GENDER REPRESENTATIONS IN BOLLYWOOD CINEMA: exploring heterosexuality in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) and queerness in Dostana (2008)
In India’s populist film industry, mostly known as Bollywood, male sexual friendships and depictions are still fairly new. usually, the female is the primary focus of lust and sexual attention (resulting in an extremely male gaze), but since the arrival of handsome, chiseled actors like Amitebh Bachchan in the 1990s this has started to change. The concepts of yaar and yaari now play an important role in the fabric of Bollywood buddy comedies; the yaari is a kind of relationship that extends perhaps beyond the non-sexual – its definitions range from lover to close friend, and can often mean both. “A yaar is much more than a friend, and yaari goes far beyond the Western notion of Platonic friendship, which, above all, is non-sexual” (Rao 2000: 304). This type of relationship seems to echo the kind of male-bonding relationship often found in American films, with character types from buddy cops to feuding neighbors often have an unspeakable, intangible bond that nonetheless connects them: “The buddy movie typically collapses intramasculine differences by effecting an uncomfortable sameness, a transgression of boundaries between self and other, inside and outside, legitimate and illicit” (Fuchs 1993: 195).
Despite this presence of yaar and yaari, most depictions of homosexuality and alternative gender identity in Bollywood films reflect India’s still-repressive ideas and discomfort with LGBT issues. Much of this comes from the rough transition that Indian cinema is making to an international audience; not only are Indian films more and more set in the United States, Western values are more and more being inserted into Eastern society. This includes the increasing allowance and acceptance of homosexuals as a social group; however, Bollywood still has trouble depicting and defining them. This is certainly the case with the recent Bollywood blockbusters Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) and Dostana (2008), which depict an ambiguous relationship with homosexuality. Both films cannot decide whether or not homosexuality or homophobia is the joke; male characters in the films are both overty sexualized and emasculated by their homoerotic behaviors and attitudes, while the film both identifies and laughs at the homophobic characters (usually portrayed by traditional Indian Punjabs). From a queer theory perspective of both films, the result is a mixed bag of attitudes, where Indian culture recognizes the existence and camp appeal of gay culture while also shoving gay characters into offensive stereotypes. The films, in essence, laugh both at the swishy gay man they parade in front of the camera, and the traditional Punjab who (it is implied in the movie) should get with the times. Kal Ho Naa Ho’s depiction of heterosexuality and Dostana’s depictions of homosexuality demonstrate heterosexuality as the eventual endgame of all romantic relationships, demonstrating a backwards attitude in Bollywood films towards homosexuality.
Bollywood and Indian cinema is only a recent international breakthrough in the West – it was not until the 90s (with the arrival of sexy male superstars like Amitabh Bachchan) that Indian films started to achieve a broader appeal outside of India: “Indian cinema has claimed durable presence across a range of international territories over a number of decades, and it is essential to acknowledge this presence and influence” (Eleftheriotis & Ioranova 2006: 79). Because of that, the moving of Indians to the West looking for work and other opportunities and the increasing globalization of the film market, cultural exchange between East and West meant a greater exposure to Western liberalness in Indian culture. This includes the increasing trend of open homosexuality in the United States and Western Europe, which runs opposite to the traditionalist, heterosexual ideas of Indian culture. This created a culture clash between traditional notions of heterosexuality and ‘progressive’ depictions of gayness in more progressive generations, which still exists to this day. “The rise of the Hindu Right during the period, accompanied by an aggressive cultural nationalism, contributed to creating a censorious climate. The increasing space devoted to expressions of sex and sexuality in the print and electronic media fuelled public anxieties” (Ghosh 2010: 17).
In traditional Indian culture, men and women fell in love and got married, with little to no time for fun, extended adolescence and singlehood, and especially careers for women. No matter what hijinks happen in a film, the social order must be restored: “The sporadic sojourns to the domain of queer intimacies are immediately reiterated by the quick re-establishment of a normative order” (Dasgupta 2012: 9). The invasion of the gay subculture in Western media and Eastern culture started a conflict between the previous generation’s traditionalism and the current generation’s allowances that is shown through some Bollywood international works, such as the following films, Kal Ho Naa Ho and Dostana.
