Breaking Through the Binaries

This month, the Indian web television landscape found itself an unlikely hero: Karan, a gay wedding planner in Delhi, whose professional and personal life makes for an engrossing subplot in the drama series Made in Heaven. Played by Arjun Mathur, the co-lead’s character in the Amazon Prime show, directed by Zoya Akhtar, promises to be a game-changer in terms of portrayal of LGBTQ persons in pop culture. Karan’s character is intriguing and complex. Introspective and handsome, the 30-something event planner devotes himself to his career, parties with friends, enjoys his me-time, takes difficult decisions, wears jeans and makes love – just like anyone else.

In an ideal world, such a character would have been normative, but in a country that has only recently decriminalised gay sex, the depiction of sexual minorities in cinema and television has largely been tinged with social stereotypes, religious reproval and the very real fear of censure. And if their portrayal has been problematic, their representation on and off screen has been even worse, with few openly gay and transgender persons finding space in the industry.

The good news is that there is a growing breed of filmmakers and prominent persons who are reaching out through non-profit and for-profit ventures to give less privileged LGBTQ persons visibility, opportunity and jobs.

Made in heaven
Made in Heaven

“Being gay is normal,” says Alankrita Srivastava, the award-winning filmmaker of Lipstick Under My Burkha, who has co-written the Made in Heaven series and directed two of its episodes. “The series has been created, written and directed by people whose point of view on homosexuality is very clear: we believe human beings are free to love whoever they like. That is how we see the world, and that is how we tried to portray Karan: as a normal guy, with a regular life,” she says.

A radical thought for Indian audiences, perhaps, but it has taken root slowly, deliberately and painstakingly. While gay-themed films such as Brokeback Mountain (2005), Milk (2008) and Moonlight (2016) were acclaimed in Hollywood, the dominant film industry in India – Hindi cinema – largely avoided the subject of homosexuality and transgenderism for years, even as it portrayed the third gender only for comic relief.

“Films and TV shows would either exaggerate or underplay their depiction of LGBTQ people, and this careless approach would inform all strata of society, including workplaces,” says Prakriti Das, a Delhi-based corporate trainer who advocates for gender diversity and inclusivity in organisations, adding, “That’s why it’s vital for cinema and television shows to take a sensitive approach.”

Director Mani Ratnam managed to quietly introduce a transgender character in a subtle way in Bombay (1995) but when filmmaker Deepa Mehta touched upon the topic of same-sex love between two women living in the same household in her 1996 film Fire, it provoked vitriolic protests around the country. It would take another decade for homosexuality to come up in feature films like My Brother… Nikhil (2005), followed by yet another long gap before Margarita with a Straw (2014), Aligarh (2015), Loev, Dear Dad and Kapoor & Sons (all 2016) scored positive reviews.

Even so, a handful of films in more than two decades – juxtaposed with memorable blockbusters such as Karan Johar’s romantic comedy Dostana (2009) where, despite the benign intent, homosexuality was further stereotyped – is a pitiful record. What further complicated matters and often confused heterosexual audiences was that these films mostly relied on silences and suggestions to convey their gay or lesbian content, avoiding graphic or provocative details.

Interestingly, the first mainstream Bollywood film to touch on a homosexual theme after the historic Supreme Court verdict that legalised gay sex last September, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (February 2019) was written by transwoman and activist Gazal Dhaliwal. Starring Sonam Kapoor, Anil Kapoor and Rajkummar Rao in the lead roles, it was no doubt a bold move for a commercial banner. But the film introduced the protagonist’s lover only in the last 20 minutes of the film, leaving many in the community disappointed about the missed opportunity to authentically showcase a small-town lesbian’s perspective.

Neeha Nagpal.jpeg
Neeha Nagpal

Even so, Neeha Nagpal, one of the five lawyers who successfully fought to modify Section 377 in the Supreme Court, defends the film: “It managed to educate the masses and promoted acceptance and tolerance for sexual minorities. Whatever the critics may say, it was able to get this message across that homosexuality is a variation not an aberration. And it’s about time.”

The trans person, meanwhile, has stayed muted and distorted in Bollywood.

“The LGBTQ community has not been shown in the correct light on screen, and it has suffered because of the misrepresentation, especially transpeople who are only represented as prostitutes or beggars,” says Keshav Suri, scion of The Lalit Hospitality Group and one of India’s pioneers in terms of affirmative action for LGBTQ persons. Not only do his own businesses encourage and create job and training opportunities for the community, his non-profit initiative, the Keshav Suri Foundation (KSF), has also this year launched TRANSaction, a series of acting workshops in Delhi and Mumbai for transpersons.

