The LGBT! True Bollywood Story

India’s Mumbai-based film industry is one of the most celebrated and popular in the world; creating entertainment for the second most populous country in the world is a big business, and a very profitable one. One of the ways in which it noticeably differs from its American counterpart, however, is an explicit policy of state censorship that has for much of Bollywood history forbidden things like heterosexual kissing on screen.

Astute viewers will notice (and Westerners will often complain about bitterly, as if no one in South Asia has noticed this, and it does not also occur in American cinema) that there is a certain amount of hypocrisy here; for instance, Bipasha Basu can dance seductively for hordes of men and Vivek Oberoi can touch her wherever – as long as there’s no kissing. One might also note that the same scene features activities, like drinking, that are generally inappropriate in real life in India. This is the subject of MSN India’s mini-article about how willing Indian audiences seem to be to accept “disturbing revelations” in films that they would be horrified by in real life.

The MSN article discusses how despite the cultural conservatism that persists through much of India, things like sheer saris, senseless violence and gay relationships are still cropping up in movies – very popular movies, even! According to Gaysi (“a voice and safe space for desis who identify as LGBT), what’s problematic about their view is that it lumps gay and lesbian relationships in with “violent rape” and “implied incest” as “disturbing revelations” that are shocking for Indians to go see in the theater.

It could be argued that this is simply poor phrasing – for instance, the article also includes “Aamir Khan playing a 17-year-old,” which seems like it is probably not meant to be read as being as inappropriate as incest. But there’s still something wrong with putting gay relationships on the list of things that Indians will oppose in their daily life but gladly watch on the big screen. Because Indians haven’t and still don’t always go gladly to see it in the movies, and more importantly, it’s also less and less of a cultural taboo.

The MSN article mentions Deepa Mehta’s seminal film Fire, about two sisters-in-law who fall in love, as well as the considerably more commercial film Girlfriends and the more recent Dostana, starring major Bollywood names Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham. What it doesn’t mention is that all these films actually faced major opposition, and sometimes, violence. Deepa Mehta received death threats and theaters showing Fire were vandalized back in 1996.

Even Girlfriends, which features a “butch kick-boxing man-hating murderer who doubles as a plumber in her spare time” and who’s offered “the love of a good man” to “straighten her out” was protested by the Shiv Sena, a Hindu fundamentalist group who burned its movie posters. Dostana is a comedy whose lead “couple” isn’t even really gay – they’re faking being together for residency and to get to live with a beautiful woman whose protective auntie would otherwise keep them away from her. But even that incited protests calling for a ban that took the police an hour to subdue. It seems a little misleading to represent these movies as something everyone rushed to theaters to see. Outside the realm of cinema is the more pressing story of the lesbian couple in Gurgaon, whose lives were in danger for being open about their relationship, and who recently had to go into hiding to stay safe. In contrast, there have been no reports of anyone protesting Aamir Khan playing a 17-year-old.

At the same time, however, unlike shooting sprees or transparent clothing for women, being gay is less culturally frowned upon than it once was. New Delhi decriminalized gay sex in 2009, the same year that the country’s first gay pride store opened in Mumbai. Even in the much more conservative Southern city of Hyderabad, gay communities are increasingly active and visible. And the couple in Gurgaon has been granted 24-hour protection from the state – 14 of their relatives and village neighbors have been served notice by the court, a level of support that American queer communities can’t even count on. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the Health Minister from describing homosexuality as “unnatural.”  But considering that America’s current  most popular GOP candidate helps run a clinic that may provide or refer patients to “ex-gay” therapy, that still leaves room for India to be plenty progressive on gay rights – at least, much more so than MSN India seems to give it credit for.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1127 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. The thing with South Asians and sexuality is that it’s meant to be private – so suggestive is fine, in-your-face is not. Shame and discretion are big things; expose yourself openly and you’re seen as dishonoring yourself and not having self-respect.

    It’s a paradigm shift that takes a while to wrap around, but for some of us raised in this culture it makes a bit of sense – and it’s not like anywhere else is free of hypocrisy.

      • To answer your question, Aleks, yes. If a straight couple kissed in public, it would be considered a shameful and disrespectful act. Sure, intimacy is becoming more and more accepted, but relationships are still “meant to be private”. Whatever that means.

        When you have a large population of poverty-stricken, uneducated, and highly religious individuals, there tends to be a lot of backlash against anything that seems unnatural or different, and this generally takes on the form of violence. I hope India comes around, and I believe our generation, with its bigger middle class and improving economy, is much more tolerant than our parents’ generation.

