, had very low standards to pass. I had to look for characters that weren’t just effiminate for the sake of providing comic relief or reduced to hyper-sexual beings or present only as token queer characters with the sole purpose of seeming inclusive or raising shock-value.
But to be fair, things have come a long way in the past few years and even mainstream Bollywood is starting to be slightly more sensible. And with indie cinema now becoming more accessible, the on-screen representation of the queer community has become a lot less skewed. Notwithstanding the vastness that is Indian cinema, I’ve tried to cover a range of cultural and linguistic categories, hoping to pick characters that bring in different elements and help flesh out a largely over-simplistic narrative.
I. Richard In My Life Partner (2014)
The story in this Malayalam film develops to show the intricate relationship between two men Richard and Kiran, who help each other through tough times and eventually fall in love, despite things getting complicated. Richard is one of Indian cinema’s few bisexual characters, a point which is vital to reverse bisexual erasure in queer narratives. The film is also refreshing because it acknowledges parental desire in queer men, dislodging the need to start a family or have children as solely a heterosexual ideal. The Director M.B Padmakumaran specifically wanted to make a film on untraditional topics like homosexuality, as he believes that Kerala needs to stop sweeping such things under the carpet. The film went on to win second place in the Kerala State Film Awards in 2014.
II. Abhiroop Sen In Arekti Premer Golpo (2010)
Any movie directed by or starring Rituparno Gosh seldom disappoints. Just like his other films, Arekti Premer Golpo is thought-provoking and dynamic. It revolves around Abhiroop Sen, a transgender filmmaker who goes to Kolkata to film a documentary on a jatra actor Chapal Rani (both played by Gosh himself). The nuanced character of Abhiroop forces viewers to break away from the straightforward binaries we’ve so been accustomed to, that of gay/straight and male/female. Gender and sexuality become complicated and labels fall away, as the viewers are taken through a raw exploration of the self and one’s desires.
III. Dev In Bombay Talkies (2013)
Dev is an average urban working man in a dull marriage, when his life is shaken up by the entry of Avinash. The film portrays Dev’s frustration as he struggles to understand his own sexuality. The character of Dev also displays the consequences of toxic masculinity on the struggle for his identity, where frustration and helplessness are channelled through violence. Whenever he lets his guard down and becomes a little vulnerable, he immediately reacts negatively and, at one point, even physically attacks Avinash. This movie delivers better than most mainstream Bollywood films, by showing the frustration of queer men already in heterosexual marriages.
You can stream Bombay Talkies on Netflix.
IV. Sally In Desadanakkili Karayarilla (1986)
For a Malayalam film made in 1986, the relationship between two young girls, Sally and Kiran, is dealt with surprising sensitivity. Though never outrightly stated, their relationship shows adequate tension for people to know that it isn’t just friendship. Sally’s character of the feisty young girl traversing gender norms, as well as the frustration of figuring out her feelings for her best friend (often projected as possessiveness and jealousy) is probably one of the most relatable things for many queer youth even today.
V. Sahil In Loev (2015)
While queer stories that primarily deal with coming out or the struggle for acceptance are very much required, stories that show the realities of queer romantic relationships are just as important. Sahil’s emotions, insecurities, expectations and aspirations make him relatable to the public, helping viewers realise that queer relationships aren’t as alien as they are perceived to be. The film also portrays the skewed nature of recognition of sexual abuse in the gay community. When Jai forces himself on Sahil out of frustration, the lines are blurred and there is no clear identification of abuse. The popular construct of masculinity doesn’t allow the man to enter the terrain of victimhood, for the loss of agency, even in the hands of another man, is antithetical to the ‘boys don’t cry’ virtue of masculinity. This fragility is portrayed well through the construction of Sahil’s character, and how their relationship develops from that point onwards.
You can stream Loev on Netflix.
VI. Laila In Margarita With A Straw (2014)
Though there are many films with coming-of age stories about adventure and exploration of any kind, most of them depict able-bodied subjects. This ignores the fact that there is a significant part of the viewership made up of differently-abled individuals, who have aspirations and desires like everyone else. It’s wonderful how the film brings representation not just by focusing on the differently-abled itself, but by reminding viewers to acknowledge the various other parts of Laila’s personality. Laila’s exploration of her sexuality also shows some much needed fluidity, with her coming to terms with her bisexuality as well as trying to help her family understand it.
You can stream Margarita With A Straw on Netflix.
VII. Mani In Yours Emotionally! (2006)
The perspective of a character like Mani, a closeted gay man from a small village in India, is necessary to counter the hegemony of urban narratives in queer cinema. The film explores his anxieties over differences in caste, socio-economic background and cultural upbringing when he gets involved with Ravi, an Indian settled in England. The independent film is from the award-winning director of films like the Pink Mirror, Shridhar Rangayan and has been screened at various queer film festivals such as Frameline in San Francisco. For the unique issues it covers, it definitely deserves much recognition from mainstream Indian audience.
VIII. Vidhya In Naanu Avanalla….Avalu (2015)
From portraying 10-year old Maadesha’s feminine tendencies to his transformation into Vidhya with nuance and sensitivity, the film was path-breaking for the Kannada film industry. The viewers are not only taken on a journey of Vidhya’s internal mindscape, they’re also shown how she deals with rejection from her loved ones and her desire to sustain herself without resorting to begging or sex work, often the only forms of livelihood available to transgenders in the country. The film was based on the life of Living Smile Vidya, a popular actor, director and trans activist. She has been an advocate of fair representation of trans people in films, criticising the caricatured and biased narratives present in the industry.
IX. Radha In Fire (1996)
The exploration of love and sexuality in a middle-class setup, though not uncommon now, was refreshingly new when the film released in 1996. Breaking the widely-held misconception that only urban, westernised women are queer, Radha’s character talked about female desire in a woman trapped in a traditional marriage, 13-year celibacy to boot. Falling in love with her sister-in-law is only one part of the story, her movement out of the rigid space of the dutiful wife into a being completely aware of her sexuality and desires is remarkable and is played out with much attention in the film.
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