When Deepa Mehta’s Fire first released in 1996, members of the Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal and BJP, among others, vandalised and burnt posters, smashed glass panes and attempted to shut down screenings to protest the movie. Based on Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf, Fire is about the blossoming relationship between two young women played by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das.
This mainstream portrayal of a homosexual relationship between two women triggered outrage across the country. And is telling of two things. One, the idea of homosexuality makes some Indians incredibly angry. Two, this is why we need to see such relationships on our screens far more frequently than we do.
People tend to think that LGBTQ+ Indians are a tiny, miniscule minority, and the ones that exist are stereotypical effeminate men or butch, ‘manly’ lesbians. This idea is further consolidated by the lack of non-stereotypical queer representation. Not only is the community practically invisible in Indian media, even when it is visibilised, it is done poorly. Caricaturisation and cartoonisation have historically forced fictional LGBTQ+ Indians to serve as elements of humour and ridicule – and this has led to the widely held belief that the community really is made up of gay men strutting up and down the store with their girlfriends, occasionally stating, ‘Oh honey, those shoes with that dress?’
An example of gay men being used for jest and entertainment can be seen in this video, which like numerous others, films a man walking around the city pranking people by coming onto them as a gay individual. Apart from causing discomfort by violating people’s personal space, the video contributes to the creation of a false image of gay men as being predatory and hyper-focused on dating and sex.
There is no doubt that such portrayals are harmful in multiple ways. Parents don’t want their sons and daughters to grow up to be ‘one of those people’. Compulsory heteronormativity plagues queer Indians. The community is othered, sidelined and dismissed as something completely removed from and alien to mainstream society. The list is long, but we are inching towards the happy ending we deserve – people are beginning to realise the problem, and they are doing something about it.
Our generation is witnessing a slow but steady rise in LGBTQ+ themed short films and movies that offer positive portrayals of being queer in India. These works focus on the struggles of the community, family lives and relationship dynamics – and shine the spotlight on queer people as likeable and human protagonists, instead of accessories placed on-screen for the sake of entertainment.
Last year, Vicks, a household name in India, came out with an advert featuring Gauri Sawant and her struggle to raise an adopted child as a trans woman in India. The video is important because it portrays a queer woman as a normal person trying to get through life – something Indian media has failed to do time and again.
Anouk’s ad features two women in a live-in relationship. Although the ad has sparked an important debate about the potential harm of only portraying upper-middle class queer women (and so, excluding queer people from other socio-economic backgrounds), it’s still a breakthrough in Indian LGBTQ+ portrayal.
Any Other Day is a short film about an Indian mother who defends her gay son by standing up to police constables who misuse Section 377 to harass her son and his significant other. This video is a ray of hope – young LGBTQ+ children and adolescents stumbling upon queer Indian content will now see themselves as people worth standing up for – an incredibly simple and important idea.
The ‘Other’ Love Story narrates how two young women defy the odds to stay together. It is a well-made, inclusive piece of work that has received support from across the country.
Sisak, India’s first silent LGBTQ+ story, is another breakthrough short-film that’s gained wide-spread recognition. It has won 30 international accolades so far.
Queer Indians have been negatively impacted by negative media portrayals for several years now, and we may finally be witnessing a turnaround. One day, young Indians will grow up with positive, healthy and inclusive LGBTQ+ portrayal. Hopefully, positive portrayals of queer India will help bring about a change in how others approach homosexuality and gender queerness in this country.
Sukhnidh Kaur is a 19-year-old student from Mumbai. Find her on Instagram @pavemented and Twitter @skhndh