We’re right in the middle of Pride Month and although everything with a face in the digital landscape is bathed in rainbow colours, let’s be honest here: queer representation in the Indian media is still shockingly low and largely inaccurate.
A landmark in queer history was reached more than fifty years ago, when riots erupted at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, giving birth to the current celebration of Pride Month and the institutionalisation of the international LGBTQIA+ movement.
The month of June is now commemorated as Pride Month, with inclusive parades, marches, festivals, and workshops to spread awareness about, celebrate, and acknowledge queer history, and to create an accepting space. Transgressing societal norms of heterosexuality was met with suspicion and anger in the 1950s and 60s, and public demonstrations of homosexuality were considered a criminal offence in the majority of American states.
Queer people were driven to the fringes, finding shelter in illegal establishments and bars where they could congregate and express themselves. Often such bars were owned by organised crime groups, leading to frequent police raids. The Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village was one such popular enterprise. Early on June 28, 1969, the NYPD conducted a raid at Stonewall on the pretext of stopping the sale of unlicensed liquor. The employees were arrested, the bar was cleared, and many were taken into custody. Though this was not an uncommon occurrence, it was the events that followed which charted the path forward for queer acceptance and assimilation.
Set in the background of anti-war movements and feminist and civil rights agitations, the Stonewall riots expanded the landscape of protest culture, both in America and the world. The template for a march at the one-year anniversary of the riots was floated by activists in Philadelphia at a conference, and its theme, “gay pride”, was a reference to the sense of pride and oneness members of the community felt in their sexual and gender identities. The procession, which came to be known as the Christopher Street Liberation Day march to mark the street at the heart of the protests, grew from a few hundred to thousands of members and allies.
Similar events were staged in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and subsequently ‘Gay or LGBTQ Pride’ was understood to be celebrated on the last Sunday in June. Over the years, Pride turned into a month-long event and was accorded official recognition by President Bill Clinton in 1999. America’s celebration of Pride was adopted across the world, with regional variations celebrating unique cultures and individual activists in a bid to make the movement more inclusive and to move from the dominant narrative.
Cinema, they say, is the mirror of society. Why is it then that movies representing the queer culture either face roadblocks long before they are even released, or do not get their dues upon seeing the light of day? Why is it that the community still struggles to find a place like any other for the sole reason of being different?
The queer community is becoming known to people even in India now. They are getting accepted by society. The entertainment industry also made movies for the mass to be familiar with the community. When Badhaai Do director Harshavardhan Kulkarni and its two writers Akshat Ghildial and Suman Adhikary worked on the film’s script, they were aware of their conditioning. “We were careful about correcting and checking our heteronormative gaze,” says Kulkarni. With its four primary characters who are queer, Badhaai Do went on to become a significant conversation starter and an entertainer that received a warm reception.
In 2017, Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age drama ‘Moonlight’ became the first LGBTQIA+ movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture. On the home turf, we recently had films like ‘Badhaai Do’, ‘Sheer Qorma’, ‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan’, and ‘Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui’ among a few others that were welcomed by the audience with open arms. But that’s not the fate of all queer representative cinema. Filmmaker Onir’s ‘We Are’, based on the real-life story of Major J Suresh who quit the army as it was no longer plausible for him to come out as a homosexual and remain in the Indian Army, was rejected by the Ministry of Defence.
Onir says, “Resistance to queer narrative exists in various societies in different forms. In many countries in the world unfortunately it is still criminalized by law, where is punished, humiliated, and can be even killed for being queer. Those countries do not allow queer narrative or discourse. But hopefully, with mounting worldwide pressure for respecting human rights things will change in the future. Just like one hopes that back home the army will accept the queer community amongst the forces. Marriage rights and rights to adoption are given to the community. There is no reason why anyone in our country should be deprived of their rights because of gender or sexuality.”
We find stories around transgender in the Ramayana as well as in the Mahabharata. Film historian Amrit Gangar shares an example from the Virata Parva of the Mahabharata when Arjuna took the form of Brihannala (third gender or eunuch) during staying in disguise for a year. “As Brihannala, Arjuna taught dance and music to Uttara, the daughter of King Virata. These stories were popular Indian silent filmmakers in one form or another, e.g. Keechaka Vadham (1917), Urvashi (1921), Virat Parva (1922), etc. These stories continued to be filmed during the talkie era too. Transgender is an integral part of our mythology and there was no social unacceptance of them. Of late, I think since the film ‘My Brother Nikhil’ in 2005, there has been more openness about LGBTQ films in India,” he says.
The regional films are also focusing on the queer community and making films related to them. Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012, Bengali), Eṉ Makaṉ Makiḻvaṉ / My Son Is Gay (2017, Tamil), Nagarkirtan (2017, Bengali), Moothon (Malayalam, 2019), Naanu Ladies (Kannada, 2021).