There’s an unlikely hero in the Indian web television landscape: Karan, a gay wedding planner in Delhi, whose professional and personal life makes for an engrossing subplot in the drama series ‘Made in Heaven’. Played by, the co-lead’s character in the Amazon Prime show, directed by, promises to be a game-changer in the portrayal of LGBTQ persons in pop culture. Karan is intriguing and complex, introspective and handsome. The 30-something event planner devotes himself to his career, parties with friends, enjoys his me-time, takes difficult decisions, wears jeans and makes love — just like anyone else.
In an ideal world, such a character would have been normative, but in a country that has only recently decriminalised gay sex, the depiction of sexual minorities in cinema and television has largely been tinged with social stereotypes, religious reproval and the very real fear of censure. And if their portrayal has been problematic, their representation on and off screen has been even worse, with few openly gay and transgender persons finding space. The good news is that there is a growing breed of filmmakers and influencers who are reaching out through non-profit and for-profit ventures to give less privileged LGBTQ persons visibility, opportunity and jobs.
“Being gay is normal,” says Alankrita Srivastava, award-winning filmmaker of ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’, who has co-written the ‘Made in Heaven’ series and directed two of its episodes. “The series has been created, written and directed by people whose point of view on homosexuality is very clear: we believe human beings are free to love whoever they like. That is how we see the world, and that is how we tried to portray Karan: as a normal guy, with a regular life,” she says.
A radical thought for Indian audiences, perhaps, but it has taken root slowly, deliberately and painstakingly. While gay-themed films such as ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005), ‘Milk’ (2008) and ‘Moonlight’ (2016) received acclaim in Hollywood, the dominant film industry in India — Hindi cinema — largely avoided the subject of homosexuality and transgenderism for years, even as it portrayed the third gender only for comic relief. “Films and TV shows would either exaggerate or underplay their depiction of LGBTQ people, and this careless approach would inform all strata of society, including workplaces,” says Prakriti Das, a Delhi-based corporate trainer, who advocates for gender diversity and inclusivity in organisations, adding, “That’s why it’s vital for cinema and television to take a sensitive approach.”
Director Mani Ratnam managed to quietly introduce a transgender character in a subtle way in Bombay (1995) but when filmmaker Deepa Mehta touched upon the topic of same-sex love between two women living in the same household in her 1996 film Fire, it provoked vitriolic protests around the country. It would take another decade for homosexuality to come up in feature films like My Brother… Nikhil (2005), followed by yet another long gap before Margarita with a Straw (2014), Aligarh (2015), Loev, Dear Dad and Kapoor & Sons (all 2016) scored positive reviews.
Even so, a handful of films in more than two decades — juxtaposed with memorable blockbusters such as Karan Johar’s romantic comedy Dostana (2009) where, despite the benign intent, homosexuality was further stereotyped — is a pitiful record. What further complicated matters and often confused heterosexual audiences was that these films mostly relied on silences and suggestions to convey gay or lesbian content, avoiding graphic or provocative details. Interestingly, the first mainstream Bollywood film to touch upon a homosexual theme after the historic Supreme Court verdict that decriminalised gay sex last September was Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (February 2019), co-written by transwoman and activist Gazal Dhaliwal. Starring, Anil Kapoor and Rajkummar Rao in the lead roles, it was no doubt a bold move for a commercial banner. But the film introduced the protagonist’s lover, Kuhu, played by Regina Cassandra, only in the last 20 minutes of the film, leaving many in the community disappointed about the missed opportunity to authentically showcase a smalltown lesbian’s perspective.
Even so, Neeha Nagpal, one of the five lawyers who successfully fought to modify Section 377 in the Supreme Court, defends the film: “It managed to educate the masses and promoted acceptance and tolerance for sexual minorities. Whatever the critics may say, it was able to get the message across that homosexuality is a variation, not an aberration. And it’s about time.”
Trans Person & Bollywood
The trans person, meanwhile, has been muted and distorted in Bollywood.
