Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh releases today, a film that sympathises with and is sensitive towards the gay community. By and large, Hindi films use an effeminate gay character as a comic sidekick or a figure of ridicule.
Male stars may get into drag for a comedy or song sequence, but except for Rishi Kapoor in Student of the Year, no major star would agree to play a gay character. In the past, just a rumour of a model-turned actor’s alleged homosexuality had ruined his career. Even today, with a fair amount of understanding about alternative sexuality, film folk refuse to come out of the closet. And, of course, Section 377 is still a contentious issue. It was courageous of Manoj Bajpayee to do the role of Professor Siras, not just as a gay character, but as an older man. Since Bajpayee is no longer aiming at romantic leads in commercial films, the range of work he can do, has also expanded.
Twenty years ago, Deepa Mehta had caused a storm of protest with her film Fire. Not only did she have Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das play lovers, she named them Sita and Radha.
Back then, when Indians were not so comfortable about gays, Mehta set her film in a normal middle-class Delhi household, which shocked people—homosexuality was not some foreign disease, it existed in ‘sanskari’ India too.
Whatever the problem may have been about showing two women unhappily married to brothers (Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Jaaved Jaaferi), turning to each other for solace (people don’t ‘turn’ gay when their heterosexual relationships fail), Fire was as much about middle class India turning a blind eye to women’s problems as it was about same-sex love.
The expectation of the wife in most households is that she will quietly tolerate their husbands’ neglect or abuse. The older Radha has come to terms with her own ability to bear a child and her husband’s indifference to her. But the young, spirited Sita, cannot accept her husband’s infidelity. The two women turn to each other for emotional and sexual support.
The film invited equal measure of protest and admiration; provocative it may have been, but it was also sensitive. Films like Girlfriend just concentrated on the sensational and controversial aspect, and films like Dostana may not be openly homophobic, but the snigger was audible to those who wanted to hear it (Ma ka laadla bigad gaya)!
Maybe it’s about time, gay characters were not seen as weird or funny, but included in the cast of films as ‘normal’ as straight people.