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Queer Cinema Needs a Change in Representation

In the final segment of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019), Sonam Kapoor’s Sweety is trapped in a transparent box during the performance of a same-sex play in her locality. While her younger self screams to be let out, the older Sweety is resigned to her fate in the metaphorical closet. She looks on hopelessly, knowing that she cannot leave.

Most films about same-sex relationships that emerge out of India tend to approach their stories with a high focus on homophobia rather than homosexuality. The first explicitly queer film in India, Fire (1998) depicts two sisters-in-law falling into secret love. This fear of ostracisation has become the blueprint for same-sex representation on screen. Its overuse has almost lent to a fetishisation of trauma.

Take Raj Amit Kumar’s Unfreedom (2014). The film follows Leela’s obsession to win back her ex-girlfriend Sakhi. Desperate and frantic to get out of an arranged marriage, Leela records herself coming out to her father and runs away from home to meet Sakhi. Upon proposing marriage to her, however, Sakhi announces that she is in a relationship with a man and asks Leela to leave. Driven insane in heartbreak and flying into a rage upon seeing Sakhi and her boyfriend hooking up in the back of a car, Leela pulls out a gun and shoots the boyfriend. While accompanying the two on the ride to the hospital, Leela continues to frantically beg Sakhi to come back to her and eventually Sakhi does. The pair run away to an offshore island to spend the night together and release videos of themselves online. Soon found and arrested with the help of Leela’s father, they are brought to a closed prison where men sexually assault them while her father watches on. Not only does this film depict an unhinged version of a lesbian relationship as seen through the obsessiveness of the main character but it also ends in the most patently homophobic and violent scenes. 

Raj Amit Kumar’s ‘Unfreedom

Even when films take violent homophobia out of the picture, Indian queer films rarely allow for happy endings. The critically acclaimed Loev (2015) looks into the relationship of two friends, Jai and Sahil, meeting up after several years. Sahil is in an unsatisfactory relationship at the beginning owing to his boyfriend Alex’s immaturity. The trip becomes a getaway from this relationship as Sahil switches roles, becoming the immature, carefree one. Jai and Sahil are consistently flirtatious throughout the journey. The climax occurs towards the end when Sahil kisses Jai on his cheek during one of his meetings. Frustrated, Jai comes back to their shared hotel room and yells at him for unprofessionalism. However, being under the assumption that Sahil is now reciprocating his feelings, he goes to kiss him only to have Sahil push him away. In a fit of rage, Jai sexually assaults him. The inner turmoil of the characters marks the last 30 minutes of the film, but the assault is left entirely unaddressed. Instead, as Sahil goes with Jai to drop him off at the airport, he tells him he forgives him for the assault and wants to be with him. Unable to forgive himself, Jai leaves him, and Sahil returns to his boyfriend.

While the film does delve into the relationship between the two characters, graphically depicting rape without really addressing the repercussions of the act makes for hollow viewing. Sahil and Alex’s relationship is never explicitly fleshed out as something to root for and hence, makes the ending even more unsatisfactory. Hopelessness becomes the base for the story and the relationships created throughout the film are ambiguous or unpleasant.

None of this is to say that producers should not depict LGBTQ+ struggles in the media. In a country that is still struggling with the social acceptance of same-sex relationships, it is necessary to bring questions of queer struggles to the forefront. However, it is how films depict them, which becomes essential. Awareness isn’t the only goal of representation. Arguably more important is normalisation. It is imperative to talk about the struggles of Indian queer existence. Still, it is also just as important to showcase these characters in an environment without underlying homophobia and social pressure. Uniformly depicting queer stories ending in tragedy or heartbreak reinforces the idea that queer people have a hard life in this country. But the fetishisation of this hard life creates storylines which make no arguments for any change in society, nor do they serve to comfort its queer audiences.

Moreover, films which focus entirely on the idea of social awareness often tend to forget to flesh out their queer relationships as a love story to root for. For instance, in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019) next to nothing is known about Sweety’s girlfriend and the nature of their relationship. The film wholly focuses on Sweety having to work towards getting her family to approve her sexuality, thus sidelining her romantic arc. The narrative focus is no longer on the queer characters themselves. Instead, it starts catering to the cisgender-straight audience again, which begs the question – what is the LGBTQ+ audience supposed to resonate with if even queer films start sidelining them? 

It is vital to strike a balance between social awareness and the normalisation of queer experience. Evening Shadows (2018) follows the story of Kartik coming out to his mother. Returning to his small village in South India, Kartik is instantly met with an arranged marriage at the door. Being in a comfortably settled relationship with his boyfriend in Mumbai, , he immediately wants to turn it down. When he eventually comes out to his mother, she spends days in shock, trying to grapple with her love for her son alongside her religion. However, Kartik’s father, an established strict patriarch, accidentally finds out about his sexuality through photographs left open on his laptop.

Screengrab from ‘Evening Shadows

While the film isn’t without flaws, it does highlight a normalised and unsexualised depiction of Kartik’s relationship with his partner, Aman. Even though the larger plotline tackles homophobia and acceptance, the film made space to depict scenes where Kartik is entirely comfortable with himself and his relationship. The dichotomy of wanting to gain acceptance while also being sure of one’s identity as a queer person in a same-sex relationship makes for a film that resonates with many people living simliar lives. The eventual happy ending is, of course, satisfying. But, more striking is the normalised affection during the closing scenes of Kartik and Aman in their kitchen – akin to scenes shared by the myriad of on-screen straight couples – which provides comfort and hope, especially as a queer viewer. 

Experience Further:

‘The calm but broken feelings of regret and sorrow that come through in Troye Sivan’s 2014 song, Gasoline, makes for a poignant experience. The melancholic heartbreak that Gasoline expresses resonated with the stories within this article for me and I found myself playing it on a loop several times throughout the process of writing.

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.

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