Kal Ho Naa Ho
2003’s Kal Ho Naa Ho, directed by Nikhul Advani, was a deliberate attempt by Bollywood production company Dharma Productions to make a big international hit – in this film, angry, modern Indian woman Naina (Jaya Bachchan) lives in New York City with her mother, the owner of a failing restaurant. The film then follows her meetings with both rich, suave MBA classmate Rohit (Saif Ali Khan) and her new neighbour, sensitive Aman Mathur (Shahrukh Khan), which eventually falls into a dramatic love triangle between the three. For the most part, this plays out like your standard Bollywood film: the two men competing for the love of the girl, the girl learning to stand up for herself against her overbearing mother, the use of tragic soap opera drama (Aman has a fatal disease) to raise the stakes, and so on. However, what sets the film apart is the placement of a small running gag wherein Aman and Rohit show homosocial and implied homoerotic behavior towards each other. While these moments are few and far between, and do not amount to a great deal in the overall plot of the film, their insertion is important in terms of seeing Bollywood slowly get used to the idea of normal examples of homosexuals.
The first real time we see this subplot happens the night after Aman, Rohit and Naina go out drinking and dancing, resulting in a night of friendship and fun. Night turns into day, and the scene fades to Rohit’s apartment, where both Rohit and Aman wake up half-dressed in bed together. After a short gag involving Rohit believing it is his dog, Laila, cuddling him, Rohit’s shocked reaction is not one of gay panic, but just surprise. However, the gag of the scene (and many others of this kind in the film) is that Rohit’s housekeeper, the traditional Punjabi Kanteban, is staring at them the whole time. The camera cuts to a horrified close-up of her, shakily holding her drink tray, while Aman and Rohit casually ignore her horror and continue innocently talking.
In some respects, this recognition of homosocial and feminized male behavior is an echo of the already –swishy nature of the Bollywood formula. Male actors like Shahrukh Khan (SRK) in Kal Ho Naa Ho show a certain comfort with their masculinity, being unafraid of engaging in Bollywood song and dance sequences, and being very friendly with people of both genders. SRK is often constantly surrounded by women grinding on him in music sequences, almost to the point of comedy (in one late scene, women cry and writhe against him while he sits in a wheelchair, almost dying, mirroring a happier moment in an earlier dance sequence). This flamboyant nature has often led to the using of male Bollywood stars as gay icons of a sort; to that end, the gay teasing of putting SRK in a gay situation in Kal No Haa No is a campy moment that is a wink and nod to his gay audiences (Henniker, 2010). Despite this, however, Bollywood in general can only toy with the idea of gays as people, instead making fun of and stereotyping them in even their most positive portrayal in Indian cinema.
In the context of this film in particular, the yaari between Aman and Rohit seems to be a result of the film’s American setting, which has a more modern and liberal view of cultures that Indians are still getting used to: “Kal Ho Naa Ho’s pointed references to male homosexuality serve to mark the increasing modernity and cosmopolitanism of Bollywood cinema itself, as it comes to more closely approximate some of mainstream Hollywood’s strategies of gender and sexual representation” (Gopinath 2005: 163). The film’s characters often deal with issues of Indian nationalism and their relationship to the homeland, while also making a home for themselves in America – this change in behavior is an example of what is called cultural assimilation. The presence of Kantaban as a constantly worried example of the “old India” they left (often appearing out of thin air to express horror at the things these modern young people are doing) seems to be an open challenge to Indian youths to embrace the cultural liberalism that comes with sharing the Western acceptance of queerness, and yet the audience itself is set up to laugh at the silliness of being gay: “In all such circumstances, the ambivalence about whether the audiences are being invited to laugh at homophobia or homosexuality remains fluid” Dasgupta 2012: 9).
Kantaban is not the only character to express concern at Rohit’s homosexuality – in a scene later in the film, Rohit’s father takes him to a strip club (visually bombarding the young man with half-naked images of women) and asks him about his love life. As if to further link American liberalism with acceptance of homosexuality, the father says “in America, anything is possible,” to which Rohit quickly tells his father that he is in love with a girl. This conversation uses the term ‘normal’ to mean ‘heterosexual,’ which Rohit quickly confirms by pumping his fist in the air and shouting that he is “normal,” “thus reiterating his masculinity and manhood” (Dasgupta 2012: 9). In this scene, being gay is clearly seen by older Indians as a direct result of blending into American culture, and as a result also a wearing down of Indian culture and “normality.”
