When people think of Bollywood cinema, they tend to think of lavish musical productions with singing and dancing and women in brightly coloured saris, doing big group dance numbers.
Bollywood is a bit more than just the above simple description. In recent years, it's evolved into many genres beyond romance, such as crime, action, gritty realism, and now into GBLT film. The common denominator in these films is, of course, the music, and the romance. Such films as Don 2 or Ghajini, while full of violence and action, also have a romantic subplot and at least one song-and-dance number. Lighter action fare, such as the Dhoom series of films, also have a romance subplot that blossoms into part of the main plot, and, of course, the song-and-dance routine.
No one was more surprised than me when I watched a Bollywood movie after years of wrinkling my nose at them and discovering how much I loved it. That film was Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai's Devdas, and I realized that Bollywood wasn't just musicals (which is why I'd been wrinkling my nose – I'm not a fan of musicals!), it was costumes, story, plot twists, highs and lows, and touched on subjects such as prostitution, alcoholism, disinheritance and arranged marriages and many more. Devdas also, much to my amazement and horror, because I was really rooting for the two characters to have their happily ever after, had a terribly tragic ending. After watching Devdas, I was hooked. More Bollywood films for me, I said, and when Australian multicultural TV channel, SBS, played Bollywood films, I watched them all. It's getting to the point now that I think I've seen every film SBS has the rights to air – not just from Bollywood, but Indian cinema as a whole, Chinese cinema and South Korean cinema. And Japanese horror, which turns me into a gibbering, terrified mess. No one does horror like the Japanese. But I digress.
So SBS were airing Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi on the weekend, one of my favourite Shahrukh Khan films, and I was watching it for the umpteenth time, when, during SRK's straight-laced character pretending to be the uber cool Raj Kapoor character, I wondered, has Bollywood ever done any gay romance? After all, China, South Korea and Japan have, but what about Bollywood?
It turns out that yes, Bollywood has a handful of gay themed films, but the most controversial in India is a 2010 film called Dunno Y … Na Jaane Kyon (English: Don't Know Why). The film is directed by Sanjay Sharma and stars his brother, Kapil Sharma and Yuvraaj Parashar. The "Times of India" newspaper describes the story as:
The film traces the relationship between two young men who do fall in love but fail to find a conducive atmosphere to freely express it. On the one hand, there is family pressure and on the other there is social derision which forces this gay couple to remain in the closet and hope for a new, more liberal world order.
The review by the "Times…" is fairly lukewarm, but what stuck out for me was the closing lines:
There is a degree of sensitivity while tackling the homosexual relationship, nevertheless the drama lacks punch and the conclusion becomes self-defeatist. Surely, there could have been a bolder climax if the film wanted to lift the taboo from this bond.
The political background to this film is heated – since 2008, there have been Pride Parades in India, in cities such as Kolkata, Delhi and Bangalore. In 2009, the Delhi High Court overturned laws that made homosexuality illegal and the gay online paper, Pink Times was launched as a celebration of the legalization of homosexuality. Shortly after, India's first gay magazine, Bombay Dost was relaunched in Mumbai. With the legalization of homosexuality, more and more cities held pride parades drawing thousands of people, and in 2010, the first GBLT film festival held in mainstream multiplex theatres, Kashish Mumbai Queer Film Festival, was held in Mumbai.
In December 2002, the fight began to overturn completely Section 377, which is a law that prohibits homosexuality in India. It took years, but finally, the law was repealed:
On 2 July 2009, in the case of Naz Foundation v National Capital Territory of Delhi, the High Court of Delhi struck down much of S. 377 of the IPC as being unconstitutional. The Court held that to the extent S. 377 criminalised consensual non-vaginal sexual acts between adults, it violated an individual's fundamental rights to equality before the law, freedom from discrimination and to life and personal liberty under Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution of India. The High Court did not strike down S. 377 completely – it held the section was valid to the extent it related to non-consensual non-vaginal intercourse or to intercourse with minors – and it expressed the hope that Parliament would soon legislatively address the issue. ("A New Law for India's Sexual Minorities," The Guardian, UK, 21 July 2009)
So what does this have to do with Bollywood? Quite a bit. As homosexuality is still considered very taboo in India, despite successes in the courts, Dunno Y… was considered a risky film to make. Not just for the director, but for the stars as well. Sanjay Sarmar said to the BBC of the film that:
"Dunno Y" is Sanjay Sharma's directorial debut and he says his first project is not a publicity stunt but a "serious film" about an issue which saw Bollywood make fun of gay characters with 2008 release "Dostana". "Dostana" portrayed two men who "pretended" to be gay to fool a landlady into letting her daughter live with them. Although the male characters kissed at the end of that film as a punishment, they were not gay. Sanjay insists "Dunno Y" depicts a "normal relationship" between two men and that he was not scared to broach the subject.
