Film And Fabulous: Finding Queerness in Bollywood in 2018

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I usually like spending my Sundays lazing around like a cat. It is an occupational hazard of being a millennial.

This past weekend however, I decided to give my weekly catnap a reprieve, and trudged halfway across the city to watch a matinee show of India’s latest chick flick (which is not a chick flick), Veere Di Wedding.

Armed with a tub full of caramel popcorn and a soda that had more calories than I could count, I sat down to watch the movie. It was refreshing, it was funny and it was full of actresses I have a boy crush on.

Twenty minutes into the movie, (SPOILER ALERT) they revealed that Kareena Kapoor Khan‘s beloved on-screen uncle (played by my childhood favourite Vivek Mushran) is gay. In fact, he even has a thriving relationship with a loving partner. But something seemed off.

Then the ‘little things’ begin to irk me. The way Cookie (yes, that is what they call him) uncle stuck out his little finger while holding his drink. His partner’s floral shirts. His hand gestures. His over-the-top display of affection in a song-and-dance sequence. Their shared distress over the wedding invitations. Their need to be fun. The tiny things. The insignificant things. The irrelevant things.

I am not saying I did not like the movie. I did, I really, really did. For two and a half hours, I was transported into a make-believe world of first world problems, smokeless cigarettes and rampant brand promotion.

But I expected more.

See, if this were a Sajid Khan or a Luv Ranjan production, I would not have had a problem – their homophobic characters will forever be overshadowed by their highly misogynistic plotlines.

But this is different.

Because when a movie has been directed by Shashanka Ghosh, and features a cast of A-list actresses and veteran actors (including the men who play the gay uncles, Vivek Mushran and Sukesh Arora) who have given us A-list performances, this sort of representation just seems like a giant letdown, especially when all their Instagram feeds are clogged with rich, influential gays who do rich, influential things.

Do not get me wrong. The transition of queer representation from the bitchy, manipulative fashion designer (it is always a fashion designer) to the fun, understanding uncle can even be considered as the harbinger of the #EverydayPhenomenal – but is it enough? (Side note: Mildly altering the pathbreaking words of Miranda Priestly, ‘Florals for queer representation? Groundbreaking.’)

Did the uncle have to be gay? Did it further the plot? Did it further his character?

The movie has a star cast that boasts of equal parts nepotism and new-age indie actors (which I have been told is the fail-safe formula for any Bollywood blockbuster), an amazing soundtrack and dialogue delivery that will leave any mother to shame. But with a new brand being introduced every 10 minutes and no real plot development for the (not one, but two) erstwhile gay characters, the movie may very well have been a giant YouTube ad that you cannot skip.

And I could not.

‘Why are you getting so offended?’ My friends asked me. ‘Why do you think it is wrong? What else were they supposed to do?’ My rant had only started a series of whys and whats – ‘why don’t you hold your horses? What’s your grouse here? Why don’t you just watch the movie? What do you want them to do? What else could they have done? Why don’t you calm your tits?’

Well, why don’t you just shut up?

The gay man in Bollywood has become the token black guy in every white movie. A background prop, someone (or something) that makes the movie seem ‘more inclusive’ – like brands that scurry to make more LGBT-friendly content during International Pride Month.

But then again, when was Veere Di Wedding not a shameless brand plug-in?

It is 2018, and it should be getting better – people say it is too trivial to hold silent protests and candlelight vigils over ‘such things’. Too much effort. Too hipster. Too mainstream. Too unnecessary.

But is it really too much?

In the past decade, Bollywood has barely scratched the surface of LGBTQ+ depiction with caricature-like portrayals of gay men who were either camp (and therefore ‘less’ than the cis-hetero men who sidelined them) and/or hypersexual (playing on the fear that gay men were out to steal your testosterone-pumped husbands, boyfriends and next-door neighbours).