“The LGBTQ community has not been shown in the correct light on screen, and it has suffered because of the misrepresentation, especially of transpeople who are only shown as prostitutes or beggars,” says Keshav Suri, scion of The Lalit Hospitality Group and one of India’s pioneers in terms of affirmative action for LGBTQ persons. Not only do his businesses encourage and create job and training opportunities for the community, his nonprofit initiative, the Keshav Suri Foundation (KSF), has also launched TRANSaction, a series of acting workshops in Delhi and Mumbai for transpersons, this year. “It is important to create the right opportunities rather than have mere token representation in films. The industry should harness the talent available in the community, at least for trans roles. The whole objective of organising TRANSaction is to create a stepping stone for community members to learn the basics of acting and to give them confidence to approach filmmakers,” says Suri.
Alternative channels and internet-driven platforms have, in fact, given better representation to the LGBTQ community than the silver screen. Youth-driven television shows such as Kaisi Yeh Yaariaan (MTV) and Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya (Zing) featured same-sex love in their subplots back in 2014. The advent of multinational streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime — besides the ubiquitous and free— let all kinds of talents and ideas out of the bag. Unrestricted by censors and liberated from the need for “commercially viable” content, filmmakers were free to bring alternative sexuality out of the closet. ALTBalaji’s Romil and Jugal (2017), a drama loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, was vastly appreciated by both gay and straight viewers for its storyline featuring a young gay couple in a sensitive way.
Last year’s Netflix drama Sacred Games portrayed a transwoman, Kukoo, in a pivotal, powerful role. But the fact that the role went to a cis gender actor Kubbra Sait didn’t go down well with some. “All[the series director] had to do was put up a 30-second Instagram video calling for transpersons to audition for the role. It was a huge opportunity lost,” rues Faraz Arif Ansari, director of Sisak, India’s first silent queer short film that has won 59 awards in festivals worldwide. Ansari, 32, is an articulate
and passionate spokesperson for the cause of affirmative action, especially when it comes to LGBTQ persons playing themselves on the big screen. He, in fact, partnered to conduct acting workshops for TRANSaction after a year-long unsuccessful bid to find a trans actor to play the lead role in his ongoing film project, a family drama called Sabr.
“You have to address the elephant in the room,” says Ansari, who studied filmmaking at Pennsylvania State University in the US, and strongly disapproves of camouflaging the depiction of alternative sexuality on screen as Indian films are wont to do. “Gimmicks fail, curiosity works. People are curious about LGBTQ persons; let us show them what our life is about. Let us celebrate it and mainstream it in a way that every person can understand. That’s how we will create a safe space for LGBTQ people to live authentically.”
Depicting the “normalness” of LGBTQ persons is also something that publicist, actor and media influencer Mohnish Malhotra has set out to do. Malhotra, 31, is currently working on a new web series called UFF, which will look at the “unfamiliar family” lives of the LGBTQ community. “Almost all of us grow up in heteronormative families, but for many in the LGBTQ community, their friends and companions become a sort of alternative family,” says Malhotra, who has been a gay rights’ activist for 14 years and actively participates in organising the Delhi Pride Parade. “I’ve seen gay people from small towns move to the big city, get jobs, sometimes marry, sometimes kill themselves. I’ve seen my friends die lonely. I’ve seen how relationships outside the traditional family have helped them with a sense of selfempowerment, and how these friendships have been symbiotic in terms of their personal growth,” he says. His 10-part web series explores such unconventional family setups, including one in which a mother supports her son’s sex reassignment surgery to become a woman.
“Such stories can’t be scripted,” says Malhotra, who shares that he was a substance addict for most of his 20s until he came to terms with his homosexual identity and what it entailed. “You can’t change your family, and you have to allow them to be who they are even if that means they don’t accept you.” Instead, Malhotra found a new definition of family: “Who will you give the key of your house to?” he asks, referring to the “emotional home” inside us that we all retreat to at the end of the day, and where we only allow those who won’t judge us. “UFF looks at families related not by blood, but by support, connection and empathy,” he explains. The series is slated to be launched at the World Dignity Forum in Los Angeles this summer with notable people in attendance like media mogul Ted Turner and Hollywood actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Goldie Hawn and Linda Gray.
