Frames per Second: Can queer romantic comedies boost India’s gay culture?

A new subgenre has emerged in Hindi cinema—the Queer romantic comedy. At the moment, it is a slow trickle, with one or two films a year. It began with ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ (2019), followed by ‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan’ (2020), and then last year’s ‘Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui’ (2021). The release of the trailer ‘Badhai Do’, starring Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar, earlier this week confirms that a new genre is in town. And the success that some of these films have tasted at the box office means they will be more.

This is a far cry from ‘Fire’ (1996), which had provoked violence and vandalism in different parts of India. Or, small-budget, indie projects like ‘Bomgay’ (1996)—arguably India’s first queer film—or ‘My Brother Nikhil’ (2005). Even more recent projects like ‘Margarita With A Straw’ (2014) or ‘Aligarh’ (2015) were made on shoe-string budgets. Though both were critically acclaimed, neither made a splash at the box office. ‘Aligarh’ had provoked angry comments and a call for a ban from the mayor of the town and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Shakuntala Bharti. It is also a far cry from homophobic representations in films like ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’ (2003) or ‘Dostana’ (2008).

Now, no one seems to be calling for bans or taking out protests against the queer romantic comedies. This is, of course, because the Supreme Court of India, in 2018, struck down those provisions of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalized consensual same-sex love. With legal sanction, leading men and women of the film industry, who would not have touched gay characters with a barge pole, are now happy to play them. And there is more money to make these films.

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But not everyone is happy with the way this subgenre is developing. Writing for Arre, Karthik Shankar describes ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ as a missed opportunity: “its lead protagonist is a cipher, who isn’t defined by anything other than her repressed homosexuality.” Akshita Prasad, writing for Feminism in India, felt ‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan’ was a step in the right direction but lacked nuance. The patience of critics seems to be wearing thin as time passes. ‘Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui’ was called out for casting Vaani Kapoor, who has previously played only cis-het women, in the role of a transwoman. Others called its representation transphobic or too self-congratulatory. Even the trailer of ‘Badhai Do’ has been taken to task for its portrayal of lavender marriage.

What does this increasing impatience with the way the subgenre of queer romantic comedies reveals to us? A genuine problem or the tyranny of cancel culture? Whatever it might be, the critics do not seem to engage in with the films as texts representing a genre and thus, they fail to completely understand what purpose they serve as generic films. As film scholar Sean Crosson writes in his book Sports and Film (2013), two principal theoretical approaches to understanding genre emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. The first drew upon Claude Lévi-Strauss’s work on religious rituals and viewed genres as societal self-expressions, while the second, inspired by Louis Althusser’s work, treated them as “ideological investments” of governments or industries to maintain hegemonic structures. Both these approaches became increasingly important in cinema studies since the 1980s.

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While I describe queer romantic comedies as a distinct, emerging sub-genre, I would like to clarify that it can be treated as a sub-genre for both the classic Bollywood romantic comedy as well as the Hindi queer film. The queer romantic comedy tries to incorporate some elements of the heterosexual romantic comedies such as ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ (1995) or ‘Kaho Na… Pyaar Hai’ (2000). Gazal Dhaliwal, the writer of ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh’ told Mid-Day that she wanted her film to be the ‘DDLJ’ of the LGBT community.

This desire for a more normative romance, even in the fantasy world of a Bollywood masala film, has made critics describe them as “escapist”. Similar criticism was directed at the 2017 Oscar-nominated film ‘Call Me By Your Name’ (2017). Adapted from André Aciman’s eponymous 2007 novel, might be the sort of onscreen romance all of us have been asking for a long time: It is a gorgeous representation of an almost improbable summer love between two impossibly beautiful men. But, its detractors claim it is hardly a “gay” film, seemingly refusing to grapple with homosexual identity.

“All utopias… are well-manicured lies,” wrote Ben Ratskoff in the Advocate. Ratskoff, perhaps rightly, finds Call Me by Your Name lacking in the cultural and identity politics of gayness that is an inseparable part of the lives of so many people in our world, whatever their sexual orientation or choice. Focussing on a scene in which Oliver almost eats — but finally does not — a cum-filled peach into which Elio has masturbated, Ratskoff accuses the film of prudery: “We are refused the salacious filth and sexualized male flesh that give gay culture its radical power.”

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Call Me by Your Name does provide an escape—but, after all, isn’t that the purpose of all fantasy? A literal translation of utopia is “no land”; those who imagine one also know that it can never be. But is that reason enough to shackle the imagination? Or, for that matter, is it fair to critique someone for imagining a more ideal situation than the one we live in? And, would it not be ideal if two people—of whatever gender or sexual desire—could continue with their amorous interests without being fraught by social and existential crises?

India might have decriminalized non-heteronormative love, but there is still barely any social acceptance of it. In his 2018 book Global Gay, French researcher Frédéric Martel writes: “In India, as often in Asia, the issue is not just about the law: a whole culture helps make taboo. Societal values, the caste system, arranged marriages, the high probability of being disinherited for coming out—everything runs counter to gay liberation.”

We have a long way to go before such deep-rooted social attitudes are reversed. For now, we have only these Bollywood fantasies. Will they be able to create a fledging gay culture in India? Only time will tell.

The writer’s novel, Ritual, was published in 2020. He teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat

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