What Bollywood Can Learn From Malayalam Cinema’s Portrayal Of The LGBTQ Community

Posted by Parthiv Kidangoor in Culture-Vulture, LGBTQ
February 12, 2017

Cinema in India for long, without a doubt, has been a major force. It fuels and adds dimensions to the existing socio-cultural and political environment. Despite being on the cusp of a paradigm change in terms of filmmaking and themes, its treatment of people belonging to the LGBTQ community is still myopic. It has still not gone beyond the ‘ugly’, ‘sissy’, ‘pansy’ and ‘butch’ portrayals. Celluloid has ben pretty harsh, stereotypical and has circumambulated around the archaic ‘Hays code‘.

How queer characters are still deployed only for comic relief, as sidekicks or as villains, be it, Amitabh Bachchan lampooning in a sari imitating a transgender in “Laawaris” or Osma Jasmine in “I”, whose sexual desire towards the hero is her only goal in life. Portrayals of LGBTQ people have been stereotypical. They have been shown as debauched characters, saying salacious dialogues and the portrayal often takes the form of ‘soft porn’.

The Malayalam movie industry, during a period solely famous for soft porn, has a rather love-hate relationship with its character portrayals. It has been exceptionally bold and also narrow-minded and hypocritical. Yet, it has always stood in the celluloid high table and has given us realistic and pathbreaking cinema.”Randu Penkuttikal” was Malayalam cinema’s first prominent encounter with lesbian relationships. Yet, its boldness ultimately gave in to the orthodox society, explaining the lesbian relationship between two childhood friends as a passing stage in every adolescent girl’s life. Despite being way ahead of its time in a conservative society like Kerala, it was not able to achieve what a movie like “Blue Is the Warmest Colour” was able to.

I am sorry to say, but Indian cinema always had this tendency to applaud and shower laurels on the wrong kind of cinema. Even the pioneers of Indian cinema such as Deepa Mehta, have made films like “Fire”, which actually treated the subject of lesbianism with kid gloves, depicting the relationship in the movie as a result of a failed marriage and as a means of equalising the power alchemy in a patriarchal family. It actually downplayed the very essence that makes up the fabric of homosexual relationships, seeing it is as a means to fight against male chauvinism.

Another Malayalam film called “Chanthupottu” is centred around an effeminate dancer and how the society looks upon him. The movie had a ‘happy ending’, as the character becomes more masculine and has a child. The character proves to everyone that he is ‘normal’. There is a scene in the movie where the protagonist’s mother asks him to fall in love with a girl and marry her so that the society stops ostracising him.

Despite narrow portrayals at times, certain movies like “Desatanakkili Karayarilla”, “Sancharam”, “Ardhanaari”, “Papilio Buddha”, etc., stand out in the representation of the LGBTQ community in India. Padmarajan’s “Desatanakkili Karayarilla” depicted the tale of two rebellious students whose life takes a turn after a school tour. Never in the movie do they explicitly depict the lesbian relationship, but give us subtle and intelligible hints.The movie stands out not only in its bold narrative but also the fact that a superstar in the peak of his career was ready to act in it, that too in a less prominent role.

The portrayal of the LGBTQ community in Bollywood, India’s most prominent face of cinema has been rather narrow. It has depicted alternative sexualities as a subversive culture of the west, as an ‘evil’ of urbanisation and the corporate world. Don’t forget the plethora of effeminate dance teachers, hairdressers who are transgender, gay fashion designers and software engineers shown in Indian cinema. Juxtapose this with Malayalam cinemas like “Sancharam” showing a lesbian relationship in the backdrop of a rural orthodox church. It doesn’t carry around a cul de sac view of restricting a person’s sexuality to their geographic identification and occupation. It revisits the whole sociological and gender studies debate on the relevance and reflection of LGBTQ portrayals in subaltern spaces. It further raises the questions linking gender fluidity to geographical spaces and occupational hierarchies.

Bollywood, on account of having a pan-Indian colour despite the criticisms and hypocrisies, has played a bit of role in bringing topics of the LGBTQ community to the dining table. Is this something to be proud of? Elsewhere, no. In homophobic India, it just might be.

We need to see films where an alternate sexuality is only a part and not the sole thing of the characters’ lives. The tendency to depict LGBTQ characters as unidimensional needs to be dropped. We need to accept the fact that sexuality is only one part of a character and there is no need to reduce a person’s entire existence to it.

“Mumbai Police”, a stylish thriller stood out as the sexuality of the character is only a subplot to a brilliantly made flick. The issue in itself presents a dichotomy, between whether such portrayals would create a more accepting space or will it only lead to further subjugation by dominant gender identities. We are yet to have films that portray them as complex characters with myriad idiosyncracies and their own stories. Not just melancholic unidimensional tales focusing solely on their sexuality and the societal stigma they face. A serious question that needs to be debated. Restrictive censorship which makes it hard for movies like ‘My life partner’,’Ka Bodyscapes’ and ‘Unfreedom” further reflects the state’s actual mentality to artistic expressions and notions.

Malayalam cinema needs to see more progressive representations, not only of existing LGBTQ themes but also of the lesser discussed colours in the rainbow. We need to see more ‘in your face’ flicks with LGBTQ themes, exactly the same manner in which the community took up ‘queer’, a pejorative word used against them, as the very name of the community.


Image source: YouTube