Mainstream Hindi cinema has seen a recent uptick in portrayals of LGBTQIA+ subjects. Recently, Badhaai Do (2022) starring Bhumi Pednekar and Rajkumar Rao cast light on the issues of marriage inequality and adoption rights for same-sex couples. The movie captures the essence of being queer in a heteronormative, patriarchal family with nuanced depictions of same-sex desires and the everyday struggles that queer people face. The movie notably depicted a never-seen-before sense of community and friendship within the queer community. On the other hand, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021) attempted to start the conversation on humane and positive trans representation, despite leveraging some of those same stereotypes that it tries to challenge.
Transgender people have suffered immensely due to historically bad portrayals that show them as sexually deviant and predatory, (remember Sangharsh?), villainous (Maharani in Sadak) or treated as secondary characters that are either killed off brutally to serve inadequate writing or used as comic relief throughout the movie (Masti, Laxmii. These portrayals serve to 'other' those already belonging to marginalised sexual identities, and any humour derived from punching down on these communities evidently only serves the cis-het male gaze.
Psychology research demonstrates how media representation influences the lived experiences of people from the LGBTQIA+ community in the real world, and influences how queer youth navigate their identities, and their visibility. (For a nuanced understanding of how media portrayals influence the life of marginalized folks, check out Disclosure (2020) on Netflix).
Accurate portrayals tether on authentic casting choices. While Sanjay Leela Bhansali's recently released Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) is being universally praised for its stellar performances and the positive portrayal of sex workers as strong and persevering, the choice to cast Vijay Raaz, a cisgender man, to play Razia Bai, the trans madam working in brothels, was immediately panned. When the lived experiences of queer people are outrightly misappropriated by non-queer actors, it risks potentially caricaturist portrayals. It also deprives queer actors of work opportunities, and deprives audiences (especially queer audiences) of positive, successful role models working in film. Similar criticism was meted out to Vaani Kapoor's casting in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui.
Arjun Mathur, in an interview about his portrayal of a gay man in Made in Heaven, contends that the only difference between him and his character was their sexual preference. While Mathur likely had no malicious intent by comparing himself – a cisgendered straight man – with that of his character, such narratives inadvertently invisibilise the disparity in privilege, power, and lived experiences inherent in societies' treatment of gay folks.
Faraz Arif Ansari's short film Sheer Qorma revolves around a non-binary Muslim protagonist. The short film borrows from the director's own experiences of coming out, identity, and relationship with their mother. Set in a traditional Muslim household, the trailer depicts various South Asian symbols like mehendi or the protagonists sharing an intimate moment while offering prayers. Ansari reclaims religious and cultural aspects of queerness by using traditional symbols and dialogues that are non-western in nature.
The trailer ends with Swara Bhaskar embracing her partner while saying "Mohabbat gunah nahi hai" ("Love is not a crime"). The usage of Urdu language as a medium depicts the queer identity through a relatable and cultural lens and challenges the "unholy" perception of being queer. In common discourse we rarely use indigeneous language and vocabulary to talk about queer experiences. Phrases like "love is love" and "coming out of the closet" are largely western in origin. Thus usage of vocabulary and labels in a cultural context helps with relatability and visibility. Moreover, it indicates that being "queer" exists out of geographical boundaries and across various cultures.
While representation of queer characters is infrequent enough as it is, queerness at the intersection of caste, class, disability is a rare sighting. Filling this void, Neeraj Ghaywan's Geeli Puchi told the story of two women – a Dalit, butch lesbian portrayed by Konkana Sensharma and Aditi Rao Hydari, playing a femme Brahmin girl. Alongside its honest, non-fetishized depictions of queer infatuation, the movie brilliantly portrayed the multifold experiences of prejudice when sexuality is steeped in layers of caste, class, and gender roles.
Margarita, With a Straw too, portrayed the crossroads of disability and queer identity. At a time when disabled sexuality itself is deeply stigmatised, Margarita, With a Straw depicted queerness, love, and sexual exploration without making any identity central to Laila's portrayal.
Indian Cinema, whether focused around themes of queer or heteronormative love, both share tired and disparaging tropes of femininity. Feminine expressions by male presenting characters are often ridiculed, especially in the case of queer and trans people. Meaningful depictions of empowered, respectable and powerful femme characters are rare. Other than misrepresentation, a harmful caricature of femininity aids in the gender divide, reinforces exclusionary norms and trivialises the emotions associated with being woman-like. International shows like Netflix's Pose and Tales of the City aptly represent what it means to function as queer person in a heteronormative world. These shows, not only highlight microaggressions and the various forms of violence that transgender and queer people have historically faced but also depict positive queer experiences. Both of these shows have an ample number of feminine and trans feminine characters that function beyond tokenistic depictions premised in comedic plot devices. They also have well-defined character arcs that aid positive representation. In the Indian cinematic context a number of regional films like Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012) and Naanu Avanalla…Avalu (2015) have done a commendable job in depicting a non-caricaturist and humane feminine gender expression. On the other hand, mainstream cinema still reeks of age-old gender stereotypes and relies on damaging tropes for depicting femininity.
Although efforts are being made in the right direction, mere representation and storytelling will not fare well in terms of job creation and social equality for the queer community. Accurate and realistic depictions will help in breaking down cycles of stigma and shape public perception, and notions of abnormality and "othering" attached with queerness will be re-evaluated and questioned.
Ensuring that queer representation is intrinsic to the production, casting and scriptwriting processes, and increased representation in the production crew would not only provide more employment opportunities, but also honestly transcribe our lived reality into artistic products worthy of patronage.