More evidence of Kal No Haa No’s fear of homosexuals in favor of traditional heterosexual relationships is the fact that, for all the comic relief shown by Kantaban, she eventually wins. During the wedding of Naina and Rohit, the wedding is set up by a flamboyant gay, male hairdresser, complete with mincing, lisping line delivery and prancing walk. The one actual gay character in the film shows a negative stereotype of homosexuality, which is everything Kantaban feared for Rohit. She eventually wins, pushing away the gay character and allowing the traditional Indian wedding to continue, showing a real return to traditionalism in the face of Western liberalism.
In terms of the depiction of gender in Kal No Haa No, much of the film’s treatment of women falls onto the character of Naina. Naina’s goal in the movie is to loosen up; she is often stuck being the uptight, Americanized Indian woman, with modern clothes and modern problems. In one vital scene, however, she takes off her glasses and strips in a club after getting drunk – this is shown as a freeing moment for her, as the purpose of Aman and Rohit in her life is to get her to enjoy life as much as she can. In the middle of this, however, is the common traditional Indian pressures of finding a man and getting married; this is demonstrated in the majority of the film’s conflict being the romantic tensions between her, Aman and Rohit. Rohit loves her, but she loves Aman, but Aman’s terminal illness leads him to distance himself from her and act as a Cupid-like character for Rohit – teaching him the right things to say and talking him up as much as possible. The result is an extremely traditional and formulaic Bollywood love story, showing heterosexual love as good and valuable, male friendships just being close emotional bonds that can be misread by more traditional Indians as being queer.
While Kal Ho Naa Ho features homosexuality as a running gag, Dostana stretches that gag into a two-and-a-half hour Bollywood romantic comedy. Dostana, directed by Tarun Mansukhani and released in 2008, arguably shows the first mainstream gay couple in Bollywood film, thanks to the unlikely, romantic-comedy-situation pairing of what are mostly straight characters Sameer (Abichek Bachchan) and Kunal (John Abraham) (Mokashi-Punekar, 2013). These two men, homeless despite having somewhat well-paying jobs as a nurse and photographer, respectively, strike a deal where they act as a gay couple to land a nice apartment rented out by a matronly landlady, the aunt of fellow tenant Neha (Priyanka Chopra). What results is a feature-length comedy of errors, as Sam and Kunal fight for the affections of Neha under her nose, while still maintaining the mask of homosexuality for the sake of the apartment. While the male gaze common in Bollywood films is still there thanks to the beautiful presence of Priyanka Chopra, the film’s opening music video sequence confirms the female gaze closely identified with the film’s subject matter: John Abraham’s half-naked body fills the screen for the opening song and much of the film’s screen time, as he spends most of the film either shirtless or his chest barely covered by sheer, half-unbuttoned tops.
The showcasing of homosexuality is much more dangerous in Dostana than in Kal Ho Naa Ho, in terms of the amount of screen time dedicated to it. While Aman and Rohit’s fooling around is thought of as a harmless distraction, Dostana tackles the subject of gay romance in an Indian culture head-on. This time, the film follows Indian nationals in Miami, a much more flamboyant place filled with hot sun, bright clothing and competing fashion magazines filled with swishing homosexuals, all of whom dominate the fashion industry. Sam and Kunal get the idea to attempt being gay from a gay American soldier, openly weeping and crying next to them as he misses his boyfriend. The homosexual character is played for laughs, as the man in army fatigues is a physically unfit, simpering character, waving around a handkerchief and speaking with a high, lisping voice, establishing through this comparison that gays are very feminine and foolish. Following this conversation, and after staring long and hard at the hot dog he is about to eat (a clear visual penis symbol), Sam gets the idea to fake being gay.
These stereotypes follow through to the rest of the movie: as soon as Sam and Kunal decide to play up their roles, they assume the socially recognized behaviors of homosexuality – brightly colored shirts, ascots, and a fleet-footed, mincing way of walking and speaking. They are much more feminine in their behavior, which matches the other Indian and American homosexuals shown throughout the film. Verve Magazine CEO “M” is one such gay Indian man, dressed typically in bright, stylish suits, and flirting heavily with Sam and Kunal. Several other characters take on this feminine look.
