2023 Wrap: A Year End Survey Of Queerness In Streaming

From Adhura to School of Lies, Rainbow Rishta and Kohrra, there has been a range of queer representation we have seen on streaming this year.
2023 Wrap: A Year End Survey Of Queerness In Streaming

Two events animated the end of the year that put queer representation at a fragile fulcrum. One is death (suicide, really). The other is cinema.

Priyanshu Yadav, aka Pranshu, a 16-year old in Ujjain died by suicide. An Instagram character, he used to put up reels of him decked in saris, caked in make-up, inviting both queer adulation — the kind that does not find the need to distinguish queerness from brilliance, or queerness from beauty — but also a steady stream of trolls. His suicide was immediately linked to this bullying, despite both his close friend and mother noting that he used to laugh the trolls off, like water off a duck’s back. But who really knows how deep the acid stings, and what laughter is an incomplete yearning for what pain? The police are currently investigating the cause of suicide. The trolls are still commenting on his videos, thanking him for his death. 

With Priyanshu, I have been itching at this question — what makes us so immediately, intuitively confident ascribing his death to this online bullying as though he did not live a life outside of his social media presence, his queer exhibitionism and that corrosive backlash? Would acknowledging his life beyond the pixels make the case against queer online bullying weaker? 

This news came alongside the release of Kaathal: The Core, a queer film headlined by Malayalam superstar, 72-year old Mammootty. The character he plays— Mathew, a local politician in a small town in Kerala — is married and over the course of the film is divorced by his wife who has had enough of his secret, other life with his male, childhood friend. 

With Kaathal, I have been itching at this question — why do we not get a single moment of Mammootty’s character and his lover together, in love? There are only distances and gazes, full of queer longing and shame, even till the very end. Would that have made the film’s feminism (or its commerce) weaker?

On the one hand, with Priyanshu, there is an over-reading of queerness, where the over-reading begins to feel like essentialism, and on the other hand, with Mammootty, there is a subtle depiction of queerness, where subtlety begins to feel like erasure. These are the two axes between which we seem to be swinging. 

Both these sets of questions pit the imagination against the identity. The imagination is not necessarily an act of excess. The identity, however, is necessarily an act of cowardice, a fear of the imagination and the contradictions and complications it allows. The slipperiness of queerness, what author Garth Greenwell calls an “allergy to definitions”, is to revel in the cracks of our certainty, of our smooth performances. Queer cinema is the evocation of that allergy. When, then, will our cinema break out in hives? 

Haunting and Taunting

The steadfast link between the bullying and death of queer kids — a neat, linear, consummate, causal, connecting thread — is best exemplified in a show like Adhura, with its gay ghost. (Not ghosting, which is its own gay trauma; ghost.) The writing is so intent on making that thread iron-strong, it begins to feel like queerness was introduced into the show only for its capacity to be extinguished. 

Any queer love is established for it to be doomed. Any queer affect is established for it to be bullied; the word “Homo” being peppered so liberally, you wished bullies had an imagination. Queerness does not exist outside of its repercussions; to be queer is to be haunted. 

Adhiraj (Ishwak Singh) longs for his classmate Ninad, whom he hasn’t met since they graduated high school, and he left for the United States of America. Back for a reunion, he has to face the repercussions of what happened at school, the bullying Ninad faced that caused his death — an accidental push — and the litany of murders that Ninad’s ghost — the gay ghost — unleashes. 

In films like Khufiya and shows like Kohrra, too, queerness exists only to be mutilated, to be hurt, to be killed. Both Adhura and Kohrra have gay murderers — a boy, a man — the intent being a conscious revenge for bullying or an instinctive brush of anger from being heart-sick. In that sense, these shows join the thin genre that the film Haddi as well as the streaming series Kaala and Guns and Gulaabs formed this year — with trans murderers — of queer bloodletting. 

The Homo Economicus 

If this queer villainy is the precipice of one axis, queer righteousness is at the other edge. The arms stretch out wide in an intersectional yawn that animates most of the documentary series Rainbow Rishta, featuring a respectful, respectable queerness — the kind that does not find the need to distinguish queerness from brilliance, or queerness from beauty.

