What does today’s judgment mean to you?
I feel vindicated today. I have lived openly as a gay man for the last few years, and while I have found much support, I have also been questioned, ridiculed and threatened for being myself. Today’s judgment makes me proud, and I am thankful for how sensitively it has been worded. Justice Indu Malhotra in her judgment said, “History owes and apology to LGBT persons for ostracisation and discrimination.” I cried when I read that. I realised that I had been putting up a brave front all these years. When people cracked mean gay jokes, when housing societies threw me out, when my family felt humiliated for my personal choices. I cried because many of my friends and peers died before their time; they suffocated because this world didn’t let them be themselves even in their private spaces. I cried for professor Ramchandra Siras, who was an academician and a terrific poet, but will always be labelled as the ‘gay man who died under mysterious circumstances’.
There is much healing that needs to happen within the gay community. Hopefully, it can begin now.
How was it growing up gay in the city?
It’s the same for any person growing up in any sexually repressed society—you grow up in closets. It’s a dark space where no one else is allowed and all you have is a torch for company. You search inside your confined space for answers but there isn’t another soul who can share your feelings. You try and find answers through magazines, porn, noises that infiltrate from the outside world. It is lonely.
In the ’80s, there was nothing in our media or popular culture that even indicated the possibility of a gay community. There was no satellite TV, no internet. So how do you make sense of your feelings? You fool around with boys at school, mostly at sleepovers. Even there you wake up to awkwardness and embarrassment, and neither acknowledges the other in daylight.
You learn to hide your true self. You create dishonest relationships with your parents, who could have been your greatest support structure. You can’t tell them because they don’t understand it themselves. So even if you’ve been beaten by a boy you tried it on with, they are the last people who can know. It’s a very lonely space.
If there was one ray of hope for us gay boys growing up in the ’80s, it came from Ashok Rao Kavi. Ashok was a terrific journalist who had dared to come out. That’s where I heard the word gay for the first time. A boy in my building had called it ‘homo-giri’ while we played ‘doctor, doctor’ but ‘gay’ was a brighter, simpler word.
Ashok was the pioneer of gay rights in the late ’80s. In the ’90s, he started a gay magazine called Bombay Dost, which was available only on subscription. Of course I couldn’t order the magazine home, so when I got into junior college, made a friend who had a few issues of the magazine to secretly read it at his house. My world started to open up there.
How do you view the journey of the LGBTQ movement over the decades?
What started with Ashok and a landmark AIDS conference in the late ’80s, soon became a movement when he started Bombay Dost and a gay support group called Humsafar Trust. Over the years, organisations like The Naz Foundation and Lawyers Collective, and individuals like Anand Grover, Anajali Gopalan and Menaka Guruswami, have amped up the fight against Section 377. What could have been seen a fullstop with the awful 2013 SC judgment, was seen as an opportunity to fight back harder. The community was galvanised and many people came out and self-identified as LGBTQ, taking the discourse all over the media. Four sensitive gay films came out in 2016 alone – Aligarh, Kapoor & Sons, Margerita With A Straw, and Dear Dad. Till then, barring the powerful Fire and the endearing My Brother Nikhil, we had seen only stereotypical, harmful portrayals.
When I was in college, I heard of a gay bar called Voodoo in Colaba. It was dingy, had gay people, prostitutes and pimps in equal measure. While we were grateful for the space, we yearned for something safer and with stronger gay identity. In 1998, a group called Gay Bombay began hosting fortnightly gay parties. They were held at safe spaces and there was heavy security at the doors. These parties were a lot of fun. I even took Manoj Bajpayee to one when we were doing Satya. Many years later, when we were making Aligarh, he recalled that party as part of his research.
Was Aligarh a means of protest or an expression of love?
Aligarh wasn’t a protest for me; it was a desperate need to introduce Bollywood audiences to a dignified, loveable gay man. It was also an attempt to show the world that there is so much more to a person besides his sexuality. I wanted to tell them that it is because of your narrow vision that you fixate on the sex. Siras even asks Deepu in the film, “Why are you so obsessed with the ‘lover’; atleast try too understand the ‘love’.” Aligarh was a personal expression for all involved. Hansal Mehta (director) expressed his understanding of loneliness and created these claustrophobic spaces for Manoj Bajpayee (protagonist) to inhabit. Manoj expressed his innocence and love through Siras.
When you look back today, what do you think Aligarh has achieved?
It honestly told the story of a man who was wronged and his image tarnished. Our primary goal was to find respect for Siras. The film also appealed to a cross-section of audiences. I would have never imagined that people in their 60s and 70s would identify so strongly with the film. But I guess they connected with Siras’s loneliness. My father, who had very conservative views on homosexuality, was shaken by the film and went to town owning the film.
I was invited to British parliament by British MP Stuart Andrew, who had loved Aligarh. We discussed the film at length while I toured their parliament house and I learned that the UK has the largest number of gay MPs. Neither of us missed the irony that Section 377 was a law the British gave us.
But the biggest success for me is receiving messages from people from the LGBTQ community who said this was the first Indian gay film they could watch with their parents. And they were grateful that we made it. It’s been two years and I get at least a dozen messages every day from gay men around the world. We discuss everything from sex, to parents, to coming out to how cute Ranbir Kapoor is. A community has been built around the film.
How do you see things going forward from here?
I don’t expect things to change overnight. The law has changed but society is still brainwashed by centuries of outdated Victorian values. We will have to start coming out of our closets and begin an honest and open dialogue with society. Right now, thanks to us being invisible, we are perceived as this mysterious ‘other’. But we have to start integrating. What we now have in our favour is the law – if we are harassed or discriminated against, we can take legal recourse. We have been empowered by the SC.
But now that we have been recognised as equals, this democracy must fulfill its promise to us and award us the same rights as everyone else. I personally am not in favour of gay marriage as I find it to be a heteronormative institution that is hardly holding itself together in this century. But yes, some day I would like to see same-sex civil unions, the right to inheritance, and the right to adopt.