Male friendships in Bollywood, from the 60s and 70s itself, have been increasingly not-very platonic. Whether it be the cult ‘dosti’ between Jai and Veeru in “Sholay,” or the yaarana between Bishan and Kishan in “Yaarana,” or “Anand” (where the chemistry between Amitabh Bachhan and Rajesh Khanna’s characters was so palpable that it was almost a romance) — vintage Bollywood had queer subtext in abundance.
However, this queer subtext became more overtly recognizable with 2003’s “Kal Ho Naa Ho” — which had a running trope where its two male protagonists were constantly caught in ‘compromising’ positions, and were mistaken as queer. Though the film’s attitude to queerness was problematic, it did somewhat spell out the fact that such close bonds between male friends can actually imply homoeroticism.
Since then, many not-quite-platonic ‘bromances’ (a term used for very close friendships between men) have been visible in several ‘male buddy films’ like “Dil Chahta Hai,” “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara,” “Kai Po Che,” and the “Munnabhai” series — where male friends share way too much chemistry and sexual tension; or films like “Student of The Year” — where the story arc between the two male leads uncannily mimics that of a traditional Bollywood heterosexual romance.
But despite all of these hints and subtexts, there’s always some kind of plot device thrown in to re-establish their heterosexuality, and to restore the (straight) status quo.
“I don’t distinguish between men and women in terms of anatomy,” said John Abraham in a recent interview, while heavily implying that he has an aesthetic appreciation of both sexes (and a possibly fluid sexuality?). The interview was to promote his latest film, “Dishoom” — a male buddy comedy (also starring Varun Dhawan), which from its very trailer, has been full of homoerotic subtext (i.e, full of hints of possible sexual or romantic tension between two men, or hints that they aren’t entirely entirely heterosexual).
This isn’t the first time John Abraham has been associated with queerness on-screen. He played a character pretending to be gay and shared a kiss with another man in 2008’s “Dostana” — a film that was actually pretty offensive to the gay community, because it turned homosexuality into a mere gag.
Abraham seems to revel in all the queer attention, but what’s interesting, is that it’s not just him. Quite a few actors, and especially, male actors have started to play up bromances which are overtly homoerotic. These sexually-ambiguous bromances aren’t just onscreen though, and have been seen time and again offscreen as well.
“What’s the weirdest rumour about you that is actually true?” asked Karan Johar to Ranveer Singh, during one of the often-controversial ‘rapid fire rounds’ of his hit talk show, “Koffee With Karan” (then in it’s fourth season). Singh, with a knowing smirk on his face responded — “that I’m involved with Arjun Kapoor.”
The bromance between actors Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor — which started in late 2013 when they starred in “Gunday” together — is pretty much legendary by now. From parties and interviews and award shows — in which the two hug and show physical affection in ways that border on (and often are) homoerotic — to open declarations of love on social media, these two men exhibit a relationship which goes way beyond the strictly heterosexual. In fact, all this had scandalized even Karan Johar enough to exclaim, “Your metrosexuality is making me uncomfortable.” In an earlier season of the same show Ranbir Kapoor and Imran Khan also shared one of these openly not-so-platonic ‘bromances’ — to the extent that they even kissed each other.
During the promotions of “Student of The Year” — another film with two male leads sharing a close bond — Siddharth Malhotra and Varun Dhawan had as much chemistry offscreen as they had in the film. They often joked about them having a ‘relationship,’ and shared a little too much physical closeness for it to be entirely platonic. So what do these homoerotically coded relationships between male actors really imply?
In India, close male friendships like these are actually not so uncommon. You often see men holding hands on the streets, or casually touching each other — so, to have the same mirrored in our popular culture shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s interesting to note how our culture encourages this kind of homoeroticism, and doesn’t a bat an eyelid when they see two male ‘friends’ sharing such intimacy — while Section 377 still causes actual same-sex relationships to be taboo.
In the ’60s and ’70s, there was a machismo associated with the male bollywood hero – he was hypermasculine, righteous, and the metaphorical knight-in-shining armour. So, male sexuality was supposed to be associated with virility and strength. But, recent films have been slowly but surely reworking that intensely ‘macho’ image. We see a different kind of underdog hero now – whether it be Varun Dhawan’s character in “Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya” crying during a DDLJ scene, or Ranbir Kapoor’s character in “Wake Up Sid,” who is somewhat clueless and unassertive. Yes, men are still expected to have bodies that feed a certain idea of masculinity, but their portrayal in cinema is slowly evolving from traditional patriarchal understandings of maleness.
The buddy films, and close male bonding off-screen is one of the biggest markers of this evolution. It’s an indication that Bollywood is now more comfortable with men showing homoerotic affection. Even when that is eventually made heterosexual, it’s still a step forward for a culture that is starting to recognize and give visibility to a male bonding of a different kind. We’ve had two refreshingly progressive depictions of queer men in Hindi cinema this year – in “Aligarh” and “Kapoor and Sons,” and the latter film even gained commercial success. Even though conversations surrounding queerness in mainstream Indian popular culture still have a long way to go before it matures, recognizing the homoerotic subtext in these male relationships (and accepting them) is an important start.