      • Yes, it does. Indian culture is against all PDA, public drinking, talking about sex, and sex outside of marriage (everyone does it but people pretend like it doesn’t happen). Also, anything homosexual.
        My mum is Indian but moved to Australia when she was 8. Her parents were Hindu/Jain and although she was never religious herself, she was raised according to their ethics: work hard, be kind to others, and be discreet about your private business. Now, she’s a lawyer, and married to my dad, who is Anglo (“white” Australian), making me a halfie. Despite all her ‘Australian’ education, her ‘Australian’ way of life, and her general ‘Australianess’, her core values and ethics reflect her upbringing. For me and my brothers, that meant (and still means, for my brothers) no boyfriends/girlfriends in school, curfews, changing the channel when a sex scene comes on, and achieving high grades.

        Unfortunately, although she acts accepting towards my gay friends, she’s still against gay marriage and once said to me “civil unions are fine, but they shouldn’t be allowed to call it marriage”. She denies being homophobic and then makes statements like “bisexuals don’t exist” (oh, if only she knew the truth about her daughter…) and “you’re so immature! How can you think gay couples are equal to straight ones? When you’re older, you’ll understand. It’s different.”
        I was tempted to say, “hey mum, the only people who can REALLY compare gay and straight relationships are bisexuals, but according to you, we don’t exist anyway…”

        That being said, a few of my mum’s relatives are considerably less ‘Westernised’ than her. Her cousin and his wife raise their daughter (my second cousin) in a very strict ‘Indian’ way – no boyfriends until your mid twenties, get into med school or you’re disowned, don’t go to parties until you’re in uni – and yet my cousin is extremely open-minded. I go to her with girlfriend problems all the time! I think the ‘conservative Indian’ thing is definitely a feature of my parents’ generation (well, in Australia anyway).

        • (I should probably point out that although my dad was raised by fairly liberal, non-religious Anglo (“white”) parents and isn’t homophobic, he’s still very conservative when it comes to talking about sex etc and sex outside of marriage. I think general conservativeness about sex is a feature of our parents’ generation.)

  2. As a queer indian i thank you for addressing this issue. if india is ever to realize its promise as one of the most rapidly developing nations in the world, it needs to break free of a fundamentally outdated, traditional outloook. this particular instance of narrow-mindedness is so deeply ingrained into the culture that its hard to imagine a day in the near future where india will bare even the slightest resemblance to the US in terms of gay rights…
    there are many great aspects of indian culture– progressive views is sadly not one of them

    sorry for the verbal vomit? this has just been on my mind for a while

  3. Check out the trailer for Sonali Gulati’s new documentary, I AM:

    I Am is a feature-length documentary film that chronicles the journey of an Indian lesbian filmmaker who returns to Delhi, eleven years later, to re-open what was once home, and finally confronts the loss of her mother whom she never came out to. As she meets and speaks to parents of other gay and lesbian Indians, she pieces together the fabric of what family truly means, in a landscape where being gay was until recently a criminal and punishable offense.
    http://www.sonalifilm.com/I-AM.html
    http://www.facebook.com/iamdocumentary

    • Thank you jenni for posting a link for this beautiful movie trailer.i haven’t watched any Indian queer movie for a long time and I think with the protest and censorship going on for lgbt movies it will take atleast 10 years or more for a good movie to be released in India..

  4. a few thoughts as a queer indian-

    as aforementioned, sexuality in any form is still pretty frowned upon indian culture. sure, bollywood’s become a lot more suggestive than before, but it’s following in the footsteps of western media- our culture is not nearly as quick to accept change.

    my parents hail from kerala, a state all the way at the southern tip of india. it’s fairly rural, and the culture is rich in tradition even after all these years. they moved here immediately after their arranged marriage a few decades ago, and they’re fairly liberal compared to other typical indian parents. regardless, i have not- i cannot- come out to them. even after all their time in america, even after all these years, they would simply never accept it.

    india itself has improved, but not much. i don’t personally know any other queer indians- hell, i secretly worried i was the only one until i found autostraddle. india renders us invisible, for the most part, and why wouldn’t it? when we are raised to avoid romance at all cost, to accept our future arranged marriages without complaint, to shun intimacy and sexuality, how can i expect that india will accept its queer population?

    maybe my generation will step up to the plate. i don’t think i can expect the previous one to change much- it’s up to us to make progress. i hope we do.
    it’s too difficult to deal with without a little hope.

    • That’s such a rough spot to be in– a time of rising self aware queer youth, yet the invisibility of queers prevents anyone from feeling like they can come out. Of course, no one coming out leads to further invisibility.

      This in turn means that some people end up victims of the revolution, so to speak; kicked out of their homes/disowned. I have to hope that, perhaps, the progression that’s already taken place in other parts of the world could lessen this blow on queer Indians.

      Perhaps some these recent (though protested) Bollywood movies are indicative of that? The closest analogy I can think of is that while The Producers had a gay character in ’68, I don’t think there was an actual gay romance in a mainstream US movie until the 80s.

      • Yknow, I don’t know if it’s just my family that’s weird, or if this is indicative of a larger cultural thing, but no matter how much my parents disapprove of what I’m up to they will never disown me. It’s like killing off your family and they’re already distressed that their children don’t live with them anymore as it is.