A sandpit of therapy-speak swirl around in this flat, self-pitying — nonetheless, candied and kind — vision of the world, where queer people are introduced by their name, pronouns, and profession; because we must know, as spectators, that these are not just homos, but homo economicus, the ideal economic being, contributing to the state, yearning for the law to catch up to their demands, the law which is playing a grotesque game of hide and seek with the queer community. (Re: Marriage)

Rainbow Rishta belongs to the genre of pure representation, its purity being its inability to be anything but representational olympics. It has a moving rush of feeling that emerges to the surface in places, with trauma narratives that haunt queer bodies — a tragic chem-sex decline that ends in prison— or even the playfulness of Daniella Mendonca, a brash and charming intersex person, trying to haggle down the price of her wedding gown, asking her friend, “Taali maroon kya? (Should I clap?)”

Even if the centrality, the overcompensating spirit of queer life, must animate the storytelling, it is a dry vision that is on display here, and not the kind of gay life that, say, Greenwell calls a “complete revolution, the replacement of one set of values with another”; this is the kind of storytelling that is yearning to be included in the zeitgeist, not chart its own jagged path. It is tonally submissive. Shows like Rainbow Rishta and the tedious moral storytelling of the second season of Made In Heaven — with trans actor Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju playing the newest member of the wedding planning crew — express their politics as storytelling, thinking it is enough. Storytelling is political. Storytelling is not only political. 

A Tempest of Desire

The spectrum exists between the extremes of queer righteousness and queer villainy and in one of the most morally tempestuous yet narratively unfussy shows, School Of Lies, set in a similar world to Adhura, (boarding school up in the hills), queerness is allowed to muddy neat and narratively lazy categories of victim and perpetrator. 

While investigating a missing 12-year-old from the boarding school, the skeletons jump out of the school’s cupboard. The housemaster Sam (Aamir Bashir) is suddenly on the radar. His sexual relationship with two students — Vikram (Varin Roopani) and Tapan (Aryan Singh Ahlawat) — comes to the surface. 

In the second episode, there is a shot of Sam on his bed, as he would be every morning, reading. Next to him, languorously stretched out, shirtless, is a young boy: Vikram. The tone is gentle. There is no stench of violation, no sense of threat or tension. There is a longing in Vikram’s gaze, a slight jealousy. This is a brave choice — to frame what is legally child sexual abuse as skewed, but still tender. Director and co-creator of School of Lies, Avinash Arun, in an interview with Film Companion, theorised his cinematic aesthetic: “I don’t want to intrude. I want to observe my protagonists. You invest in them by observing them, without forming any judgement.” 

Also Read: The Inviting Stillness Of Avinash Arun’s Cinema

Sam’s history unspools slowly, the trauma that he both received as a child and re-enacts as an adult. What the show does, in one of the most stunning pieces of writerly gumption we have had, is to leave all these messy threads unresolved. Not unexplored, but unresolved — a difference few writers would behoove to note — because the cycle of abuse, the longing, the expression of longing, are ongoing projects. 

Part of why shows are unable to replicate the kind of artistry that School of Lies achieves is the laziness with which their worlds are being conceived and constructed. Take the images. There is a mechanical, utilitarian approach to lighting, to set design, to colour correction. For example, the light inside an American classroom in Adhura falls the same way the light inside a classroom in an Indian hill station in the show does. It’s a detail, you might argue, but these details sediment over the show, flattening distinctions and enhancing the feeling of artifice. 

Arun, who also lensed School of Lies, insisted on a world, not on a production set. When the vision of the filmmaker is so expansive, the characters fall in line, touched by the rhythms of life, rather than the contours of tropes. I would feel itchy describing his protagonists — school boys — as gay, because it would feel so incomplete; unlike the protagonist of Adhura, unlike the trans character in Made In Heaven, unlike the litany of queer characters in Rainbow Rishta, who can very easily be reduced to their identity. 

Can you be queer without being only queer? This is a central tension in a lot of thinking and performing around queerness. A desire to sell the identity in the marketplace of ideas as amenable to modernity, to capitalism, to the militarised Indian state. So afraid of the history of queerphobia, it forgets to have fun with queerness, to be abrasive, unlikeable, slutty, and charming. Every depiction of a queer character is mistaken for a depiction of queerness as an idea. But it is only by unshackling the idea from the person that the person is allowed to inhabit the world in the complicated way people do, with an imagination that is ravenous and unsteady, that is incapable of toeing the line of identity quite so neatly. 

Related Stories

No stories found.