Queer Representation in Bollywood

Spoorthi Giridhar

The day before ‘Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan’ was released, I waited eagerly with my phone in my hands to book tickets before it sold out. This was the first mainstream Bollywood movie that showcased a gay couple- not as the side characters, not as comic relief- but as the epicentre of the entire movie itself. The next day, I entered the cinema hall with my parents, bursting with excitement. Even as the opening credits rolled, I couldn't believe it - was my local theatre really playing a gay movie? 


Halfway through, my parents walked out the hall, and said that the movie was making them feel nauseous. 


For me, the movie was my only opportunity to see people with whom I could identify on the big screen, to see my struggles presented in beautiful narratives and plots. But for my parents, the movie presented a type of love that has been coded by society as ‘wrong’, ‘dirty’, and ‘immoral’ for centuries, a type of love with which they were so unfamiliar that they had to leave the hall to feel comfortable. 


It broke my heart, but my story ends here. Despite the pain this memory causes me even to this day, I know that my community suffers through much worse. The LGBTQ+ community has never had an easy time in India, and this is clearly reflected in something seemingly insignificant - the lack of representation in mainstream media. 


I grew up in cinema halls, and the images on screen always seemed to tell a story which perfectly captured how I felt at that particular moment. For most of my childhood, I felt seen when I watched a movie. However, when I realized I was queer, this feeling of representation was cruelly snatched away from me. It made me realize - did I even have it in the first place? 


For as long as it has been around, Bollywood has used queer-coded characters to either fulfil the diversity quota of a film, or to provide comic relief to tough scenarios. The question arises - how is this harmful? 


Bollywood actively conveys the message that to be queer is to never have a story of your own. To be queer is to serve as a plot device, providing emotional support to the primary cis-gendered, heterosexual character. To be queer is to lighten situations of tension and be an object of humour to those watching. To be queer is to live on the sidelines, ever at the mercy of main characters, which are nearly always written and played by cis-gendered and heterosexual people. This perception provided by the Bollywood industry and normalized by the majority audience is severely harmful for those who do not live by these societal norms. 


Another, not so palpable problem is that of queer-baiting - a marketing technique for fiction and entertainment in which creators hint at, but then do not actually depict or represent, same-sex romance or other LGBTQ+ identities. Towards the end of the film ‘Kapoor and Sons’, we realise that Fawad Khan’s character is gay - a plot twist to the narration which had assumed otherwise. Apart from serving as a dose of shock and entertainment to the audience, the story doesn't give any more attention to his sexuality or even his role. Queer misrepresentation enables filmmakers to elicit a response from the audience and receive praise for representing the LGBTQ+ community, but also allows them to leave this representation unfulfilled and inadequate. In simpler words, they get all the credit without doing any of the work – a diversity quota to fulfil and a check box to tick. 


However, there has been progress with movies such as ‘Aligarh’ and ‘Margarita With a Straw’ that depict lives of queer individuals without demeaning the characters or queer-baiting the audience. Bollywood has taken a break from representing gay men on screen as flamboyant characters who are unable to control their urges, unlike Boman Irani’s character ‘M’ in ‘Dostana’, and is now giving room to directors determined to make films that provide legitimate representation for the LGBTQ+ community. As they should.