Aligarh: A brief history of homosexuality in Bollywood

Manoj Bajpayee’s Aligarh, based on the life of gay professor Ramchandra Siras, is releasing this Friday.

Aligarh comes at a time when the country is witnessing a strong surge in support of radical right-wing voices. Other voices are confronting their fundamentalist approach with everything they have got. In such a scenario, it is very likely that Aligarh will attract the wrath of people who still don’t believe that the LGBTs even exist.

Even in Bollywood, the acceptance of gays has been slow to come. In fact, it is still a long way before they will be featured as ‘normal’ characters.

Thanks to filmmakers such as Onir and Hansal Mehta, Bollywood has come to accept homosexuality as a serious mainstream theme. Some of the well-known filmmakers in the industry were otherwise interested only in the ‘funny’ portrayal of gay people. They never realised the magnitude of damage they caused through such films and characters.

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Hollywood woke up to this idea in films such as Manhattan Parade and Morocco in the beginning of the ‘30s, but here, in India, we were mostly recreating the mythological texts, and that ensured a backseat for homosexuality as a subject for many more years to come.

It was indeed a slow process in Hollywood but ‘homosexual’ as a term was in use since 1887 and, in fact, ‘gay’ was already there in the 1939 film Bringing Up Baby.

In Bollywood, some film scholars have read films like Dosti (1964) and Sangam (1964) in a completely different light. They did bring out the possibility of an ‘intimate’ relationship between two male leads, but the presence of a heroine dramatically diluted the idea for the common viewers. It was an expected reaction for a country which viewed same-sex couples as culprits, and they do so even now,. Even the law of the land said so.

Aligarh trailer has been given the A certificate by the Censor Board. (YouTube)

The situation remained the same till Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) even though some filmmakers kept featuring ‘gay’ characters in between, but no serious intentions were shown to make it a notice-worthy plot point.

Despite Fire’s wide distribution, for the majority of the Indian cine-goers homosexuality was still a taboo subject. Interestingly, Raja Hindustani, which released in the same year as Fire, had a queer character. Like their predecessors, these characters were expected to evoke laughter.

It was a trend that directors kept repeating year after year with the same formula: having a gay character with weird sexual fantasies and who’s attracted towards the hero. So much so that it became a complete joke with the release of Tarun Mansukhani’s Dostana (2008).

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Thanks to Onir, who understood the need for a serious debate, that we saw films like My Brother Nikhil (2005) and I Am (2010). It was already more than 90 years after Raja Harischandra, India’s first full-length feature film.

Things began to change a little, and social movements started to influence people outside the community in the first decade of the new millennium. However, there was still a lot to be done.