Cinema has the potential to help the cause of the LGBTQ community, as it reaches out to a large and mixed audience and brings them face to face with the trials faced by the community.
However, Bollywood has long chosen to follow the trope of gay/transgender villains in movies like “Mast Kalander” (1981) and “Sangharsh” (1999) which have further perpetuated the ‘abnormal’ label imposed on LGBTQ people.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of lesbian characters in Bollywood, and the disastrous consequences when it tried to include them.
Although lesbian love had been hinted at in movies like “Mandi” and “Razia Sultana” (both in 1983), their representation had been subtle and almost platonic, with the protagonists depicted as close and affectionate towards each other, but not dealing directly with the theme of lesbian love. This was in stark comparison to heterosexual love, which was made abundantly clear through the story arcs and dialogues.
The first openly lesbian couple in Bollywood is considered by many to be Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das’ characters in “Fire” (1996). It portrayed a homosexual relationship between two women, who seek solace in each other, after being shunned and ignored by their husbands. Upon its release, however, “Fire” faced criticism from the LGBTQ community as it gave audiences the impression that homosexuality was a passing phase, and not someone’s inherent sexual orientation. It also sparked a controversy among religious groups since the protagonists had names of Hindu deities (Sita and Radha), and in many cities its screenings were cancelled after violent protests.
Since then, however, Bollywood has remained uncharacteristically silent on the topic of lesbian love – except a few movies which included lesbian women as a way to sensationalise and cater to the male gaze. Movies like the critically and commercially failing “Girlfriend” (2004) are a huge step back in the discourse of lesbian women. Made purely for viewing pleasure and with sufficient raunchiness, this movie does nothing more than project female homosexuality as a fantasy which is dictated by the dominant male figure instead of his exclusion from it. All of this is to avoid alienating and even angering the male audience by making them feel irrelevant to the movie’s narrative.
Another example is “Men Not Allowed” (2006) which further imprinted on homosexuality being the result of childhood trauma or abuse, and its hyper-sexuality was purely for the sake of pleasing men. It didn’t attract much attention either, and was soon forgotten.
A few more mentions of lesbian love are found in indie movies like “Shaitan” and “Monica” (both 2011), although these only contain subtle hints (like two women sharing a kiss in “Shaitan”, or the homosexuality implied, but not directly portrayed on screen between the two protagonists in “Monica”), and don’t explore the supposed homosexuality of their characters in details.
In fact, the only authentic representation of lesbian love has been in regional cinemas and productions on a much smaller base, like Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi play “Mitrachi Gostha”, which explores the relationship between two women in a college campus in Pune.
“Randu Penkuttikal” (1978, Malayalam) is often credited as one of the earliest attempts to depict the homosexual relationship between two women; Subrata Sen’s “Nil Nirjane” (2003, Bengali) which besides dealing with themes of premarital sex and single motherhood, also shows a lesbian relationship blossoming during a vacation; and “Sancharram” (2004, Malayalam) portrays two women from different religions in a homosexual relationship.
Homosexuality is already seen as an abomination in society. Add to it the threat of a woman making her own choices and not caring for a man’s permission or presence, and lesbian love becomes a nightmare for them.
Another major problem is that most movies on homosexuality are usually made by conventionally cisgender heterosexual directors and actors who are divorced from the reality of exactly how a person from the LGBTQ community feels. The product is thus just as divorced from reality, serving only as a raunchy, mindless piece of work for the straight male to enjoy and consider themselves as saviours with the responsibility of ‘converting’ lesbian women into being straight again.
To counter these problems, we need to be sensitive and sensible towards the misrepresentation of lesbian women in cinema. Criticism and boycotting of movies which trivialise homosexuality and reduce them to the soft-core porn tropes might discourage this problematic, age-old mentality. Demanding a change in the mentality of the ‘censor’ board which mostly bans or administers ridiculous amounts of cuts to movies depicting homosexuality, for example Raj Amit Kumar’s “Unfreedom” (2015), as well as an increasing presence of queer filmmakers and actors in mainstream cinema, might work towards making acceptance in subsequent pop-culture, easier.