Everyone agrees that the striking down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and the decriminalising of gay sex by the Supreme Court have helped pave the way for more visibility for the gay and lesbian community. In fact, it may even have helped “make gay cool”, according to Zain Anwar, who makes digital video content for popular website MensXP. Having created several viral comic videos for the youth, his company was approached by an online food delivery platform to create a sponsored video with the theme of “inclusivity” and accepting others’ choices. “It’s a paradigm shift for new-age brands,” says the 28-year-old video director.
But things are not yet easier for trans persons, or those whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex. In a well-intentioned effort to create opportunities for her best friend who happened to be a transwoman and others like her, Delhi-based Reena Rai launched the Miss TransQueen beauty pageant in 2017. The former caterer and mother of a little girl confronted formidable resistance, not just from potential advertisers and venue hosts who believed that identification with such an event would negatively affect their branding, but also from the trans community itself. “They suspected my motives: why would a straight, cis gender woman want to help the transgender community? They thought I was out to use them for my personal gain,” she says.
But there was hardly anything to gain for her, she says, especially in the first edition when the event drained her personal financial resources. Determined to help her trans friends find opportunities, especially in Bollywood, Rai pushed ahead with the second edition and struck a chord this time around.
Not only did Suri’s The LaLiT offer to host her event in Mumbai, the pageant also got international visibility and media coverage. Soon, job offers began pouring in for the contestants from companies looking to expand their diversity portfolios. On March 8 this year, India’s Miss TransQueen 2018 Veena Sendre represented the country at Miss International Queen in Thailand.
But Bollywood eludes “Reena’s girls”. One of them, Navya Singh, is in tears when she narrates her journey. A brand ambassador for the Miss TransQueen pageant and a dancer at the LaLiT hotel’s night club Kitty Su, the 28-year-old also works at an NGO that empowers the trans community. An aspiring actor, she says she applied and was shortlisted for Zee TV’s reality show Dance India Dance, Season 6. After passing three rounds, she was dropped from the show.
Dejected, she says, she took up an assignment in Jaipur and left Mumbai. The show’s producers then called her to say they wanted to shoot her family in Bihar and show her journey. “They told me it would change my life. They shot my family in my village near Katihar. Imagine how it must have been for my parents: it was hard enough to accept my sex change from a boy to woman, and then they also had to talk about it on camera. But I though this was an opportunity to tell people about my life and to break stereotypes,” says Singh. The shoot was never aired, she says, and she was not given any explanation .
A source associated with Zee TV, who did not want to be named, confirmed that Singh’s story was unique and its team did shoot her family in the village. “But we didn’t air the footage because she didn’t make the cut in terms of talent,” the source said, adding that it was a call taken by the judges and the creative team together. “It had nothing to do with her sexual orientation or identity
,” the person emphasises, citing the example of Sushant Divgikar who performed on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa 2018. “He identified as LGBTQ and did a drag performance during the auditions. He was selected purely for his singing ability. As a channel we have always been about inclusiveness,” the source adds, expressing regret about Singh’s experience.
Singh claims she applied to MTV’s India’s Next Top Model and was selected initially but was again dropped. After these incidents, she says she was on the verge of breaking down. “I wanted to commit suicide. People say the industry is gender-unbiased, and everyone put a rainbow on theirprofiles after [Section] 377 was struck down. But no one gives us a chance in real life,” Singh says. “If a cis woman could play a transwoman’s role in Sacred Games, why can’t a transwoman play herself or a cis woman? We are all actors, so why the gender boundary for us?”
While MTV did not comment on Singh’s experience, its spokesperson says that being diversity-inclusive and gender-positive is in the brand’s DNA. “We focus on culturally diverse themes and try to break stereotypes, especially gender bias and freedom to choose one’s sexuality,” she says, pointing to the show Elovator Pitch showcasing the dilemmas of same-sex dating; and transgender contestants Tenzin Mariko and Gauri Arora on Ace of Space and India’s Next Top Model Season 3 respectively “We realise that it needs a lot of conviction for the LGBTQ community to come out in the open and explore their identity in the entertainment industry, and we are privileged that MTV has provided them with the platform to showcase their talent,” the channel says.
Singh affirms she will keep striving as far as she can. “I’m still hoping for an opportunity and for something good to happen,” she says. “You can’t ignore us.”
(Aekta Kapoor is the editor and publisher of eShe magazine)