The ‘Absent Presence’ Of Queer Stories In Mainstream Bollywood

LGBTQIA+ characters have been and continue to be used in films for comic relief; they are overly sexualised, portrayed as predators and confined to certain tropes
The ‘Absent Presence’ Of Queer Stories In Mainstream Bollywood

For the last few decades, the presence of the LGBTQIA+ community in Bollywood movies has been coloured by stereotypical, stigmatised, and misguided representations, which are fueled by and catered for a largely unaccepting, unrelenting, homophobic society. This problematic portrayal of the queer community in mainstream Indian cinema for years has been complicit in encouraging certain prejudices, as well as furthering and deepening an already existing divide, while the creators of these films minted money for their tokenism.

Although there have been a few sympathetic portrayals, LGBTQIA+ characters have been and continue to be used in films for comic relief; they are overly sexualised, portrayed as predators, confined to certain tropes, and associated with certain professions such as fashion designing, choreography, sex work, etc. Further, same-sex relationships are gendered with one partner possessing supposedly 'feminine' traits and the other possessing 'masculine' traits to fit the heteronormative marital structure.

It is argued that Bollywood has substantially sensitised itself in its portrayal of queer characters since the decriminalization of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 2018; however there is still a long way to go before queer stories are truthfully told. The narrative structure of queer stories in Bollywood is still largely controlled by cisgender/heterosexual creators in that there is little to no involvement of out-and-proud LGBTQIA+ people in the making of these films (both on- and off-screen).

While mainstream Bollywood films such as Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019) and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020) have attempted to normalise homosexuality, there is still a certain absence in their narratives in that these are stories of people belonging to a certain class and caste in India. There is, therefore, a need for more intersectional stories from the queer community: representation of LGBTQIA+ people from the very margins and fringes of Indian society, stories of queer people belonging to minority groups, and the struggles they have to go through within these separate minority groups. A great start with respect to the inclusion of these aspects in queer stories is evident in films like Aligarh (2015) and Margarita With A Straw (2014).

Admittedly, recent mainstream Bollywood movies with queer characters intend to pave the way not only for better queer visibility in Indian cinema, but also argue for the acceptance of the community in our society. Of course, acceptance by society is necessary and essential; however, it is this very depiction of the plea for acceptance in these films that sheds a light on how these stories, curated for a heteronormative audience, sometimes tend to appear didactic in nature and end up, counter-productively, further alienating the community and increasing stigmatisation.

Many mainstream Bollywood films tend make the 'coming out of the closet' of their queer characters as the central and sometimes the only conflict in the film. Indeed coming out is one of the most important events in a queer person's life, yet it is important to note that queer people's struggles do not end after they come out. In most cases they tend to increase owing to a still largely homophobic society. Therefore, while recent Bollywood initiatives should be appreciated, it is also important not to overlook the harsh heteronormative gaze the queer characters are written and brought to life with.

Another thing we must hold Bollywood accountable for is the "absent presence" of queer identities in its films what with either misrepresentations or a dearth of characters who identify as bisexual, asexual, aromantic, pansexual, intersex, and so on.

The solution to these problems is to create films with universality and the normalisation of the queer presence not only as side-characters but, more importantly, as protagonists. There is a need for the creation of films that do not solely focus on the characters' queerness but also other aspects of their identities and how these identities intersect and what their identities mean for them in contemporary India. Films needs to highlight issues they face in everyday life, how the forces of a patriarchal, heteronormative society aided by systemic policies affect their everyday existence. There is a desperate need for more involvement of LGBTQIA+ people in the making of such projects in order for them to take control of their stories and narratives, which have been monopolised by self-proclaimed moguls in the industry for all these years.

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