Jokes on LGBT community just aren't funny

What worries me is that the LGBT community is a perfect target for mockery, meant to be ridiculed.

 |  5-minute read |   08-02-2015
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While most of the country is stewing over AIB - some are offended by the swearing, some are offended by those who claim swearing is offensive, and some are offended by the quality of humour it takes to get a standing ovation - I went to watch Shankar's latest film I, which has caused a controversy over its portrayal of transgender people. As it happens, the film was no more offensive than the AIB Knockout, and its comic track was about as lowbrow.

That is to say, it is no more offensive to transgender people as it is to doctors, models, bodybuilders, makeup artistes, ad filmmakers, the disabled, the dark, the skinny, the obese, smokers, drinkers, men, women, medical science, the laws of physics, and really, any semblance of basic human intelligence.

What does worry me - and this is what worried me about the AIB Knockout as well - is that the audience appears to find the LGBT community hilarious; its members are the perfect target for mockery, meant to be ridiculed, and they are "good sports" for taking it with a smile. As a stand-up comedian and humour writer, I personally believe that nothing ought to be considered sacred and beyond mockery. But, then, how many times is a Karan-Johar-won't-admit-he's-gay jibe funny? And how many times is a gay-men-have-anal-sex joke funny? Apparently, every time.

Fact: A lot of people who believe their sexual orientation is their business and no one else's have been, and are being, pressured by both their fellow-homosexuals and the self-accredited liberal brigade to 'come out'.

Fact: About as many gay couples have anal sex as straight couples.

Fact: Gay-rape jokes are as funny or unfunny as straight-rape jokes.

Fact: The majority of any audience, for a film or comedy show or theatre, will fall over itself laughing at stereotypes of LGBT individuals.

In Shankar's I, the transgender makeup artist is played by Ojas Rajani, who is herself a transgender makeup artist. When she meets the hero, to give him a makeover, he and his friend mock her and dance around her. Shankar's defence has been that this is faithful to reality. The hero is a bodybuilder who belongs to the lower-income group, and the milieu in which he would have grown up is the sort which would mock a trans-woman, he says. The trans-woman goes on to fall in love with the hero, despite his contempt for her, and decides to revenge his spurning of her advances by crippling him with a debilitating disease. Now, the realism of this particular sub-plot is barely an issue in a film where a dying man simultaneously fights off a bodybuilder and a male model played by Upen Patel.

However, there is a point of concern - not in the film, but in the audience's reactions. A woman sitting a few seats away from me laughed so hard every time Rajani appeared on screen that she nearly keeled over. She was not the only one.

Shankar is not the first to portray the LGBT community as laughingstock.

Bollywood commercial cinema has had comedy tracks that revolve entirely around homophobia. There was the imbecilic Dostana; then, there was the even more imbecilic Happy New Year, where Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Dadlani play a gay couple who are worried about a leaked 'sex tape' that involves them dancing in corsets and feather boas.

Even Kamal Haasan, who has the reputation of being a 'thinking actor' - and director - has done his share of stereotyping. For some reason, he chose to play a Muslim posing as a Tam Brahm kathak exponent in Vishwaroopam. For an equally incomprehensible reason, he had the dancer flapping his hands, and speaking in a high-pitched voice, and running on his tippy-toes to switch off the microwave. Because, guess what, this dancer is so effeminate, he makes the dinner, while his wife bitches about how gay he is.

Again, this had most of the audience in splits, during the show I watched. A group of young men started catcalling and making nasal noises every time Kamal Haasan's character appeared on screen.

In Gautham Menon's film Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, where Kamal Haasan plays a cop who tracks down a pair of serial rapists and killers, he figures out that they are possessive of each other, and spits out, "Chi! What are you, gay?!"

The line drew its share of laughs, even applause.

No wonder, then, that the short film starring Randeep Hooda and Saqib Saleem in Bombay Talkies, was considered 'sensitive'. Because even gay men hounding and assaulting and molesting each other is preferable to them dancing around in corsets.

First of all, the idea of 'sensitive' portrayals of members of the LGBT community is a patronising one. Sexual identity is not a disease. Portrayals can be intelligent, and they can be reductive, and they can be idiotic. But they can't be 'sensitive'.

Secondly, we need to think about whether these films are shaping the audience's thinking - which is usually the allegation - or giving the mass what it wants.

If the latter is the case, and I suspect it is, the situation is far more disturbing. At a time when homosexuality and transsexuality are considered 'unnatural', and have been recriminalised, at a time when campaigns for the removal of Section 377 are being organised and ignored, the warped view a few people from the entertainment industry have is not the problem; the idea that this warped view is shared by the majority of Indians is the problem. Because sexual identity should not be an adjective. And to speak of someone as 'a gay makeup artist' or "a gay designer" or "a gay actor" is as ridiculous as portrayals of gay men dancing in corsets, and of lisping makeup artists calling everyone "dah-ling".


Nandini Krishnan Nandini Krishnan @k_nandini

Author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage; also playwright, stage actor, and stand-up comedienne.

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