I was barely sixteen when, in the third season of “Koffee with Karan”, Ranbir Kapoor and Imran Khan kissed.
It was momentous for someone like me – a queer teenager struggling with her sexuality – to see a show as mainstream and widely-watched as yours portray same-sex intimacy, and that too, between two equally mainstream male actors. I finally felt like I was getting the queer representation I deserved. Around the time the episode aired, that was incredibly rare in any form of Indian media – and made me feel at least a little more confident in my own queerness.
However, the very next moment, you (and Ranbir and Imran) laughed the kiss off – like it was some sort of extended gag, declaring “no homo” to the world, and all of my previous confidence and hope was shattered.
That was 2010. But since then, this has become somewhat of a pattern.
Heterosexual actors come on your show, queerbait the audience and make innuendoes about your sexuality. You laugh along, condoning and even participating in this lampooning of queerness, and your ratings continue to spike.
None of this is surprising, of course, because your films – from “Kal Ho Naa Ho” to “Dostana” have done the exact same thing for years – turned the very hint of a gay relationship into a joke. In fact, in the past, you have even tried to explain away the homophobic mess that was “Dostana” by saying that it at least “brought the conversation of homosexuality into the drawing room of every urban home”, and perhaps, that’s what you think “Koffee with Karan” is doing too by at least bringing up the subject. But in a country where section 377 is a stark reality, where most of us who are queer are forced to live in our closets for the fear of violence and discrimination, bringing up the subject, and then associating it with something negative, ends up normalizing queerphobia.
I have always admired how masterfully you seem to handle public conversations about your sexuality. Despite speculations and leading questions, you have always held your own when it has been brought up, and have always created your own narrative around it, rather than be subject to that of a media which is hell-bent on seeing it as cause for scandal.
At the AIB roast, you made not-at-all subtle references to your sexual orientation, and even kissed Ranveer Singh, making it clear that you weren’t bothered by public perception. And earlier this year, you wrote a series of columns where you addressed the media’s fascination with your sexuality and again, took control of the narrative.
You are constantly pushing the envelope with just how explicit you can get about your sexual preferences, and the way you keep pulling that off without a hitch every single time is nothing short of brilliant. But it’s also equally frustrating, because the reason why you can afford to be in charge of your own narrative is the privilege you come from, which very few have in India. In a country where even conversations about heterosexual sex are taboo, you are in a unique position of power to get away with your insinuations about your sexuality. But that’s why it rankles so much, because, instead of putting this privilege (and your significant influence in the film industry) behind spreading positive messages about LGBTQ rights and identities, you end up doing the opposite.
It’s no longer 2010, but I am still as desperate for LGBTQ representation in media now as I was then, and I bet there are others like me too – who just want to see queerness being positively portrayed for once. Fortunately enough, the past year has actually been good on that front, through films like “Kapoor and Sons” and “Aligarh”, and online content like “All About 377” and “Sex Chat With Pappu and Papa” – but how can these small victories be sustained when someone as as influential and as vocal as you, is taking the conversation backwards rather than forwards?
I do not expect “Koffee with Karan” (which is largely about celebrity gossip), or your films, to suddenly centre around gay rights, but if you do choose to talk about homosexuality and can’t do so in mature or at least sensitive ways, then maybe just…don’t?