Has Indian cinema really come a long way where homosexuality is concerned? If we go by Aligarh, yes. A few scenes in Hansal Mehta’s quiet, reflective film persuade us that we are capable of looking at the subject with understanding, compassion and sensitivity. With anger that has purpose and sees the inhumanity and injustice of what happened to Dr. Siras but without being self-righteous — normally the bane of films with a cause.

This is a cause that has come lately to Bollywood, looking for its place under the judgmental Indian sun. Aligarh juxtaposes two lovemaking scenes with such deceptive subtlety that people might not grasp what the director is trying to say without flaunting his progressive credentials. Dipu (Rajkummar Rao), the go-getting, brash journalist from Delhi is shown making out with his female boss clandestinely on a terrace. It is frantic and furtive. Cut to a dimly lit room in Aligarh where Dr. Siras (Manoj Bajpai) showers soft, fluttery kisses on his dost’s face. The tone is tender, gentle and affectionate.

With that one scene, Mehta underlines how natural and affectionate love between two men can be without recourse to the shock value of bare bodied simulated sex. We have seen the retiring, gentle Marathi professor’s body stripped by goons, sent by scheming university colleagues, to humiliate and terrorize him. Siras is a man who wants to be left alone, a poet and professor who gently laments the inadequacy of a label like gay to convey the range of feelings a man feels for the other man he loves. Just as he sighs over the inadequacy of translating a Marathi poem into clichéd English.

What Mehta brings out with muted brilliance is the many sides of his protagonist who shuns the probing, merciless light the case exposes him to. The militant woman lawyer for the prosecution is ruthless: she wants to know who was the “husband” in Siras’ relationship with a rickshaw puller. She sums up our society’s prurience masquerading as righteous anger. Hansal Mehta deliberately avoids the immediacy and hard-hitting style of Shahid (again based on a real life character) where courtroom drama melds with the political thriller. The reclusive protagonist, underplayed with such subtlety by the gifted Manoj Bajpai, dictates the director’s style. That is why Aligarh lingers in the mind, Bajpai’s eyes haunting us with his pain and sudden shafts of unexpected humour, even when the screenplay sometimes shifts in an ungainly manner.

The boldest mainstream Bollywood film that made a gay man the central disruptive force in recent times was Karan Johar’s Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh in the quartet of short films in Bombay Talkies, a homage to hundred years of Indian (make it Bombay) cinema. Avinash (Saquib Saleem) is a lower middle-class young man who walks out of his home and a violently intolerant father when the son admits to being gay. Avinash ends up an intern under Gayatri (Rani Mukerji), the stylish, demanding editor of the gossip section of a magazine. A mix of aggro and affability, she gets close to Avinash and invites him home to dinner on his birthday. Her “intellectual” heavyweight husband Dev (Randeep Hooda) has the snooty hauteur befitting a TV anchor.

Bombay Talkies, Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh

Under the shared passion for old film songs crackle sparks of mutual attraction, something Dev doesn’t want to admit. The frisson between the closet bisexual and openly gay visitor passes under the wife’s radar. Avinash acts on the undeniable attraction and visits Dev the next day, but the older man plays deaf and blind. The melancholy strains of Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh and its companion piece, Lag Ja Gale recur like a leitmotif in the sweet voice of a young girl at the railway station.

Violence lurks and leaps out between the Dev-Avinash go-nowhere story. Who reaps the benefit of the simmering sexual attraction between the two men? The wife, who declares the morning after the unsettling night that she had the best sex ever the previous night. Soon, Gayatri learns the truth that has corroded their marriage and throws Dev out. Karan Johar treats his segment with bitter-sweet humour and honesty. Nostalgia is the patina that wraps the story like a sheer chiffon scarf. A story that doesn’t go the expected way, but a far cry from the film he produced years earlier. Dostana made two hunks pretending to be gay (so they can share the to die-for Miami flat with the sexy Priyanka Chopra) the pivot for a desified screwball comedy with an accompanying suspension of judgment. It was a refreshing step for its time, with John Abraham’s lusted for body flaunted to satisfy the male and newly awakened female gaze at the same time.

