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LGBT in India: Bollywood’s First (Timid) Attempt
(Blogmensgo, gay blog of January 23, 2019) Four months after the decriminalization of homosexuality in India, the local film and television industry is beginning to address LGBT issues. As elsewhere, the media and screenwriters in India are more or less open to such social changes, and are increasingly adapting to them. Now, for the first time in Bollywood’s history, a highly endowed and well-cast music film with carefully dosed LGBT subjects will be shown in cinemas. Tentative first steps, that’s all it is at the moment – but it is that at least.
A little more tolerant society
The first effect of decriminalization of homosexuality by the Indian Supreme Court on September 6, 2018 was to encourage people to assert their rights as LGBT persons in court. So far, such legal questions have been made without reference to the sexual orientation or gender identity of plaintiffs, but today the “LGBT status” is increasingly important in complaints and lawsuits.
Another sign of the times: advertising (and not only by foreign multinational companies) is increasingly directed at LGBTQ customers, sometimes implicitly, but sometimes rather explicitly as well.
Politics is also beginning to open up very slowly to less heterosexual issues. Apsara Reddy, a trans-woman working as a politician, television and print journalist, was appointed Secretary General of the All India Mahila Congress (AIMC), the women’s wing of the Indian National Congress (INC), on January 8, 2019. Today, this center-left party of the Gandhi family is the largest opposition party by the number of seats in the lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha). Apsara Reddy uses her local and international fame to claim more tolerance towards transsexuals and the entire LGBT community and declares that belonging to a minority is not unusual.
Stigmatization still remains
The nomination of Apsara Reddy took place a few days after the parliamentary adoption of the Transgender Protection Act 2016 in mid-December 2018. Reddy and her party criticize this law on these four important points:
Transgender persons are almost exclusively defined biologically;
Transgender persons may not determine their own gender identity but need an official certificate;
Contrary to the provisions of the Court ruling, no posts for transgender minorities are foreseen in the education and public service sectors;
For all these reasons, the law further marginalizes the already very vulnerable group of transgender persons.
One of the amendments defines a transgender person as follows:
[A transgender person is someone] whose gender does not match the gender assigned to that person at birth and includes trans-men or trans-women, persons with intersex variations, gender-queers, and persons having socio-cultural identities such as kinnar, hijras, aravani and jogta.
In any case, the public today recognizes that homosexual relationships are not primarily a question of gender, but a question of love. Two gays or two lesbians can form a couple that is just as romantic as a heterosexual couple. Likewise, Indians are beginning to realize that gender identity and sexual identity are not carved in stone.
Bollywood is going queer!
Writers have just been waiting to adapt their scripts accordingly and bring in an unexpected twist, at least in terms of viewer habits.
On February 1st, 2019, a romantic comedy by Shelly Chopra Dhar entitled Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (What I felt when I saw this girl) was published, written by transgender author Gazal Dhaliwal. In short, it is the story of a young man who loves a young woman who is not into men. The official trailer (Hindi with English subtitles), however, reveals almost nothing of the lesbian theme.
The film soundtrack’s release clip almost completely ignores the homosexual dimension of the film as well.
After all, this is the first Indian film with homosexual storylines for a very large audience – due to its huge budget, the renowned production company (Fox Star Studios) and its prestigious cast (the handsome Rajkummar Rao who loves the beautiful Sonam Kapoor, Anil Kapoor's daughter in the film and in real life) – even if the trailer doesn’t really show it.
The slogan to the movie is not much clearer either:
Accept love for what it is.
(Nimm die Liebe wie sie ist.)
This feature film with father and daughter is not the first in India to show gay or lesbian characters. But Anil and Sonam Kapoor are well known among Indian spectators. The difference between a low-budget film with an unknown cast and a film with huge stars on the poster is the potential enthusiasm of the audience: Shelly Chopra Dhar’s film and his stars have caused quite a stir for more than six months now.
Sridhar Rangayan is a director and producer with much more explicit LGBT themes. He made a name for himself in 2006 with the short film The Pink Mirror, which tells the story of two drag queens, a trans-woman and a gay teenager. His latest film, Evening Shadows, which was released in 2018 and won several festival awards, tells the story of the coming-out of a young gay man and his family. Unlike Bollywood blockbusters, Sridhar Rangayan and his films are much less well known and therefore do not get the attention they deserve from the media and the public.
But in the end it doesn't matter whether it’s a blockbuster or an independent film: Either one has its share in bringing Indian society forward.