"I'm not afraid of anything," he said. "I stand by my conviction."
The poster for the film is certainly clear – it leaves no doubt as to what the romance in the film is. It's a beautiful poster (click the thumbnail to embiggen), and the untouched original photograph is quite a bit more suggestive (full image is found here). The film won a lot of awards and received more cinema time around the world than a lot of Bollywood films, but back home in India, its stars were getting less than stellar treatment.
Yuvraaj Parasher's family are less than pleased. Said his father to the "Times of India" and the "Bombay Times":
“I feel what he has done is against the culture and tradition of our country and it challenges the purity of the relationship between a man and a woman. He kept us in the dark right from when he signed the film and told us that he is acting with a girl. When we heard about the poster and the things he has done in the film, we were shocked, hurt and humiliated. People will make fun of us and we won’t be able to live peacefully ever again.
“His mother is totally devastated. We are a respected family and I’m appalled that he is playing a gay man’s role. We’re finished. All the dreams and hopes we had built around him are over. For just a film role, he has lost out on his blood ties. We don’t want to see his face ever … not even when we are dying.”
This is a film, the effects of which, I feel, will be felt through India for a long time to come.
In conclusion, a word from Yuvraaj Parasher on the role, from an interview with "Indyarocks":
“I feel cinema and the audience have changed. I never wanted to make my debut as a collegian wooing a chick on a bike. When I was selected to play gay in the audition, I was elated. I’d rather do something unconventional.”
Speaking about making love to a guy on camera, Yuvraaj said: “It was awkward. After doing it with Kapil we avoided each other. Finally we looked at one another and burst laughing.”
Five GBLT Films I Highly Recommend:
(Not including Brokeback Mountain, because I think everyone knows that film, and knows how good it is.)
1. The Sum of Us - one of the best performances by Russell Crowe I've seen. From Australia, 1994, 100 minutes.
2. A Frozen Flower - A historical, with amazing fight scenes in between the love story. A stunning film. From South Korea, 2008, 133 minutes.
3. Bent - Tragic story of the fate of gay Jews in Nazi Germany. Starring Clive Owen (who is fantastic here), Mick Jagger, Nikolai Coster-Waldau (Jaime in "Game of Thrones"), Jude Law and Ian McKellan to name a few. From the UK, 1997, 105 minutes.
4. Gods and Monsters - Ian McKellan and Brendan Fraser (yes, "Encino Man" and "The Mummy" Brendan Fraser) are phenomenal in this biopic. From the UK, 1998, 105 minutes.
5. The Old Testament A beautiful, gut-wrenching film about gay love in Communist China. From China, 2001, 74 minutes.
And if you're looking for more, this is a great list of films to watch.
Five Bollywood Stars I Love And One of Their Films:
1. Shahrukh Khan. What can I say, I love him. He's such a versatile actor. And I'm cheating a little and rec'ing two films. Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (romantic comedy which does always make me laugh out loud) and Don 2 (action, crime.)
2. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Devdas (romance, tragedy). I love her. She's gorgeous, and I love how down to earth she is. Plus she's a great actress.
3. Hrithik Roshan. Dhoom 2 for action with comedy and the fact he spends most of the film minus a shirt or with his shirt open. And another for sheer acting awesomeness, Jodhaa Akbar, a historical epic. Both co-star Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.
4. Ahbishek Bachchan. Raavan (drama, thriller). This is a pretty intense film, with Bachchan playing a bandit. He co-stars with his wife, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Vikram.
5. Preity Zinta. Veer Zaara (drama, romance). This is set against the backdrop of the conflict between Pakistan and India. Preity plays a Pakistani woman who falls for an Indian man, played by SRK.
L-R: Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Ahbishek Bachchan.
Bollywood director confident gay kiss will pass censors (2 Feb 2010) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/8492974.stm
Dunno Y Na Jaane Kyun (12 Nov 2010) http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/movie-reviews/hindi/Dunno-Y-Na-Jaane-Kyun/movie-review/6871127.cms
India's Answer to Brokeback Mountain (23 April 2010) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/apr/23/india-gay-film
Indian Film Star Yuvraaj Prashar is Disowned by His Family (27 Sept 2010) http://greginhollywood.com/indian-film-star-yuvraaj-parashar-is-disowned-by-his-family-for-playing-a-gay-man-in-a-film-38135
People are so Focused on the Script (22 Sept 2009) http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2009-09-22/news-interviews/28076394_1_zeenat-aman-maradona-rebello-pankh
Gay Film in India Sparks Homophobia (5 Oct 2010) http://bestgaynewsmagazine.com/2010/10/05/gay-film-in-india-sparks-homophobiadunno-yna-jaane-kyun.aspx