The gay factor in Indian cinema

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Love blooms at a home for destitute women in a remote Indian village.

Bollywood actor John Abraham poses for a picture during a promotional event of his movie 'Dostana' at a multiplex in Mumbai November 13, 2008. REUTERS/Manav Manglani/Files

On the terrace, two women embrace, aware that society will never accept their relationship. After all, they are living in India in the early 1980s.

The scene is from Jabbar Patel’s “Umbartha” (The Threshold), released in 1982, at a time when words like homosexual or lesbian were not part of the average Indian’s vocabulary.

Earlier this month, a Delhi High Court ruling overturning a British colonial era law banning homosexual sex put the spotlight on the issue.

Almost three decades after “Umbartha”, when homosexuality is at the centre of a social debate, director Patel is surprised his film was cleared by the censor board without a cut.

“I think the trick is that we depicted this relationship as we would any other. We just showed two women in love, at a time when homosexuality was never even spoken about as it is now,” Patel told Reuters.

But few films went Umbartha’s way, especially in mainstream Bollywood.

Filmmaker Deepa Mehta dealt with homosexuality in a bold manner in Fire (1996), the story of two women in middle-class Delhi who are trapped in loveless marriages and find love in each other.

But the film was not without its share of controversy, with protests dogging it throughout its short run at the box-office.

“I think the subject of homosexuality has been handled far more maturely in regional cinema like Malayalam or Marathi rather than in popular cinema, merely because these films placed the problem in a social, everyday milieu,” says noted film critic C. S. Venkiteshwaran.

He recalls two Malayalam films, Rendu Penkuttikal (Two Girls) and Desadanakkili Karayarilla (Migratory Birds Don’t Cry), which treated the theme of homosexuality in a matter-of-fact manner.

“This isn’t surprising, because sex and violence were dominant themes in Malayalam cinema of those days. Filmmakers dealt with it without trivialising the issue or blowing it out of proportion,” Venkiteshwaran said.

In contrast, one of Bollywood’s biggest hits in 2008 was “Dostana”, a comedy in which two men pretend to be gay so they could rent a house with a woman.

Another film, “Kal Ho Naa Ho” (2003), featured a humour track where a character believes the hero and his friend are homosexual.

Patel says the difference lies in the commercial aspect of the film.

“The minute you make it for commercial purposes, you tend to veer towards the sensational,” he said.

“Homosexuality doesn’t need to be reduced to a joke, instead, cinema can be used to spread the message that we don’t need to treat this subject as taboo any more.”