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Pride Month: Queer cinema in India

Trans-formation on the big screen: Queer themes in Indian cinema

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Trans-formation on the big screen: Queer themes in Indian cinema

Vijay Sethupathi as Shilpa in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe (2019). 

Vijay Sethupathi as Shilpa in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe (2019).  | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The trajectory of queer-themed films in Indian cinema can be traced from the banal in the early years to queerbaiting—which suggests but does not depict—and, only lately, an attempt to understand same-sex relationships in all their nuances.

Shelly Chopra Dhar’s 2019 film, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, starring Sonam Kapoor, Regina Cassandra, Rajkumar Rao, Anil Kapoor, Juhi Chawla and others, is the story of a closeted lesbian woman from a conservative Punjabi family and how she comes out to them. That the project required a puppy-eyed, love-struck young man, an entire amateur theatre group, and a foray into a post-marriage adult relationship, is telling.

Sonam Kapoor and Regina Cassandra in “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga” (2019)
Sonam Kapoor and Regina Cassandra in “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga” (2019) | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Also in 2019 came the Tamil film 90ml, written and directed by Anita Udeep and starring Oviya, Monisha, Masoom, Shree Gopika, Bommu Lakshmi and others, with a cameo by Simbu. The film has a storyline about a lesbian woman who wishes to be with her lover but is worried about what society and people will say. Here, too, non-queer persons hatch conspiracies and plots to unite the couple. Within this broad plot though, there is a fair bit of fun and humour, mixed identities and confusion. 90ml deserves better appreciation and a deeper reading of what it puts on screen. But that is for another day. 

Kattumaram (2019) features a lesbian couple in a coastal village recovering from the 2004 tsunami. 
Kattumaram (2019) features a lesbian couple in a coastal village recovering from the 2004 tsunami.  | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Kattumaram, another Tamil language 2019 film, directed by Swarnavel Easwaran, also features a lesbian couple, or perhaps a lesbian couple in the making. Set in a coastal fishing hamlet recovering from the 2004 tsunami, Kattumaram tells the story of Anandhi, a teacher in a rural school, and Kavita, a woman who has come to the village to escape a past trauma. A tentative friendship becomes love becomes politics, as the entire village turns on them in fury. 

What these films have in common is a belief that somehow queer persons cannot make a life for themselves without the support or blessings of a non-queer person. And the premise that queer love must either be full-fledged tragedy or barely concealed farce.

In Paava Kadhaigal, the Tamil lockdown anthology project , the first two films, “Thangam” and “Love Panna Uttranum”, are examples of this polarity. Sattar in “Thangam”, directed by Sudha Kongara, is the model of tragedy. She exists in the film as a punching bag for the entire village. At no point do we know of Sattar’s private joys or moments of calm. In the end, Sattar dies to unite a straight couple. 

A still from Thangam, the first film in the Tamil anthology web series Paava Kadhaigal.
A still from Thangam, the first film in the Tamil anthology web series Paava Kadhaigal. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

On the other hand, in “Love Panna Uttranum”, directed by Vignesh Shivan, a potential lesbian pair is played up, first for pathos and later as farce—a clear example of “queerbaiting”. This is the term used for the cinematic marketing ploy where directors suggest same-sex romance but do not actually depict it, the idea being to avoid alienating heterosexual audiences.

I was 15 or 16 when Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire, was released. I wanted to see it, but age and language gap intervened and I did not have the rebel-gumption to trudge across town to sneak into one of the few theatres playing the film then. I watched it years later, found it a tad slow, but understood why it was credited for kickstarting the queer women’s movement in India.

Dostana (2008) was an example of queerbaiting.
Dostana (2008) was an example of queerbaiting.

In the years since, popular Hindi cinema—or Bollywood, if we must use the term—has also slowly begun talking about queer people. There was Dostana in 2008, but that was again queerbaiting. Hints of queer sexuality existed, of course, in other films. But here was a film in which the two leading men actually pretended to be gay. There were some sympathetic murmurs in Tamil films too.

Was this some kind of movement forward from the days when trans women were seen as either evil pimps (Prakash Raj in Appu) or gay men as ineffectual and effete (any number of films from the 1970s and 1980s) or trans people were cast as incidental extras? It did not matter that our great Indian epics spoke of trans people, it did not matter that the most tolerant religion in the world, Hinduism, featured a god who was both male and female simultaneously. Our films had only a few roles for trans women. And nothing for other queer people—the out and proud gay men or the lesbian women or the bisexual bigender bicurious folks.

I am thinking of these films now because I am thinking of this idea of queerness, and because June is pride month. The queer community has the ability to offer models of tenderness and care, love and company, political belief and community action, to take an imperfect world and with it, make something approaching goodness. Queer people, the ones I know and love and am friends with (and if you are a queer person, how do you draw a line between friendship and love, between friend and lover?), we build for ourselves romance that is deeply rooted in the here and now. And we build it ourselves.

However, a survey of cinema—largely mainstream films in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, made by directors and producers with a little heft and some kind of popular appeal—shows that the big screen continues to portray queer persons and trans persons as little more than plot devices. They are vessels into which directors can place their current pet peeve or rehabilitation project. The idea that queer persons can exist on their own, to build or rebuild a life for themselves without it being anything more than a human pursuit, a human right, seems largely missing from the screen. 

