Updated: February 9, 2020 11:10:01 am
Sealed With A Kiss. SWAK. Remember that acronym? Widely used, mostly on the backs of envelopes containing mushy missives, in the time when kissing was taboo in the movies, along with much else that was part of the territory — making out, making love, or, even, gasp, having sex.
This was, of course, in the days when mail and snail rhymed, people used calligraphy to telegraph romantic attachments, and Bollywood’s boys and girls, (or, rarely, if the movie was a little grown-up, men and women), bent and twisted in slavish adherence to the rules of the game. No exposing, no touching, and emphatically no kissing. Tauba tauba!
In the digital age, a kiss is no longer a nudge-wink collection of alphabets. Public display of affection is out there, all around us, on our streets and screens, fighting off upholders of our sanskriti and tradition, who feel conception should be immaculate, even if it is behind closed doors. And Bollywood has been taking note, reluctantly but increasingly, and picking up pace. The camera is no longer a sly suggester; it is an active, upfront participant, recording without flinching the meshing of noses, mouths, and presumably, fluids. Shiva, shiva! And, drumrolls, looksie here folks, genders are no longer being forced into old, tired, outdated binaries: behold these two men, in a clinch, locking lips, talking about being in love. Glory hallelujah!
For a film industry notoriously resistant to change, having assiduously nurtured for decades the pallid collection of there-but-not-quite gestures which masqueraded as culturally sanctioned romance, this unapologetic kiss between Kartik and Aman, the characters played by Ayushmann Khurrana and Jitendra Kumar in Hitesh Kewalya’s upcoming Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, feels like “A Moment”.
Not a throwaway, not a seen-now-gone-the-next-second flash. More a firm declaration of intent, of how those two lovers who happen to be men, wish to go forward. What joy, I tell you. For those of us who grew up on a steady diet of Hindi cinema, with its endless stream of normative, hetero couples who were forced into doing a pyaar ka izhaar in myriad done-to-death ways — exchanging coy barely-there looks, singing rhyming songs in tandem, rolling down mountainsides which allowed them to land on top of each other if only momentarily, dancing to jerky thrusts of bosom-and-buttock, mimicking carnality while staying decorously several inches apart — witnessing the actual thing, was always going to be the stuff of shock and awe. Boy and girl in close embrace was bad enough, but boy and boy, girl and girl? Perish the thought. Or censor the visual. Or, ban the whole darn thing.
That is exactly what happened with Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996), which was also a huge moment. Two unhappily married women come together, for solace and sisterhood, and, eventually, sex, and, off-screen, all hell broke loose. There were angry demonstrations and vandalising of cinema halls, and a temporary ban which was lifted only when a loud collective roar, mostly from feminist organisations which sat on dharna, went up. Freedom of expression was upheld (yes, it has been possible), and Radha and Sita (yes, those were the names of the women engaged in passionate sexual congress, played by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das) became a shining example of queer coupledom.
Also in ’96, came Amol Palekar’s Daayraa, which posited a provocative question: can there be feelings between an abused woman who dresses like a man, and a cross-dresser, who are accidentally thrown together on a life-altering journey? Sonali Kulkarni and Nirmal Pandey shone in this criminally underrated film, which cocked a snook at the foundations of hidebound gender norms. Kalpana Lajmi’s 1997 film Darmiyaan, starring Kirron Kher, Tabu and Arif Zakaria, focused on the life of a eunuch born to privilege and then abandoned: the tone was consistently high-pitched in this portrayal of the late-’40s Bombay, but the debutant Zakaria’s haunted face, as he grows from constantly derided boy to man, has stayed with me.
Derision, in fact, has, for long, been the safest way to deal with camp in mainstream Bollywood, thematically doused in patriarchy and misogyny and stereotype. It was reserved strictly for walk-on parts to incite cheap laughter and rent-free jokes. A mandatory checklist of characteristics included a mincing walk, a reedy voice, a limp wrist, and when popular male stars pretended to be women, blouses exaggeratedly embellished with falsies. The descriptions were pejorative — hijras, chhakkas, or buggers, if you went to tony schools — and the characters peripheral to the plot. In the 1981 Laawaris, Amitabh Bachchan sang “Mere angane mein tumhaara kya kaam hai”, and he did it with such brio that we were amused, and that was its only intent. The otherisation of characters that didn’t fit neatly into the male/female divide, in our well-understood aangan, continued with gay abandon. They were never “us”; they were “them”, just like those with disabilities, and other “problems”.
When did “gay” become a serious, legitimate identifier of identity? In the America of the ’50s-’60s, gay-rights movements were mushrooming, and the impact was showing up in popular culture — print and movies. Banners with the slogan “Gay Is Good” were everywhere. A whole new vocabulary sprang up, and “lavender linguistics” explored the meaning of those who didn’t identify with a specific gender. A film which came out of that upsurge of “coming out” was William Friedkin’s wonderful The Boys In The Band (1970). It showed men who love being with other men without having to explain what homosexual meant, and how homophobia was destroying the idea of unfettered love.
One of my most favourite queer films, Stephen Frears’ 1985 My Beautiful Laundrette, described the two male protagonists in a “… sandwich” ( the four-letter word muted here). The words are graphic, as is their grappling, but what you take away is the tenderness between the debutant Daniel Day-Lewis, playing a white working-class fella, and Gordon Warnecke, the ambitious Pakistani young man. Yes, there’s sex. And yes, this is love.
Tenderness and warmth is also the hallmark of the much more recent Call Me By Your Name (2017). Luca Guadagnino’s film is bathed in the golden light of a 1983 Italian summer, which sees the 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) fall in thrall to Oliver (Armie Hammer), an impossibly good-looking PhD student. Anyone who has been in the same place will immediately recognise those electrical jolts of awareness of someone whom you’ve never met before one moment but who becomes part of your breath the very next moment, of how pleasure and pain can be intermingled as you come of age. And though the protagonists are men, it doesn’t matter, not really, when there are tangerines to be devoured, and flesh to be explored, and souls to be exchanged. Yes, this, too, is love.