Scanning the recent past throws up only these exceptions, along with Revathy’s Phir Milenge, an adaptation of Philadelphia. These films depart from Hindi cinema’s stereotype of the effeminate gay played for laughs — and jeering ridicule. The limp wrist, exaggerated effeminacy — or misdirected aggressive wooing of the hero — are all geared to pander to the moral police lurking under most of us. Close on heels comes cross-dressing for purported comedy. When the hero pulls off a drag act with panache — Amitabh Bachchan (Lawaaris), Aamir Khan ( fetching in Baazi), Rishi Kapoor (deliciously dizzy in highheels in Rafoo Chakkar), Kamal Haasan (mostly in a nav-vari sari in Chachi 420, only fleetingly appearing as a man) – it is to show off his versatility. Films like Masti, Kya Kool Hai Hum and Humshakals are the pits of cringe-inducing vulgarity. Their worst sin? They are not even funny.

Priyanka, John and Abhishek in Dostana
Priyanka, John and Abhishek in Dostana
Amitabh Bachchan in Laawaris
Amitabh Bachchan in Laawaris
Humshakals
Humshakals

It is really surprising in a culture where men playing female roles is a living tradition in the performing arts — in traditional theatre, Yakshagana, Kuchipudi and Odissi’s gotipua male dancers (till about 50 years ago). There are surprisingly few films exploring the psychological dimensions of such role playing. In the able hands of sensitive directors who dare to go beyond the surface, they turn out to be memorable.

Top of the list is Amol Palekar’s Daayra. Nirmal Pandey as a theatre actor playing female roles and his encounter with Sonali Kulkarni, who dresses as a boy as a safety precaution, is brilliant in delving into the ambiguities of constructed masculinity and integrating his feminine side into it. Unfortunately, this is a film not easy to lay hands on. Tamanna is memorable for Paresh Rawal’s performance as Tikku, a eunuch who brings up an abandoned girl child. Mahesh Bhatt directed this film based on a real incident. Tamanna shares an interesting similarity with Kalpana Lajmi’s Darmiyan. Here too, the mother (Kirron Kher) is a fading actress, like Tamanna’s Nazneen Begum. Arif Zakaria as her son Immi of indeterminate sex brings out the tragedy of his situation — first as a child born out of wedlock and then, struggling to find his gender. There are no easy resolutions for transgenders who are even more marginalized than gay men by our hidebound society.

Lesbian women needed the perspective of filmmakers based mostly abroad to find film space. Deepa Mehta’s Fire is more famous for the controversy it generated — Shiv Sena attacking theatres that dared screen a film where the younger instigator of lesbian love is linked to Sita, subverting the agnipariskha — than its intrinsic virtues.

Fire, Deepa Mehta

Fire, especially in its English avatar, adhered to textbook feminism and suggested that under the placidity of middle class Punjabi life, unsatisfied female desire in traditional marriage turned to another woman for love, passion and fulfillment. What frightened the Hindutva brigade was how the film undermined the institution of marriage.

Shonali Sen’s Margarita With A Straw was honest and daring in celebrating the sexual desire of a spastic teenager and her non guilt for being bisexual. Most recently, Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses saluted not just female bonding but its culmination in a wedding of two women after a mandatory tragedy that unites not just the group of friends but the community around it. India’s first female bonding film offers no apologies or explanations for its inbuilt elitism. That itself calls for a cheer, even if the women we meet are not the typical middle class girls next door or work in the adjoining office cubicle. They are all resolutely different and belong to a narrow strata of upper-class girls pursuing their far from typical goals.

Half the dialogue in the film is in slangy English and it leaves the director open to the charge that he is focused on a trendy segment of Indian women, but it really doesn’t stick. The westernized, privileged section does exist and even if their lifestyle is atypical, the underlying concerns and societal attitudes they face and grapple with are something all women can share. This is the strength of Angry Indian Goddesses that tells a contemporary story in a crowd-pleasing manner. It doesn’t make a big hoo ha about a lesbian wedding.

Margherita with a Straw
Margherita with a Straw
Angry Indian Goddesses
Angry Indian Goddesses

A necessary footnote: At a film appreciation workshop in Manipal, I met Mira, a sociologist who is writing a chapter on how Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism look at homosexuality. It is for a book commissioned by a Swedish publishing house. Mira’s observation was that lesbianism is overlooked — by benign neglect — in the classical texts as something understandable (if not desirable) in a polygamous setting, where a man might not have time (and energy) to distribute among so many wives. They are then discreetly permitted to pleasure each other. The position with homosexual men is stricter, because Hindu lawgivers came down hard on wastage of semen on non-procreational pleasure. There were prescribed penalties, but nothing like the criminalization laid down by section 377. Were our ancients more tolerant? Another weapon in the arsenal to tackle the intolerance debate by the LGBT community. More power to them.