Arguing against those who have criticized Karan Johar for his treatment of gay characters, this article credits the director for gradually breaking the cultural silence on issues of alternate sexuality and desire through his films.
[I]n an article recently published in First Post (‘Dear Karan Johar, do you really think gay men are like this?’, May 10), Sandip Roy lashes out at Karan Johar’s segment of Bombay Talkies (‘Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh’) for its insensitive, offensive and stereotypical portrayal of gay characters and their lives. “Couldn’t you (Karan Johar) have spared”, Roy asks, “a scriptwriting moment to make him (Avinash, played by Saqib Saleem) at least believable?’’ He goes on to add how the gay protagonist in Bombay Talkies is “emotionally unstable, unable to have any conversation without gratuitous sexual double entendres, self-destructive, masochistic, and prone to kiss-and-tell.’’
We firmly disagree with this view. If one were to critically scrutinize the cinematic oeuvre of Karan Johar, what becomes pretty evident is the slow, but marked transition that the filmmaker and his films have gone through. From exploiting gay stereotypes to evoke laughter in Kal Ho Na Ho, turning the male body into a source of erotic spectacle, both for his straight and gay audiences in Dostana (John Abraham in yellow trunks) to depicting a gay dean (Rishi Kapoor) desiring the sports coach of his school (Ronit Roy) in Student of the Year, Karan Johar has surely ‘come out’; pun intended!
The claim that Johar’s portrayal of the gay protagonist in Bombay Talkies is unrealistic and clichéd, that there is something seriously wrong in depicting him “as stalker, as husband snatcher, as closeted, as repressed, as violent, lunatic’’ is flawed on many accounts. Why can’t a gay man be a stalker, given that the film clearly establishes the context of homophobic violence and abuse at his home, and the multiple insecurities and repressions he faces? Isn’t it ironical that, on the one hand, we clamour for realistic representations of gay characters, and on the other, want to dictate the way, that one ideal way, in which the gay character should look on the screen?
The logic that only ‘positive’, unproblematic and ‘proper’ gay characters (who defines the characteristics of this ‘positive’ gay character, anyway?) shall serve the political interests of the queer community in India is dubious. Let’s have a multiplicity of images of gay characters, rather than one prototype that will serve as an ideal, an ideal that will never really arrive. It’s this excess of images, of all shades and hues, stalkers, sissies, drag queens, bankers, gym built types, among many others, that will question the invisibility and silence that still marks the lives of many gay people in India.
The film also merits praise for many disturbing, “uncomfortably honest” (to quote Rajeev Masand) moments, unless the job of the critic/reviewer is only to always question the genuineness of the way popular cinema deals with questions pertaining to alternate sexuality. We will enumerate three:
a) The opening scene, where Avinash (Saqib Saleem) shocks the moral propriety of the audience by hauling up his own father and challenges the frequent conflation of the ‘homosexual’ and the ‘chakka’ (and goes on to say that being either is not bad). Now we didn’t see that coming from the Karan Johar of Kal Ho Na Ho days, did we?
b) The equally shocking office scene, where Avinash, pent up with lust (yes, why can’t a gay man be lustful?!) for Dev (Randeep Hooda) forgets all about moral decency and tries to kiss him in front of everyone. This, for us, is an intensely powerful and politically charged moment. If the personal is political, as feminists would have us know, then this scene, one of the most brilliant in the film, shows a queer character approaching the object of his desire with a force that does not recognize the proprieties of a sexually hypocritical culture, and the rigid distinction between the private and the public that it is based on (remember the VHP goons attacking couples on Valentine’s Day, because they were spreading ‘immorality’ in public!)
c) The kiss! Now, let us not take away that from the film. That moment of two men kissing on big screen made many people uncomfortable and almost transformed the posh multiplex, where we saw the film, into a single screen theatre! People were laughing and hooting, passing comments and judgments on the unbelievable thing they had just seen! We distinctly remember two comments:
– “Yeh Karan Joha hai na homo, sab ko homo banake chodega” (Karan Johar is ‘homo’ himself, he will turn everybody else ‘homo’)
– A gym-built guy, possibly a Haryanvi himself, goes: “Arre bhai yeh Randeep Hooda ne toh naam kharaab kar diya” (Oh brother, this guy Randeep Hooda completely let us down [by kissing another man])
The comments attest to the homophobic reaction that the subversive moment of the kiss generated. For an audience that has only recently got used to the idea that a man and woman kissing on-screen is no big deal, a man-man lip lock shocks, disturbs and repulses. Therein lies the radical potential of the film that has, surprisingly, received little media attention. It also lies, we suggest, in the fact that Gayatri (Rani Mukherjee), after initial shock and denial, walks out of a passion-less marriage without blaming the gay character for being a husband stealer and a marriage breaker. Instead, it’s her husband she castigates for being dishonest to her, for making her a part of the various lies he surrounds himself with, to confirm to the socially acceptable image of a macho, successful, ‘complete man’ (‘Jhooth bolna buri baat hai’, indeed!) She refuses to be the sacrificial, suffering Indian wife, when at the end of the film, we see her admiring her spunky red lips in the mirror, hinting at her desire to move on, re-discover her sexuality, and possibly find sexual and emotional fulfillment in another man.
We often underestimate the evolving views of mainstream culture on the topic of alternative sexuality. We are changing, painfully slowly sometimes, but changing nonetheless. The argument that a gay character should be portrayed as this suffering, honest, decent holy cow, and not offensive, effeminate or predatory doesn’t cut ice anymore. The Indian audience is not a homogeneous mass of infantilized idiots who uncritically believe what they see on screen. More importantly, not all of them generalize and negatively judge. The contention was initially about effeminate characters (which is itself based on a certain trans-phobia that most gay men subscribe to) and now it is with a gay man being a stalker. Are we ever going to accept that a mainstream director is silently, but very consciously evolving in the way he represents queer characters, from the days of ‘Kantaben’ jokes, to making a film where his character nonchalantly declares “I am gay and I don’t bite, unless you want me to!”
Bombay Talkies makes us confront our most deep seated assumptions and prejudices about the role of mainstream cinema in addressing social issues. Is popular cinema, by its very nature, regressive? Harish Iyer, a friend and queer rights activist, is on record saying that it was Dostana that helped him come out to sister. Indeed, popular films like Dostana and Kal Ho Na Ho have provided immense visibility to queer issues, and made the word ‘gay’, which till not so long ago, was in popular circulation only in the West, available for people to reject, laugh at, but also discuss, debate and deliberate upon. This is not to discount the tremendous contribution of parallel cinema and other arts (such as documentaries, paintings and photographs) in raising queer issues, but we believe that we need all kinds of representations, serious as well as comic, popular as well as parallel, a Dostana as well as a My Brother Nikhil, to get more and more people break the silence on the thorny issue of sexuality, in the bed room, on the dining table, out on the street! For doing your bit in helping the nation do that, and to ensure, in your own ‘candy floss’ way, that it never goes back into the closet, take a bow, Karan Johar!
Sameer Chopra and Rafiul Alom Rahman study English Literature at the University of Delhi.