“It is important to create the right opportunities than have mere token representation in films. The industry should harness the talent available in the community, at least for trans roles. The whole objective of organising TRANSaction is to create a stepping stone for the community members to learn the basics of acting and give them confidence to approach filmmakers,” he says.

TRANSaction workshop participants
TRANSaction acting workshops

Alternative channels and internet-driven platforms have, in fact, given better representation to the LGBTQ community than the silver screen. Youth-driven television shows such as Kaisi Yeh Yaariaan (MTV) and Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya (Zing) featured same-sex love in their subplots back in 2014. The advent of multinational streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime – besides the ubiquitous and free YouTube – let all kinds of talents and ideas out of the bag. Unrestricted by censors and liberated from the need for “commercially viable” content, filmmakers were free to bring alternative sexuality out of the closet.

ALTBalaji’s Romil and Jugal (2017), a drama based loosely on Romeo and Juliet, was vastly appreciated by both gay and straight viewers for its storyline featuring a young gay couple in a sensitive way. Last year’s Netflix drama Sacred Games portrayed a transwoman, Kukoo, in a pivotal, powerful role. But the fact that the role went to a cis-gender actor Kubbra Sait didn’t go down well with some.

Faraz Arif Ansari
Faraz Arif Ansari

“All Anurag Kashyap [the series director] had to do was put up a 30-second Instagram video calling for transpersons to audition for the role. It was a huge opportunity lost,” rues Faraz Arif Ansari, the director of Sisak, India’s first silent queer film which has won 59 awards in film festivals worldwide. Ansari, 32, is an articulate and passionate spokesperson for the cause of affirmative action, especially when it comes to LGBTQ persons playing themselves on the big screen. He, in fact, partnered to conduct acting workshops for KSF’s TRANSaction after a year-long unsuccessful bid to find a trans actor to play the lead role in his ongoing film project, a family drama Sabr.

“You have to address the elephant in the room,” says Ansari, who studied filmmaking at Pennsylvania State University in the US, and strongly disapproves of camouflaging the depiction of alternative sexuality on screen as Indian films are wont to do.“Gimmicks fail, curiosity works. People are curious about LGBTQ persons; let us show them what our life is about. Let us celebrate it and mainstream it in a way that every person can understand. That’s how we will create a safe space for LGBTQ people to live authentically.”

TRANSaction Acting Workshop
Faraz Arif Ansari conducing a TRANSaction workshop at the LaLiT

Depicting the “normalness” of LGBTQ persons is also something that publicist, actor and media influencer Mohnish Malhotra has set out to do. Malhotra, 31, is currently working on a new web series called UFF, which will look at the ‘unfamiliar family’ lives of the LGBTQ community. “Almost all of us grow up in heteronormative families, and for many in the LGBTQ community, their friends and companions become a sort of alternative family for them,” says Malhotra, who has been a gay rights’ activist for 14 years and actively participates in organising the Delhi Pride Parade.

“I’ve seen gay people from small towns move to the big city, get jobs, sometimes marry, sometimes kill themselves. I’ve seen my friends die lonely. I’ve seen how relationships outside the traditional family have helped them with a sense of self-empowerment, and how these friendships have been symbiotic in terms of their personal growth,” he says. His 10-part web series explores such unconventional family setups, including one in which a mother supports her son’s sex reassignment surgery to become a woman.

Mohnish Malhotra.jpg
Mohnish Malhotra

“Such stories can’t be scripted,” says Malhotra, who shares that he was a substance addict for most of his 20s until he came to terms with his homosexual identity and what it entailed. “You can’t change your family, and you have to allow them to be who they are even if that means they don’t accept you.” Instead, Malhotra found a new definition of family: “Who will you give the key of your house to?” he asks, referring to the “emotional home” inside us that we all retreat to at the end of the day, and where we only allow those who won’t judge us.

UFF looks at families related not by blood, but by support, connection and empathy,” he explains. The series is slated to be launched at the World Dignity Forum this summer in Los Angeles with notable people in attendance like media mogul Ted Turner and Hollywood actors Leonardo Di Caprio, Goldie Hawn and Linda Gray.

Everyone agrees that the striking down of IPC Section 377 and the decriminalising of gay sex by the Supreme Court have helped pave the way for more visibility for the gay and lesbian community. In fact, it may even have helped “make gay cool” according to Zain Anwar, who makes digital video content for popular website MensXP. Having created several viral comic videos for the youth, his company was approached by Uber Eats to create a sponsored video with the theme of ‘inclusivity’ and accepting others’ choices. “It’s definitely a paradigm shift for new-age brands,” says the 28-year-old video director.