You would see it everywhere – laced as the fiercely flamboyant principal in Student Of The Year, the bitchy model coordinator in Fashion, the boyfriend-stealing best friend in Page 3 and the obviously-straight-but-pretending-to-be-gay leads in Dostana (2008). Gay men were, therefore, background props who became the butt of all jokes (excluding this one.)

Sure, Veere Di Wedding changed all of it. It made the gay characters positive – fun, witty, fashion-conscious men that women are drawn to for emotional support and douchebag-related dilemmas. But did they have to be gay?

I will tell you a close-guarded secret. These overly ‘positive’ messages, which you see a lot in the media – that gay men are particularly fashion-conscious and bitchy, and a woman’s ‘gay best friend’ – can be extremely pressurising. But why should we make do with token gay characters, pushed to the background as comic relief or a pleated pants-wearing plot device? What if we want to be serious and boring? What if we want to be a part of the everyday?

Packed in floral shirts and skintight jeans that seem to put the respiratory system at risk, we have only become cookie-cutter (no movie pun intended) representations of ourselves. I really don’t mind the flamboyant stereotype because it is honestly not a stereotype – but is it our only form of representation?

With movies like Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon (both of which did not see theatrical releases in India, so here is a shameless plugin to #ReleaseLoveSimonInIndia) where LGBTQ+ characters are not just nuanced and layered but also pushed right to the forefront as movie leads, Hollywood has taken a giant leap in showing its support for the rainbow movement.

And that is only in the past eight months. So why should Bollywood trail behind?

The problem here does not lie with Veere Di Wedding, or even Bollywood, in hindsight. The problem lies in the complete indifference with which the Indian media deals with homosexuality in general.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to be part of a ‘label-breaking’ advertisement. Helmed by an award-winning director known for his indie work, it was a #TimeToBreakStereotypes video campaign for a high-end luxury brand. They needed an openly gay man for a small bit role, and here I was, fresh out of the closet. It was Pride Month, and I was bursting to do my bit for the community (and my 15 seconds of fame).

On the day of my shoot, I drove over to the set with a fresh haircut and fresher hopes. Between a hurried costume change and makeup session, I peeped over the assistant director’s shoulder to read my character’s description on the call sheet: There were only two words.

Gay Two.

The fact that I was not important enough to be ‘Gay One’ aside (in my defense, it was an androgynous supermodel), was this really what we had come down to?

Because if the urban intellectual can be so unsympathetic to an entire sexual minority’s problems, what can we really expect from the rest of the country? Is it because of the instant dismissal of any character that is NOT the quintessential straight male lead? Or is it because the film industry fears social backlash for making a movie with strong, affirmative gay leads?

Or maybe the two reasons are the same thing.

But I still feel like we can do this. We are queer, and we are here (and to quote a fabulous friend, we are not going anywhere anytime soon, dear). The time is ripe for some fresh, realistic portrayals of queerness in Bollywood. Someone who has aspirations. Someone who has problems. Someone who likes Sunday catnaps.

Because if the LGBT+ community can step out of their closets, it is high time that Bollywood should too. I can personally vouch for the fact that the wedding sequence will be bright and glorious.

The Guysexual’s Guide To Every Diva In The World

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There’s a popular misconception that all gay men are divas, but as a marginalised group, it is no surprise that they are often characterised stereotypically. Prior to the past two decades, gay men’s portrayal in the mainstream media has been rather minimal, and when they do make it to the screen, their characters are constructed out of clichés.

‘Oh! He wears prints?’
‘He must be a diva.’
‘Could you hear him cackling all the way across the room?’
‘Definitely a diva.’
‘Who else can carry off bubblegum pink?’
‘That’s diva 101.’
‘How else can he be dressed to kill every single time I see him?’
‘He wrote the Guide To Being A Diva, I tell you.’

But that’s the thing. The Diva is not necessarily your man of fashion – he’s not the stereotypical fashion designer or the bitchy stylist you meet at the bar. The Diva hides in plain sight, he’s everywhere: the accountant from work, your next-door neighbor, your friend’s colleague, the jock from high school, you.

