Gay-Themed Movies in India Fight Back against Taboos ; Bollywood Responds to Changing Attitudes of Urban Middle Class

By Sharma, Vaibhav | International New York Times, April 29, 2016 | Go to article overview

Gay-Themed Movies in India Fight Back against Taboos ; Bollywood Responds to Changing Attitudes of Urban Middle Class


Sharma, Vaibhav, International New York Times


An urban middle class audience is giving films about gay male relationships enough box-office support for the trend to spread in India.

Bollywood has a long history of portraying gay characters with cliches or using them as an ostensibly comic sideshow. Often they are sexual predators whom the male leads, epitomes of heterosexual masculinity, must be wary of.

But several recent movies have challenged those stereotypes, suggesting that attitudes in India's movie industry, or at least within an influential section of it, may be changing.

"Aligarh," based on the true story of a gay professor who was hounded, possibly to death, opened nationwide in India in February to critical acclaim. (On May 14 it will be the closing offering at the New York Indian Film Festival.) It features mainstream actors -- with Manoj Bajpayee in the lead role -- a casting approach without precedent in Bollywood and unthinkable just a few years ago.

"Aligarh" was followed in March by "Kapoor & Sons," a multistar, big-budget Bollywood movie in which one of the two male leads is revealed to be gay. A tale of messy family relationships inspired by Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters," the film surpassed roughly $16 million in revenues, the Bollywood gold standard for commercial success.

This progressive turn is simultaneously a product of and a response to the changing mores of the urban middle class, which has developed a more tolerant view than other segments of society. This contingent is numerically a minority but it is Bollywood's most significant source of revenue. Hansal Mehta, the director of "Aligarh," acknowledged that he would not have found a backer for his movie a decade ago.

"The audience is more evolved than we think," said Shakun Batra, director of "Kapoor & Sons."

The success of "Aligarh" and "Kapoor & Sons" is likely to lead to more movies on this theme. One of them, "Dear Dad," woven around a road trip involving a father and son, opens nationwide in India on May 6.

"The Threshold," a short feature about an adolescent boy struggling with his sexual identity, had its premiere on April 8 in Los Angeles, although it belongs to the world of alternative filmmaking that is largely confined to university campuses and the urban elite in India.

"Timeout," a high school drama about a relationship between brothers that grows strained when one comes out, was released in September, although it did not have much critical or commercial impact. So far the films have been confined to the subject of male same-sex relationships.

This efflorescence of movies on the subject has not come about easily. In a country where the struggle continues to legalize gay sex, the movies have faced hurdles almost from their inception.

"Aligarh" was based on a 2010 case involving S.R. Siras that made headlines in India. Mr. Siras, a professor at Aligarh Muslim University in India, was surreptitiously filmed while having sex with a male companion in his apartment and later suspended by the university on charges of sexual misconduct.

The movie narrates his troubled last days, an invasion of his privacy followed by public humiliation and a professional witch hunt that ends in his mysterious death, considered by many to have been a suicide. …

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