Take the film Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020). It was billed as some kind of first gay romcom in Hindi cinema. The comedy was either largely absent or of the cringe variety, and what little romance was there was not around the lead pair. Somewhere in the film, the father of the lead character violently beats his son’s boyfriend. But we are expected to forgive him, because all’s well that ends well, and anyway we are like this only.

A man as a trans woman: Jayasurya as Marykutty in “Njan Marykutty” (2018). 
A man as a trans woman: Jayasurya as Marykutty in “Njan Marykutty” (2018). 

Then we have the Malayalam film Njan Marykutty  (2018), starring Jayasurya and directed by Ranjith Sankar, which presents a slice of the life of Marykutty, a trans woman aspiring to be a police officer. Marykutty faces derision and hate for the most part. But she also gets, if not love, some empathy, some support, some joy. On the other hand there is Moothon (2019), directed by Geethu Mohandas, which garnered favourable reviews as a mainstream Malayalam film that managed to portray queer love in a respectful way. Yet, queer friends who did see Moothon were less impressed. One said that it was queerbaiting to show the sister of the lead character as a perhaps-boy for a considerable portion of the film. 

The Tamil film Peranbu by director Ram was a romance for the ages. It is a film about a man—a battle-weary and beleaguered father of a disabled child—finding redemption. But it is also about a trans woman who rescues this flawed hero. Queer actor Anjali Ameer, who plays Meera in the film, has very little screen time. That is immaterial. It is her strength and love—great love—that redeems Amudhavan and Paappa and saves them from death. A trans woman sex worker played by a trans woman, in a film that advocates agency for disabled people, trans people, queer people. Truly rare.

Queer actor Anjali Ameer as Meera in the Tamil film “Peranbu” (2018). 
Queer actor Anjali Ameer as Meera in the Tamil film “Peranbu” (2018). 

Peranbu was written and made perhaps for a “discerning art film critic” audience. It did release first on the film festival circuit before finding the theatres. So, let’s take the film Motta Siva Ketta Siva by Raghava Lawrence. Raghava took a brief break from making the nth instalment of his Muni/Kanchana franchise to give us this masala blockbuster in which a disabled family—a family built by choice—forms the emotional core and a group of trans women are the hero’s aides and informers. The trans woman is not a prop, not shoehorned in for a bit of titillation nor an item song, as is usually the case, but is an actual living breathing person. 

Let us go back to 90ml. I am a tiny bit partial to it. Women as friends. Women as co-conspirators. Women as simply human beings with likes and dislikes and things they want to do. The film talks a whole lot of feminist politics without once having to underline it. And within this, this idea of a young, queer couple pining to be together, separated by family and society and conventions, is narrated without any revolutionary posturing. For the most part, we do not even realise (unless your gaydar is strong) that the said couple is queer. We just know that a young woman is unable to spend time with her lover and the rest of the film’s characters—and by extension us—understand this to be because of religion. And so when the twist unfolds, we are—I was—doubly happy. 

Movie poster of Tamil film 90ml.
Movie poster of Tamil film 90ml.

What Ek Ladki Ko… took a lot of heavy-handed fumbling to achieve, 90ml did with ease, almost like a magic trick.  

Much was made, in the run-up to the release of Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s 2019 Tamil film Super Deluxe, of its trans character Shilpa’s casting. Vijay Sethupathi was to play a trans woman and, we were told, this was wrong. I said so too. I still say so. Be it Kalidas Jayaram as Sattar in “Thangam”, Jayasurya as Marykutty, or Vijay Sethupathi as Shilpa, presenting a man as a trans woman perpetuates age-old stereotypes of trans women as men in women’s clothing, men play-acting at being women. 

Yet, Super Deluxe gave us a Shilpa who was not a cardboard cut-out. Shilpa was a complex, dynamic woman. A difficult woman. One who could perform a bad deed because it helped her journey, but who would repent it years later. One who must have faced years of abuse and hate and handled it stoically but crumbled when a group of schoolboys called her names. In Shilpa’s story, we find something approaching the narrative arc of the hero of a Tamil masala film. 

The masala film—that very Indian genre—is very, very giving. It pardons film-making mistakes, it does not care much for syntactical perfection or strict adherence to genre norms. The genre, and the audience that grew up with that genre, are more than happy to allow the film-maker enough slack if at the end of it there is a film that transports them briefly out of the contexts in which they arrive to view the film. A filial attachment, a romantic interest, a flawed hero, a powerful villain, a few songs, a few action pieces and bam, the film is ready. How one plays around with these blocks, what to make of these archetypes, is entirely up to the director.

Which is why I feel disappointment that our directors and writers, actors and actresses, do not exploit this generosity to give us queer romance and queer lives that do not require the grudging approval of straight society.

Nadika Nadja is a writer and researcher with interests in history and archaeology, gender, Internet and technology. She currently teaches creative writing and journalism at a Bangalore college and writes on cinema, society and technology. Find her @nadjanadika on Twitter.