While Dostana attempts to provide a somewhat positive and liberal depiction of homosexuals among all its flamboyant comedy, it ends up erasing the female altogether, leaving little room for her story in the middle of this two-and-a-half hour game of ‘gay chicken’ (Srinivasan, 2011). Neha gets her own independent subplot, which involves her mostly healthy relationship with replacement CEO Mr. Singh – a romance Sam and Kunal attempt to break up by getting her and Singh’s child Veer to hate and distrust each other. This is even further evidence of Indian culture’s negative opinions of homosexuals, as even fake gay couples attempt to break up the family. As the token woman in the middle of the more interesting homosexual love triangle, from which all the humor is taken, she gets so much less to do than the two other leads.
As with Kal Ho Naa Ho, Dostana tries to have its cake and eat it too by making fun of both the flamboyant behavior of homosexuals and the homophobic behavior of more traditional Indian culture. In this case, both the more modern Auntie and Sam’s mother represent the more conservative older generation of Indian culture – Auntie constantly laughs and makes jokes about their homosexuality in her first conversation with Neha, and Sam’s mother is horrified when she finds out her son is gay. During this horrifying twist reveal, Neha attempts to placate the mother, saying “Love is blind”; the mother, in turn, responds, “Love isn’t blind enough that it can’t differentiate between a boy and a girl!”
This is the typical heterosexual opinion for traditional Indian Punjabs, again poked fun at in this film and others – that homosexuality is simply unheard of, and that nature demands men be attracted to women and so on. Mama even has a horrifying dance break nightmare about her son being gay, with characters singing “Your son rides the bride’s palanquin. You’re done for!” These fears are based in the comparing of homosexuality with cross-dressing, as well as the idea that romantic relationships must have a ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ part. Even then, Sam’s mother eventually comes around, and allows Kunal to carry her son over the threshold (having made up Sam in traditional Indian wedding makeup). This demonstrates a family bond between everyone involved that seems to be overcome sexual orientation, but it comes across more as evidence of Sam’s mother’s acceptance of her son’s more progressive ways than a real positive opinion of homosexuality.
When Sam and Kunal finally kiss, it is treated as a climactic moment in the film – the moment where Neha and Mr. Singh decide to give their relationship another shot. In the film’s final shot, “Two Months Later,” Neha innocently asks the two if “While you were both being gay, did anything happen between you both” to which they spit out half-hearted denials. However, they give each other a significant glance, and the shot of the kiss soon returns, providing the implication that the kiss changed something inside them, and they truly “made each other gay.” In this way, Dostana ends with the inevitable yaari found in many Indian buddy comedies: “two men who believe they represent the masculinity principle to the utmost degree find they cannot live without each other; they are happy only when they are together” (Rao 2000: 300).
Looking at both of these films, it is clear that Bollywood still has a conservative and traditional perspective on gender and sexuality, despite empty gestures toward liberalism. “These films are certainly not revolutionary or progressive in giving the queer identity a solidified voice, rather it is somewhat reactionary in its struggle to grapple with new sexual identities as heterosexuality is thrown into a predicament” (Dasgupta 2012: 10). Homosexuality is just a male trend in these films; neither film features lesbians, as the films are focused mostly on the novel concept of men acting in a silly and feminine way for the sake of comedy.
In Kal Ho Naa Ho, heterosexuality is treated as the ultimate, healthy, “normal” thing to do, while homosocial behavior is something done normally by modern Indian men (while being misread as gay behavior by traditional Indians). Gender in Kal Ho Naa Ho is also given a somewhat conservative treatment, as Indian immigrants are shown to miss the traditions of the homeland through Naina’s traditional Indian wedding and the negative portrayal of her modern, New York lifestyle. The film clearly tells her that she must be with a man and marry in order to be complete, as that is her primary goal in the film. In Dostana, relationships are slightly more mixed, though Neha’s goal is also to get married and continue a family with Mr. Singh. In both films, gay characters are treated as mincing stereotypes who are fashion-conscious and “fabulous,” while traditional Indian characters are also laughed at for being so conservative (even though the film is just as concerned as they are about the stereotypes of gay behavior). To that end, “The ambivalent discourse in Dostana and Kal Ho Na Ho establish a tolerance for queer desires but eventually establishes the inevitability of heterosexuality” (Dasgupta 2012:10).
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