Reena Rai
Reena Rai

But things are not yet easier for transpersons, or those whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex. In a well-intentioned effort to create opportunities for her best friend who happened to be a transwoman and others like her, Delhi-based Reena Rai launched the Miss TransQueen beauty pageant in 2017. The former caterer and mother of a little girl was confronted with formidable resistance, not just from potential advertisers and venue hosts who believed that identification with such an event would negatively affect their branding, but also from the trans community itself. “They suspected my motives: why would a straight cis-gender woman want to help the transgender community? They thought I was out to use them for my personal gain,” she says.

But there was hardly anything to gain for her, especially in the first edition when the event drained her personal financial resources. Determined to help her trans friends find opportunities especially in Bollywood, Rai pushed ahead with the second edition and struck a chord this time around. Not only did Suri’s The LaLiT offer to host her event in Mumbai, the pageant also got international visibility and media coverage. Soon, job offers began pouring in for the contestants from companies looking to expand their diversity portfolios. On March 8 this year, India’s Miss TransQueen 2018 Veena Sendre represented the country at Miss International Queen in Thailand.

Veena Sendre

But Bollywood eludes “Reena’s girls”.

One of them, Navya Singh, is practically in tears when she narrates her journey. A brand ambassador for the Miss TransQueen pageant and a dancer at the LaLiT hotel’s night club Kitty Su, the 28-year-old also works at an NGO that empowers the trans community. An aspiring actor, she applied and was shortlisted for Zee TV’s reality dance show Dance India Dance Season 6. After passing three rounds, she was suddenly dropped from the show.

Dejected, she took up an assignment in Jaipur and left Mumbai. The show’s producers then called to say they wanted to shoot Singh’s family in Bihar and show her journey. “They told me it would change my life. They shot my family in my village near Katihar. Imagine how hard it must have been for my parents and relatives to accept and talk about my sex change. But I was optimistic that this was a good opportunity to tell people about my life, to break stereotypes, and to bring some spotlight on my village,” says Singh.

Navya Singh

But the shoot was never aired and she was not given any explanation, she says. A person close to Zee TV confirmed to ET Magazine that Singh’s story was unique and their team did shoot her family in the village. “But we didn’t air the footage because she didn’t make the cut in terms of talent,” he said, adding that it was a call taken by the judges and creative team together. “It had nothing to do with her sexual orientation or identity,” he emphasises, citing the example of Sushant Divgikar who performed on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa 2018. “He identified as LGBTQ and did a drag performance during the auditions. He was selected purely for his singing ability. As a channel we have always been about inclusiveness,” he adds, expressing his regret about Singh’s experience.

Singh wiped away her disappointment and applied to MTV’s India’s Next Top Model and was selected initially. Instructed to not take on any modeling assignments and to keep herself available at all times, she spent her time dieting, working out and preparing for the show. A month later, she was once again dropped. Yet another disappointment awaited her at MTV’s Ace of Space hosted by Vikas Gupta.

“These three incidents just broke me down. I wanted to commit suicide. People say the industry is gender-unbiased, and everyone put a rainbow on their Facebook profiles after [Section] 377 was struck down. But no one gives us a chance in real life,” Singh says, speaking quickly and furiously. “I did my best, but then what? If a cis woman could play a transwoman’s role in Sacred Games, why can’t a transwoman play herself or play a cis woman? We are all actors after all, so why the gender boundary only for us?”

While MTV did not directly comment on Singh’s experience, its spokesperson asserts that being diversity inclusive and gender positive is in the brand’s DNA. “Being a brand that’s close to the youth, we focus on culturally diverse themes and try to break stereotypes, especially gender bias and freedom to choose one’s sexuality,” she says, citing examples such as showcasing the dilemmas of same-sex dating on Elovator Pitch; having transgender contestants Tenzin Mariko and Gauri Arora on Ace of Space and India’s Next Top Model Season 3 respectively; and talking about transgender and same-sex relationships on shows like Big F, Dating in the Dark and Love School.

Men look for their Mr Right_ first time on Indian Television_Elovator Pitch.png
Men look for their Mr Right on MTV’s Elovator Pitch

“We realise that it needs a lot of conviction for the LGBTQ community to come out in the open and explore their identity in the entertainment industry, and we are privileged that MTV has provided them with the platform to showcase their talent,” the channel maintains.

Singh affirms her decision to keep striving as far as she can. “I’m still hoping for an opportunity and for something good to happen,” she says. “You can’t ignore us.”

First published in The Economic Times

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