There is a relentless trickle of queerness on streaming. It began with Cuckoo (Kubbra Sait), the trans woman in Sacred Games set in the grime of Mumbai and Karan (Arjun Mathur), the gay wedding planner in Made In Heaven’s gilded Delhi. Slowly, queerness cascaded on the small-screen to the ALT Balaji melodramas — The Married Woman in post-Babri Delhi along with His Storyy and Mentalhood in contemporary Mumbai. Not to forget the inaugurating threesome of the sex-anthology Gandii Baat set in an eroticized incarnation of rural India, where a man unable to pleasure his wife because he is gay, recruits his hunk of neighbour to have sex with her, jumping in mid-way. The bed creaks under the weight of three heated moans.
Queerness On Indian Streaming
Over the years — as Section 377 that criminalized gay sex was read down, as the Supreme Court put forth the progressive NALSA Judgment to empower trans lives — queerness seems to have become a staple presence, as though studio and streaming executives have added it to their dog-eared check-list, insisting on it in longform storytelling, even if peripherally, perfunctorily, irrespective of the urban-rural setting. This sudden pivot can feel confusing, because the effort to educate and become progressive can feel indistinguishable from the pretense of signaling progressive values.
In the past year itself we have had the gay cop in Aarya, the lesbian talent agent in Call My Agent Bollywood, the baby dyke in Bombay Begums, the struggling gay teen of The Fame Game, the cloistered lesbian doctor in Human, the closeted cricketer of Inside Edge, the “Hi I’m Muskaan, I’m 23, and I’m bisexual” sketch of a character in Feels Like Ishq, the lesbian lawyer of Guilty Minds, and the ruffians in Mai whose tenderness towards each other gets explained towards the end as love. One of the stand-out films from last year was, in fact, queer — Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi starring Konkona Sensharma and Aditi Rao Hydari, which despite its unsubtle dialogues lacking in rhythm, establishing queerness and desire with hammer and tongs, showed mastery over both the short-film format as well as creating queer characters who are as tainted as as they troubled. This is a film unburdened by the need to paint queerness in neat, comforting, idealized strokes. It wasn’t trying to sell you the idea of queerness.
Cinema, too, has moved in lock-step. Over the past year, films like Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, Badhaai Do, Cobalt Blue, Gangubai Kathiawadi, and Heropanti have thrown forth their version of queerness, however stilted, silly, sartorial, or sensitive.
A lot of the conversation around queerness, however, is still stuck at representation, repeating itself with increasing insistence with every new film or show — cast queer people to play queer characters, hire queer writers, lasso in queer directors. Responding to Vaani Kapoor, Vijay Sethupathi, and Akshay Kumar playing trans characters, Sushant Divgikr, whose drag persona goes by Rani KoHEnur, in a viral reel posed the question bluntly, “If a transgender person is not allowed to play a transgender character on screen in a film. They are not allowed to play a man in a film. They are not allowed to play women. So what do transgender artists play? Transgender trees in the background?!” This discourse has its limitations — of imagining representation as a moral prerogative with tangible outcomes as opposed to a new trend, a fad in production houses.
There is, however, a more complicated and compelling aspect to queer cinema that I want to, instead, contend with — a bottleneck at the level of storytelling itself.
Desire In Queer Storytelling
Take the recent film from the Modern Love Mumbai anthology, Baai, about the misery and memories of one Manzar Ali (Pratik Gandhi), a Muslim gay man who is grappling with the tension of coming out to his dying grandmother. Peripherally — or, perhaps, centrally — there is a love story between him and a chef (Ranveer Brar). While it dragged the corpse of the Sad Gay Man™ trope, framing queerness as this dull, despairing, anxious condition and insisting on marriage as the next logical step in love, the problem with the film ran deeper.
What can you say of a film that is uncomfortable showing two men kissing that it would rather have them rub chins? That its conception of desire is showing them half-naked on a bed, speaking of life and longing in a trite, lazy patches of dialogue?
Desire is central to queerness and if it cannot be central to queer cinema, then of what use is queer cinema at all?
Where’s the heat — one that Four More Shots, Please! and Guilty Minds produced with a casual hand? Where’s the sensuality — one that Cobalt Blue and Made In Heaven produced? The way characters touch and smell in Cobalt Blue or shove and thrust in Made In Heaven — where is that?
Desire is central to queerness and if it cannot be central to queer cinema, then of what use is queer cinema at all? It becomes an empty gesture of education, an arrow in the progressive but narrow quiver of representation. If ‘to feel seen’ is the only reason for a certain kind of movie to exist, it speaks to its narrow, and ultimately shallow conception of love, identity, cinema, and mimesis.
How To Think About Queer Cinema?
There are two, largely incompatible ways to think of queer cinema. One is that queer cinema should eventually be indistinguishable from straight cinema — or the traditions of cinema, which has largely been constructed as straight, such that any traces of queerness had to be forecefully yanked from it. Like the unintended but fully present queerness in the dosti-yarana films of Bachchan — Anand (1971), Sholay (1975) — a subversive legacy that Ranveer Singh has fully embraced in buddy-boning films like Kill Dil (2014) and Gunday (2014). Or the camp audacity of the vamp figure or vixens of desire — Helen and later, Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit sculpted by Saroj Khan’s breast thumping choreography, celebrating the body without shame or shyness. There is nothing intentionally queer in the making of these icons. The queerness was entirely produced by their reception, by young kids twisting to these songs behind closed doors.
According to this conception of queer cinema that wants to do away with any difference, the barriers that separate us, that allow for the hierarchy of norms, should corrode under the thumb of progressive legislations, a cultural sweep, and a dusting — or deep cleaning — of attitudes. Films like Badhaai Do, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, Dostana that center the family as the space for conflict and catharsis, that liberally use tropes of heterosexual romantic cinema. Here, the fight is for an equal world, an equal footing where being queer isn’t radical, new, worthy of attention or spectacle.
The second way to think of queer cinema is to insist on queerness as its own cultural territory, with its own internal logic, its own grammar of narrative, desire, catharsis, its own contradictions and hypocrisies that it deals with in its own way. This conception refuses to be tied down by existing conventions or accommodate its flaring, unwieldy, erotically heavy, eternally unresolved stories and characters. Examples include films like LOEV, Do Paise Ki Dhoop Chaar Aane Ki Baarish, Cobalt Blue. To be clear, this is not about what makes “good” queer cinema, but what makes cinema queer. It is, I think, reckless, seething desire.