The Diva is like Batman – an ordinary man by day, a caped crusader (albeit with pleated pants) by night – only this vigilante rids the world of bad manners and bad dressing sense. Want to know how to sort out the fabulous from the fabulist? Here’s the Guysexual’s guide to every gay diva in the world:

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The Diva says things like, “We’ve got the same numbers of hours as Beyoncé does.”

He actually believes it.

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Perpetually 26, his Sundays are Instagram-ready hours of lazy brunches, infused cocktails, and Pinterest-worthy desserts that he swears he won’t take a bite of.

The Diva will call you ‘his cookie’, but we know he wants to bite you.

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The Diva’s favourite adjective to describe himself is also his most-searched word on Google: flawless.

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The Diva quotes Diet Sabya.

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The Diva feels that hipsters try too hard. He also splits up his styles into nine different categories: Formal, semi-formal, casual, semi-casual, street-chic, party-chic, disco-chic, somber and straight acting.

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The Diva air-kisses and airbrushes so much, he can list it as a skill on his LinkedIn.

He probably has.

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The Diva eats quotes by RuPaul for breakfast. He washes them down with a no-foam, soy milk latte and sarcasm.

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If the Diva had longer hair, he’d flip it more often.

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The Diva has an intense seven-step exfoliating ritual. Nine, when he’s going out for drinks.

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He won’t drink beer, because a pint is the equivalent of seven slices of white bread (which he won’t touch). On days when he wants to let loose, he’ll have a few gin and tonics, and load them up with cucumber slices or almond bitters.

But he’ll tell you that a ‘Skinny Bitch’ is his official go-to drink. That’s also what his friends call him behind his back.

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The Diva scrolls through Gigi Hadid’s Instagram feed at the dentist’s.

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The Diva plans to start a crowd funding campaign to bring the Queer Eye boys to India. He has quotes by Jonathan Van Ness up on his wall. It’s all very tastefully done.

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The Diva rates the boys he dates. He has a 4.2 rating on Uber.

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The Diva likes his drama just the way he likes his A/W Fashion Week: with access to front row seats.

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At least five supermodels call him their best friend, and swear that they’d die to see him in a fulfilling relationship. They wouldn’t try setting him up with any of their other (read: obviously less close) gay friends though.

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One time, he sat next to an A-list actress on an airplane, and she told him ‘he was very pretty’. He’ll tell you it was Priyanka Chopra, but he told somebody else that it was Sonam Kapoor.

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The Diva can’t decide whether he’s team Madonna or team Cher, but secretly, he’s team Britney.

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The Diva hates sapiosexuals. He thinks they wear their attitude wrong.

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The Diva might be clueless about stock options, but he can reference any shoe brand by their make and catalogue number.

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The Diva has a RompHim jumpsuit in his online shopping cart. He plans to buy it for his birthday.

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The Diva likes to call his aesthetic sense ‘quirky’. His haters (that’s what he calls them) seem to think it’s more ‘whimsical’.

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The Diva references Keeping Up With The Kardashians on a regular basis. Over multiple bottles of Moet Chandon and bite-sized nibbles of overpriced cheese, he’ll tell you he feels like a ‘Khloe’. But he’s a Scott Disick.

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The Diva Instagrams his takeaway cup of cold brew coffee every morning because he thinks frappuccinos from Starbucks are ‘too mainstream’, unless it’s a Unicorn frappuccino.

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The Diva dreams of marrying the Boy (it’ll be a white wedding), and he regularly leaves thirsty comments on his Instagram feed. They always go unnoticed.

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With his undeniable wit and free-for-all sass, the Diva is every straight girl’s wet-dream-come-true: because he’s a fashion-spouting sounding board that she doesn’t even have to friendzone. Like they say, he’s the perfect summer accessory.

I’ll tell you a secret? The Diva feels the same way about her.