        Instead of being disowned though we just get guilt trips OVER and OVER and OVER, there’s more of a need to control our lifestyle, there’s denial (I think I’ve told my mum a few times that I’m not-straight but it seems to go in one ear out the other), and it’s this sense that you can’t really trust them enough to be able to talk to them about things because they’d either ignore you or turn it into the WORST THING EVER ZOMGS and won’t stop hounding you.

        But you are *always* their daughter, no matter what, and disowning you!? ZOMG HOW COULD YOU THINK THAT THEY LOVE YOU CAN’T YOU SEE.

        things like these make me feel like disowning me might be the better option – that way I don’t have to feel like my actions automatically end up being a reflection of *them* (a common thing back home, especially so since my parents are rather well-known in the local community). As it is I don’t really feel like I have nurturing parents anyway, just critical or ovrebearing ones. But no way can I cut myself off, it’s selfish and will provoke someone’s death for sure.

        /rant

        • i think it might be a cultural thing. i’m sure there are indian parents who would disown their children for their sexuality, but family is such a focal point for indian culture. friends and lovers come and go, but the strongest ties are through blood.

          personally, my father is a bit of an anomaly among his indian generation for how liberal he is- he’s not as homophobic as his peers, and i think his main issue would be assuming that i’m simply going through a phase. my mother is much more conservative, and it’d break her heart. i know neither of them would disown me, though- they would just spend the rest of their lives pretending i’m heterosexual or being furious about it.

          as my older sister succinctly put it: “if you’re not planning on marrying a girl, i suggest you just let mom and dad keep thinking you’re straight.”

      • that’s exactly it. no one would ever come out- it would shame the family and ruin all chances of a good marriage, not to mention how taboo it is in our religions and culture. i’m sure there are plenty of queer youth in india who all feel alone. i’m the only queer indian around here that i know, but at least i know i’m not the only queer? and they don’t get that knowledge. and that’s awful.

        i think the most telling fact is the number of message boards run by queer indian twenty-somethings who put up their marriage information because it’s time for their arranged marriages, and they’d much rather marry a stranger in their same position than anyone else who’d actually be considered. those break my heart.

  5. I’m an avid Bollywood watcher and blogger and have noticed a general softening of attitudes towards LGBT people in Bollywood films over the last couple of years. Besides “Dostana,” which actually did have a genuinely touching scene where one of the men’s mothers – who doesn’t know they are faking gay and had been really upset about it – formally welcomes the other man into her family with a blessing.

    In another recent film “Hum Tum aur Ghost” the main character’s best friend was a woman… who happened to be a lesbian! They go girl watching together and she’s more normal than many Hollywood lesbians we’ve seen.

    A lot of Bollywood humor does play on stereotypes of all different kinds of people – South Indians, Westerners, Punjabis, and in recent years that has included gay men, too.

    One of the most interesting things for me as a non-Indian watching Indian films is seeing different ideas of sexuality and love play out on screen. Older films and period films will turn up hijra characters, for example… and even today the women considered sexiest are often in their 30s and even into their 40s. A far cry from the youth-centric Hollywood culture. There is no stigma against men touching or hugging each other and plenty of films are devoted to a type of close male friendship that would be considered “gay” in the West.

    (And for anybody really curious, I want to recommend my friend Parmesh’s book: http://www.amazon.com/Gay-Bombay-Globalization-longing-Contemporary/dp/0761936483)

    • “There is no stigma against men touching or hugging each other and plenty of films are devoted to a type of close male friendship that would be considered “gay” in the West.”

      This has always interested me about Indian culture. I’m in south east India right now (Vizag), and the first time my mom and I went walking on the beach, I saw three pairs of guys holding hands. Three! And several other pairs of guys with their arms around each other. This in a country where, as my aunt (who’s lived in the US) says, “No one is openly gay.” I mean, the first time, I was like “Woah, Indian pride, you go dudes!” Then, after the other two times, I was sure we had wandered into a gay hang-out spot. But I checked with the locals, and it’s not! So what’s with the sudden outpouring of public same-sex affection? Am I seeing gayness where there is none? I can see the guys with their arms around each other being straight, that sort of friendly affection between guys isn’t unusual. But holding hands? Holding hands is couple-ish, right? Is that just me? Cuz I seriously don’t know any guys who hold hands unless they’re together. But the locals insist that gay couples wouldn’t (read: can’t) be so open.

      Can someone explain this to me? I’m totally confused.

  6. yup. gay couples wouldn’t/couldn’t be so open. hand-holding and affection among straight men is super normal in india. and in many other countries.

    re: family and coming out, i just came out to my folks recently. i was raised in a a pretty traditional religious (hindu) south indian family, but my parents liberalized once they moved to the US. still, we never talked about homosexuality. when i came out, they were shocked and disappointed, but they told me they accept me and love me for who i am. i can even talk about my partner to them, which is such a relief. so sometimes you expect the worst, and it works out ok! so remain hopeful :)

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