So many other instances swim up from cinema memory, in no particular order, to claim their position in this pantheon of queerness. So much of Pedro Almodovar’s work is imbued by such a keen queer sense that it’s hard to choose only one, but right now, the pole position is reserved for his latest, Pain And Glory (2019), a near-perfect rumination on love and loss between two men. And there are many that I may miss in this count, but I’m never going to forget Ennis and Jack, the two cowboys in Ang Lee’s marvellous Brokeback Mountain (2005), who cannot live with and live without each other. The film, which begins in the early ’60s, tracks them up until the mid-’80s, as they marry their girlfriends, but live for their occasional trysts. Both Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger are terrific, but it is the latter, all wound up and wounded, who breaks your heart good and proper.
Another pair who refuses to leave me is Wong Kar-wai’s Lai (Tony Leung) and Ho (Leslie Cheung), whose tempestuous relationship depicted in Happy Together (1997) is horribly scarring yet wholly theirs: they cannot be happy with anyone else. And then there is Moonlight (2016), Barry Jenkins’ great ode to blackness, gayness and masculinity, whose very specific characters and very specific locations are brilliantly universal. Like Chiron, the lead player, we may not have a drug addict for a mother or a good human who also happens to be a drug dealer for a mentor, but there are some of those characters in all of us.
Likewise, you can be anywhere in the world to know the weight of a long-term arid, unhappy marriage. Set in the New York of the early ’50s, Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) tells the story of a glamorous, wealthy woman and a much younger departmental store assistant. Carol (Cate Blanchett) has everything money can buy; everything except fulfilment, which she finds with Therese (Rooney Mara). There’s no connection left between Carol and her husband. She finds that and more, in a film which treats its queerness conventionally but gently: for the time it is set in, it is a forbidden affair.
Bollywood’s timorous skirting around LGBTQ-themed-movies is not just down to it being bound by conventional formula-driven plots. It is also because moral policing is a real problem, which may not end even with the 2018 Supreme Court’s historic judgment decriminalising homosexuality: some of it could do with the times we live in, where hectoring and bullying has infantilised both makers of cinema and its viewers.
In that context, Onir’s My Brother Nikhil (2005) becomes a marker, because it made its lead protagonist a homosexual who is dying of AIDS. But even here, Sanjay Suri’s HIV-afflicted character contracts the disease through “a blood transfusion”, not through an exchange of bodily fluids during sexual encounters. His own I Am (2013) shows a more upfront sexual episode, between a gay man and an abusive police officer whose homophobia disguises, perhaps, his true orientation.
The temptation to send up gay characters as the butt of all jokes has been an ongoing thread, exemplified by a horrified house help who keeps popping up in the Karan Johar produced Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), catching Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan’s firmly hetero characters in “compromising positions”. What if Kanta ben had stopped being so shocked? Would it still have been so funny? A later Johar production, Dostana (2008), riffing off on dosti as the traditional nudge-wink description of homosexuality, has John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan pretending to be into each other only to fulfill a plot point. The true gay character is played by the screamingly campy Boman Irani, and while the film did bring the issue of homosexuality out in the open (no denying the power of mainstream Bollywood), and began many conversations, it was careful to maintain its determinedly jokey, “maa da laadla bigad gaya” vein all through. To me, though, one of the most interesting scenes has a kiss between the pretend-gay lovers: it is fleeting, but I’ve always wondered what if, what if the two were really, you know, happy and gay?
Johar found the courage to be much more telling in his segment in the 2013 four-part anthology, Bombay Talkies. Its kiss, between Randeep Hooda and Saqib Saleem, has real passion. There’s no “what if” here. These are men who want men. That welcome seriousness is seen in his 2016 production, Kapoor & Sons, in which substantial time is spent on delineating a gay character’s trouble in being accepted by his family. The struggle for acceptance is still the leitmotif in most Indian cinema featuring homosexuality: being otherwise oriented is still propped up as the biggest struggle of a character. An exception is Sonali Bose’s Margarita With A Straw (2014) in which Kalki Koechlin’s character’s infectious delight in discovering and revelling in her sexuality belies her disability (she is a wheelchair user), even if she has to get past her mother’s (Revathi) “oh-no” reaction before she gets there. We also get to see some physicality between the spot-on Koechlin and her girlfriend, played by Sayani Gupta, and that’s another first: there’s no way an Indian film could rival Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 lesbian romance Blue Is The Warmest Colour in the way it depicts the actual love-making, but still, it’s something.
Creating believable non-normative characters, who are allowed to carry the story by themselves, is not an easy sell. It is quite a thing to have Vijay Sethupathi play a trans-woman so fabulously in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s 2019 Super Deluxe, but we are also aware that she is only one of many characters. The frisson that transmits across the screen in Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya (2014) between the characters played by Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi is sensuous and lingering, but all too brief.
ALSO READ | Movie Review: Dedh Ishqiya
Bollywood flubbed a chance of giving us full-bodied, relatable lesbian lovers in the 2019 Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, not because its couple is a blink-and-miss subplot, but because it doesn’t have the courage of its conviction. And that was a crashing pity because the lead actor, Sonam Kapoor, was also a producer: this could have been a much braver, significant film. Will the upcoming Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan make up for the absence of a true-blue gay couple who owns the narrative? Khurrana is an A-lister who began on an unconventional note and has pushed the envelope of what a Bollywood hero can be. He’s never really been saavdhan, and here he is, walking the talk, and yes, sealing it with a kiss.
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