If a character in a Hindi film is supposed to be gay, you as an audience will know it. They are flamboyant, and caricatured, and in some cases like Prem Aggan and Partner their only reason to exist is for a joke to be cracked at their expense.
But what about the love that doesn't meet the eye? When I suggested that the Hrithik–Tiger relationship in War, was perhaps more erotic than it let on, the fans pounced. How could I say such things? How could I take something as "pure" as admiration and "corrupt" it with my homosexual agenda, as if desire, sex, and homosexuality, are somehow impure. What does one do with such quaint, Victorian ideas?
So, this Pride Month I decided to look back at some classic Hindi films, the definitive bhai-dosti-saheli ones to investigate further. Is there a more latent, more erotic kind of love bubbling underneath all those back slaps, tight hugs, and longing gazes? You may argue that I am trying to impose a framework, that of gay desire, and you're right. I did watch many of these films looking for clues. But what's wrong with that? Like fans looking for easter eggs, or critics with their in-built ethical ideological framework, I too was busy with my own pursuit. But I must mention that none of these are far-fetched, or require a radical re-thinking; I didn't have to think twice before condemning them to this list.
"The female presence is there to only lessen the homosexual sting"- Hoshang Merchant
This film is full of love triangles, (2 women and 1 man. 2 men and 1 woman) but the angle they seem to fixate on are the least exciting ones.
The 'saheli' here is quite perplexing. Initially, she seems to push Neena (Nargis) and Dilip (Dilip Kumar) together, while also looking longingly and notoriously at Neena. Then, when she is dancing to Dilip's piano, and Neena's voice, there is jealousy in her eyes, the obvious kind, framed in tight close-ups. For a moment I wondered, was this passion brewing for Dilip or Neena?
We are later told she is pining for Dilip, but honestly, when the three of them are together, Dilip is staged as an afterthought, a third wheel, the elaichi in this biryani. (Elaichi is incidentally a symbol of lesbianism, fun fact! The lovers in Fire, female- both, even feed each other pods of cardamom to sweeten the breath.)
Apart from this, the only scene that the two men, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, share together is palpably suggestive, each trying to tie a flower in the other's lapel. I get it, they are supposed to be jealous of each other, their mutual love for Neena is disintegrating their peace of mind. But what else do you expect of a story where, instead of following one's queer instincts, all the characters pursue their heterosexuality? One dies, one goes to jail, one becomes a single father, and another a lifelong spinster, all sad or turned to dust.
Mohan (Sudhir Kumar) is blind, and Ramu (Sushil Kumar) walks on crutches, and thus, by design, when they are walking together, they are always holding onto each other, so Mohan knows the way, and Ramu doesn't fall by the wayside. They are both homeless teenagers when they meet and forge a friendship that tests the balance between what can be shown and what is actually happening. Here is a family of choice, not of blood, but family nonetheless.
At one point, Mohan's hands rest on the pillow next to him, hoping for Ramu, who has disappeared, to materialize. Ramu's teacher has taken him away from Mohan so Ramu can be in a quieter and more studious environment. Mohan is now getting sicker by the day, as if Ramu's presence kept him propped and alive. They slept on the same bed, one's arms around the other's hips.
The first time Ramu sees Mohan, he gasps, "Itni sundar aankhein!" He is in his school uniform, high waisted, with shorts ending way above the knees, cinched to the waist by a belt, the top two buttons undone, and hair slicked to the side. (Fire Island or Mumbai Only-Boys High School?)
At one point, when Ramu wins a medal at school, he is ecstatic and runs home to Mohan, hooping the mangalsutra… sorry medal around Mohan's neck. They will never leave each other, they promise as they hold onto one another, weeping. Oh teenage love, what a beauteous kind you are!
I always saw this film as a flipped Kal Ho Naa Ho. You have a terminally ill patient (Rajesh Khanna as Anand)- happy-go-lucky, charming, who falls in love with a slightly over-serious person (Amitabh Bachchan as Dr.Bhaskar Banerjee aka Babu Moshai), but realizing that their love won't endure, decides to pair his lover with someone else (Sumita Sanyal as Renu) . To love is to let go, isn't it?
Dr. Bhaskar just met Anand a few hours ago, and now he's at the doctor's doorstep, wanting to stay over. The doctor tells the house-help, "Mere saath vale kamre mein inke rehne ka intezaam kijiye." We get it, doctor.
It's an endearing relationship where Bhaskar eves drops on Anand's melancholic musings (he curiously doesn't do so when his 'lover' Renu muses sadly), where his steely exterior is not just broken, but obliterated, as seen when he weeps, "Tum maroge to yahan, meri baahon mein."
I guess it is not totally out of question that the first time in cinema we have two men circumambulate the ritual fire of marriage, the saat-phere, (in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan) they are singing 'Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin Todenge' from Sholay. In the song Dharmendra contorts over Bachchan's body, sitting over his shoulders, on top of him, and then behind him, and then beside him. This song was even played at Pride Parades across America, speaking to the diasporia's re-imagining this song as a queer anthem.
Of course there is Kalia calling the two of them, the denim-dons, the Ramgarh rambos, a "hijdo ki fauj" (pejoratively, only to get his ass beat). The two brothers Veeru and Jai seem to have their own latent love-making going on. But were there more explicit references to homosexuality?
Well, you have Raj Kishore playing the 'obviously gay' character in prison, padded with rouge, pouting and winking, but that's about it. It's also no coincidence that the most unimpressive characters here are their lovers, one is a quiet widow and the other is a chatterbox tonga driver. Neither are interesting, and thus neither is that pursuit of love. And of course when one of them dies, it is in the arms of the other. Tears of remembrance, and a promise of memory made, the lovers part by death.
One way to describe this film is a heartbroken middle-class Delhi girl, Rani (Kangana Ranaut) goes on her honeymoon to Europe on her own, discovers herself, and thus true joy. At the end, she goes back to the house of the man who rejected her, and when they try asking for her hand again, rejects them.
Another way to describe this film is a heartbroken woman, who sees the joys of free love, comes back to reject not just the man, but all men, renouncing heterosexuality. And why not? The friendship that Rani forges with Vijayalakshmi (Lisa Haydon) in Paris opens her eyes to the futility of boundaries, between what is permissible and isn't. Vijayalakshmi is like that lover who frees you from, instead of romanticizing the shackles you built for yourself. She was supposed to see the Eiffel glittering with her husband. But she doesn't mind that the person beside her now is Vijayalakshmi. They part ways hoping for the other to never change.
Later, she kisses a French man and leaves him hanging, and refuses to forge anything but an innocent friendship with Oleksander who is clearly smitten. When she's ogling uncomfortably at the Urdu spouting pole dancer, clapping her hands in bhajan-stance, I wondered when the thought 'what it must be like to be her?' morphed into 'what it must be like to be with her?'.