Is Bollywood coming out of the closet? It looks so with the release of Dostana (Friendship), a gay rom-com with four A-list stars including Shilpa Shetty and produced by Karan Johar, Bollywood’s biggest director. Of course, in Dostana two of Bollywood’s biggest heroes — John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan — only pretend to be gay to get closer to the object of their affection, Priyanka Chopra. Even so, this is daring for Bollywood as it is the first major film to address the love that dare not speak its name in such a mainstream manner.
Homosexuality remains illegal in India, and is still considered a taboo topic by many. The relevant law is Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (1860), which prohibits “unnatural offences”, defined as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal”. But Johar says he thinks the timing is right for Dostana. Section 377 is now under review in the Indian courts and, at least in the major cities, negative attitudes are changing. In an action begun in 2001 the law is being challenged in the Delhi High Court.
The main ground for the challenge is that it is unconstitutional, being contrary to the right to privacy and equality guaranteed in the Indian Constitution.
At a hearing in May the Health Ministry supported the abolition of Section 377, arguing that it impedes HIV education in a country with one of the highest rates of infection in the world. The Home Ministry opposed abolition. No judgment has been issued yet, but if the attempt fails the next stage will be an appeal to the Delhi Supreme Court.
Johar is still taking a risk, however, as previous attempts to portray homosexuality in Indian cinema have faced protests, not from the censors but mainly from rightwing Hindu fundamentalists.
Fire, in 1996, by the acclaimed IndoCanadian director Deepa Mehta, about two middle-class Delhi housewives who fall in love, was the first Indian film to explore homosexual relations seriously. Passed uncut by the censors, it was released in November 1998. By December, the film had been pulled as members of the Shiv Sena, a Hindu fundamentalist group, attacked theatres showing the film as it was “against Indian culture and tradition”. Manohar Joshi, the chief minister of the state of Maharashtra at the time, supported the acts of vandalism, saying that “the film’s theme is alien to our culture”.
The film was re-released in February 1999, though, and screenings continued without incident. Since then, however, Indian film-makers have unsurprisingly been hesitant to address homosexuality sensitively. Instead, they have consistently used stereotypical gay characters and subplots to evoke cheap laughs. Even Johar’s Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) featured a running gag in which the leading men were incorrectly assumed to be gay.
In Karan Razdan’s Girlfriend (2004), though, about a lesbian affair, the lead female character is presented as a butch kick-boxing man-hating murderer who doubles as a plumber in her spare time. The film proposed the unfailing panacea of a good man’s love to straighten her out. The Shiv Sena protested again, burnt posters of the film and called for a ban. But the ban did not happen and all the publicity resulted in audiences, largely male, flocking to the cinemas to see the exploitative, regressive B-grade skin-flick.
Onir’s My Brother Nikhil (2006) was the major exception, an honest portrayal of a family coming to terms with their son being gay and HIV positive. However, this was a small film with no major stars and without a mass audience.
Johar hopes that a big film such as Dostana can raise support for the repeal of Section 377. “This law is stealing people’s rights,” he says. “Everyone should be free to love whoever they want.”
His view is reinforced by one of his leading men, the hunky John Abraham, who supports the gay community. “All power to them,” he says. “I respect my gay fan base and have gay friends.”
Bachchan, however, is less enthusiastic: “As law-abiding citizens you have to follow the laws,” he says.
Critics may argue that Johar’s film does not go far enough, but he is a pragmatist and realises that such barriers have to be removed slowly, rather than torn away. “Dostana is a fun way to pave the way eventually for a Bollywood Brokeback Mountain-type film,” he says.