Mainstream cinema is still uncomfortable with placing homosexuality at the heart of the story.
When actors come out, you wonder how much of it is a double blind: is the emotion on display being played out to invite a million YouTube hits, or is it sheer relief at not having to keep up a face to meet other faces? I’d imagine it’s a bit of both.
Ellen Page, the Canadian actress who played the part of a spunky pregnant girl refusing to abort her baby in the award-winning film, Juno, said the words, “I’m gay”, to a packed hall last week. The clip instantly went viral. Which tells us a couple of things. That confessing to an alternative sexuality is still a big, big thing in a world which takes a mostly missionary position on all things sexual. That being an actor who can play all kinds of genders (Facebook recently came up with an astonishing 50 options you can choose from: are you “neutrois”, or “gender fluid”?) doesn’t make it any easier: Page was tremulous, reaching out, holding back tears.
Each public announcement like this has tremendous value though, even if it leaves you wondering about its inherent theatricality. It is an incremental, if tiny step. If a celebrity can do it without inviting censure, maybe I can too.
But this occasional step-up doesn’t seem to seep into cinema, whose gay characters are still far from inhabiting the centre of the narrative.
The constant struggle of mainstream movies to be out of the box reflects in its characters. Hollywood has been known to occasionally surprise us with full-fledged gay characters, but it’s mostly done in an embedded-in-a biopic, respectful “historical” vein (Sean Penn in Milk was outstanding). Regular Joes (and Janes) are still to one side. And Bollywood is still distinctly uncomfortable with blatant, in-your-face homosexuality, lesbians, or any other variants (India is now back to the Stone Age with its latest strictures on gay relationships, so it’s probably plain illegal to create any such characters). So it does what it has always done best: turn them into caricatures, making them more palatable. If you can laugh them away, they will not be as threatening.
Last week’s Gunday offered up a pair of heroes who have much more to do with each other than the leading lady. They are framed in a way that would scream homo-erotic if it didn’t feel so random: to have bronzed chests and nipples and ripped muscles and pink hearts-on-jockey shorts sharing a twin bed is a visual that can only say one thing, but done the way this film does it, is not even a sly nudge-wink. It’s just dismal pandering.
The putative love between two women could have been such a powerful tool in Dedh Ishqiya, but director Abhishek Chaubey doesn’t take it anywhere significant. The characters played by Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi merge into the shadows on the wall: there could have been something truly powerful and subversive in this tale, but is squandered as throwaway shadowplay.
It’s so much easier to put homosexuality in a cage and draw a ring around it. Give those characters tics (limp wrist, girly voice, rouged cheeks, mincing steps). Poke them with sticks. “Normalising” would be most dangerous. Even a film like Dostana, which I liked despite its let’s-laugh-at-these-straight-men-pretending-to-be-gay schtick simply because it got the “g” word out into public discourse via popular culture, was considered brave when it came out: producer Karan Johar, whose sexuality is up for speculative discussion as much as his friendship with A-list Bollywood stars, told me that his film caused “aunties from Bathinda to talk so much more easily about ‘homos’”.
Clearly, we still need laughter as a crutch. If we can’t have tears, that is: characters who die of HIV/AIDS (which may be caused by consensual homosexual acts) can be forgiven, and awarded. Hollywood did it in ’93 with Tom Hanks, who was made to perish wanly in Philadelphia after fighting the good fight. So was Sanjay Suri in My Brother Nikhil: his “gayness” is like an underlying thread, never really openly acknowledged.
Clean-cut, fair-and-handsome heroes can be patted on the head, and handed out Oscars. I’ve always wondered if Denzel Washington, who plays Hanks’ lawyer, would have been so sympathetically looked upon if they had switched roles. And what if these guys had not died, and gone on to live with their ailment, and their lovers?
Someone I used to know discovered her favourite hair-stylist was transgender, and refused to go to her again. She also stopped talking to me when I told her it did not matter in the least to me, that the world was not twinned in a binary. Homophobia is an easy mantle to don even for people who have had an expensive college education, but who have done no learning.
Our films only reflect who we are.