Will India finally say Shubh Mangal Saavdhan to sexually fluid characters?

Despite the decriminalisation of Section 377, sensitive films on the LGBTQ theme barely find space in India. Has the law really changed the mindset of people?

 |  6-minute read |   12-02-2020
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The monologue, at the end of the film Call Me by Your Name, by actor Michael Stuhlbarg, is probably one of the most poignant scenes in the film and conveys a series of messages. In the scene, Michael’s character is seen ‘casually’ having a heart-to-heart talk with his 17-year-old son, about his alleged affair with another man. He says, “But to feel nothing as not to feel anything — what a waste!” But feel we must!

Call Me by Your Name went on to get nominated for 4 Oscars at the 90th Academy Awards (2018), including the coveted Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for the 21-year-old Timothee Chalamet. The film went on to win the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. It was one of the biggest critical and commercial successes of 2017. Sadly, it also had the de-meritorious distinction of not getting a theatrical release in India due to its LGBTQ theme. I received many messages enquiring about its release date in India and was deeply disenchanted when I was informed that the studio had decided not to release the film here.

main_call-me-by-your_021220043502.jpgCall Me By Your Name was one of the biggest critical and commercial successes of 2017. Yet it did not get a theatrical release in India due to its LGBTQ theme. (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

I delivered the news despondently and questioned why such a decision was taken and why the Indian audience would not be able to watch such a critically acclaimed film. There were no objectionable scenes, no crude nudity or language; just a simple love story based on Andre Aciman’s novel by the same name, appreciated, loved, with no less than 4 Oscar nominations.

I finally watched the film a month later on Apple TV and was swept by its story, cinematography, acting and the soundtrack. The film stayed with me for a long time, and reminded me of the quote from Jean-Paul-Égide Martini's Plaisir d’amour, “The joy of love is but a moment long, the pain of love endures the whole lifelong.”

What also stupefied me was that I didn’t find anything objectionable in the film. Or at least anything that could not have been edited out to make the film more ‘acceptable’, without compromising on the narrative.

In March 2018, another small LGBTQ film — Love, Simon —was making waves stateside. A young coming-of-age story about a teenage boy who establishes a connection with another boy on email, and along the way, he tries to find himself. Once again, I was looking forward to its release and since I had previously seen the film, I was absolutely certain that it was not going to meet the same fate as Call Me by Your Name since it had absolutely nothing in it that was condemnable.

To my utter dismay, this film too was not deemed appropriate to be released in India. A film about self-realisation, teenage angst and the struggles of growing up, with or without any sexual ambiguity, considered not fit for release for the general public? The film went on to win many awards, including three Teen Choice Awards.

main_love_simon_yout_021220044306.jpgLove, Simon is a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy who establishes a connection with another boy, and tries to find himself along the way. (Photo: Youtube Screengrab)

Disturbed by this trend, I was transported to the year 1998 when Deepa Mehta’s film — Fire was met with violent protests, cinemas were vandalised, effigies burned, and the film had to be finally banned. A sensitive portrayal of two protagonists played by the brilliant Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, who as two women abandoned by their husbands, find love and solace in each other, didn’t go down well with our patriarchal society.

That was 1998, and this was 2018, and clearly, even after two decades, nothing had changed. The portrayal of LGBTQ characters in Hindi cinema remained largely confined to caricatures, who were merely there to overact and provide garish, contemptible humour.

Art is a reflection of society and we were clearly not ready to embrace the diversity of humankind.

A surprising and much-awaited silver lining came on September 6, 2018, when a five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court unanimously decriminalised the part of then-157-year-old colonial law under Section 377 of the IPC. Decriminalising same-gender consensual sex, Justice Indu Malhotra said, “It is not an aberration but a variation.” This was followed by much relief and jubilation on the streets, and it seemed that this would finally pave the way for more freedom of expression in art and media, and would alter the mindsets of the people.

However, in 2018-19, another Hollywood film was garnering critical and commercial recognition. Three stalwarts — Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz — led this all-star cast of The Favourite, about the close relationship between a frail Queen Anne with her two ladies-in-waiting, where friendship turns into intimacy.

In its run-up to the award season in early January, the film managed to garner 10 Oscar nominations, including the one for Best Picture and won the Oscar for the leading lady — Olivia Colman bagged the Best Actress Award. Its fate in India, despite the decriminalisation of Section 377, was the same. The studio decided to not release it because of its LGBTQ theme.

main_the-favourite_f_021220044600.jpgThe Favourite — about the intimacy between a frail Queen Anne with her two ladies-in-waiting — also did not release in India. (Photo: Fox Pictures)

Did the law really change the mindsets of the people, the common man? Did it not give that much hankered creative license to tell stories that was latent for so many years? Can we look forward to various art forms, media to come out (no pun intended) and present works that can evoke conversations, cogitations and acceptance in this post-Section 377 milieu? Show the reality, instead of fabricating and ridiculing it!

The 2019 release, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga seemed to be a promising turn of acceptance, but sadly, due to its dismal performance at the box office, it barely made a dent and did not even manage to encourage conversations around it.

The Amazon Prime Video drama — Made in Heaven directed by the incredibly talented Zoya Akhtar however, unapologetically cast a gay character as one of the main protagonists, who went about pursuing his dreams and had an incredible character arc, but just happened to be queer. Finally, it seemed that the audience was accepting, and filmmakers were looking at strong characters to be represented in cinema, regardless of their sexual orientation.

This month, another film — Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is up for release, starring one of the most talented and experimental actors of our time — Ayushmann Khurrana, who doesn’t seem to shy away from diverse themes and characters. It remains to be seen now whether sexually fluid characters are accepted in Indian film or will we have to wait even longer to hear on celluloid the words, “I am just a boy, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love him!”

Also read: Section 377 struck down: Why the war is far from over


Sanjeev Kumar Bijli Sanjeev Kumar Bijli @sanjeevbijli

The writer is the Joint Managing Director of PVR Ltd.

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