"Stop othering us, stop seeing us like we are creatures unlike you."
LGBTQ+-friendly films have become more widespread in Bollywood as time continues.
But it is debatable if Bollywood agreeably shows the marginalised community.
Homosexuality was first decriminalised in India in 2009.
It was then re-criminalised in 2013, before being decriminalised once more in 2017.
Many non-LGBTQ+ friendly films before 2009 did include characters who were homosexual, however, they were commonly portrayed as either the sidekick and/or the comic relief.
The inclusion nevertheless did introduce a form of humanization of homosexuality into the public conscience.
The 1990s saw a transition from cliché and repetitive love stories to darker, more serious films.
Many films during the time were controversial due to what was seen as explicit imagery and “degrading” to India’s culture and tradition.
While most films prioritise profit, some films attempt to push audiences outside of their comfort zone.
LGBTQ+-friendly films, such as Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga demonstrates this.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga came out in 2019 and was the first LGBTQ+-friendly film since the decriminalization of homosexuality in 2018.
The film follows Sweety, a young girl who is pressured by her family to marry a male writer and her decision on whether to conform to society’s normative heterosexual standards.
The film was praised by critics, with Saibal Chatterjee of NDTV giving it four stars out of five and writing:
“In the context of a commercial filmmaking tradition that has usually been appallingly uncaring of LGBTQ sensibilities, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha… is a whiff of fresh air, a huge leap forward…
“It does not seek to derive mirth and frivolity from the theme, offering instead an earnest, unapologetic depiction of the act of coming out in a conservative society.”
However, it was regarded as a box office flop, earning only 26 crores in India, compared to its 50 crore budget.
The failure of the LGBTQ+-friendly film can be attributed to a poor plot, as many have criticised the film for reducing characters to their sexualities as well as being simply disinteresting.
The portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community was arguably still a major improvement compared to its predecessors.
In 2008, Dostana was released. The film follows two men who pretend to be gay to move in with a woman both are attracted to.
Many attribute the film to portraying homosexuality in a positive light, but most of the LGBTQ+ community argues that the film exploits stereotypes of the homosexual community to play off for laughs.
Has Bollywood’s Portrayal of Homosexuality Improved?
The portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community is improving as time goes on, one of the examples being the release of Kapoor and Sons in 2016.
While also being romantic comedies like Dostana and Kapoor and Sons do not stereotype homosexuality, and neither use it as a defining character trait whilst still respectfully showing how important it is.
This improvement is further proven by Aligarch, an LGBTQ+-friendly film released a year before.
Following real-life events, it follows professor Ramchandra Siras, a professor at Aligarch Muslim University.
The film starts when a film crew catch the professor having sex with another man, getting him fired.
This leads to a court case between Ramchandra and the university on whether he should have been fired and if he can be reinstated.
Reception for the film was warm, with the LGBTQ+-friendly film receiving praise from both critics and the LGBTQ+ community alike.
The writer of the film, Apurva Asrani, in an interview with XTRA, said:
“Aligarh was an opportunity not only to vent out that anger [but also] to make a case for the LGBTQ community.
“Stop othering us, stop seeing us like we are creatures unlike you. We are human beings; we have beating hearts.”
How are Transgender People Portrayed in Bollywood?
Many films feature Hijras and transgender characters.
Within films like Kya Kool Hain Hum and Style, they are commonly portrayed as either comic relief or as a character that preys on the protagonist sexually.
The film Sadak features Maharani, a eunuch, as the main villain of the film.
He is portrayed as hateful, sadistic and psychotic.
While this performance did lead to Sadashiv Amrapurkar, the actor who portrayed Maharani in the film receiving a Filmfare award for his performance, the film did little in improving the image of eunuchs and transgenderism in India.
That isn’t to say they were not LGBTQ+-friendly films that portrayed transgenderism seriously and positively.
Films such as Tamanna, Shabnam Mausi, Darmiyaan and Welcome to Sajjanpur attempted to take a serious take on the third gender.
Before this act, however, there have been many films consisting of transgender characters. The most notable one is Daayraa.
The makers of Daayraa were asked for “some allegedly obscene dialogue and phrases to be deleted” and the film received an ‘A’ rating given by the Central Board of Film Certification in August 1996.
However, the film did not see a theatrical release in India.
It premiered at the 1996 Toronto International Film Festival and was then screened at the London Film Festival.
Later releases saw the LGBTQ+-friendly film being shown at festivals in the Hamptons, Melbourne, Copenhagen, Oslo, New York and Vancouver.
It was first released theatrically in Leicester on 27 November 1999.
UK versions of the film were distributed by Blue Dolphin Films, where it saw an eight-week run in the west end of London.
For an LGBTQ+-friendly film, it was far ahead of its time, breaking gender normative roles and pushing native audiences outside of their comfort zone, to the point it was never released in India.
A more recent victory for the LGBTQ+ community has been the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, of 2019.
The act recognizes the rights to self-perceived gender identity and identifications as male or female can be issued once a certificate is provided by a relevant medical official.
Transgender citizens have constitutional rights to register themselves under a third gender.
Because of the act, people within India can officially identify as a third gender and are protected by constitutional rights.
Transgender Actors in Bollywood
LGBTQ+ films before the act did not include transgender actors, likely due to a lack of rights for them at that time.
This lack of transgender actors in LGBTQ+-friendly films is still a problem now.
Trans actor Sushant Divgikar posted a video in early 2022 on their Instagram, in which they asked about what characters could transgender artists be allowed to play if all their roles would be taken up by cisgender actors.
In the video, Sushant asks: “If a transgender person is not allowed to play a transgender character on screen, in a film, so what do transgender artists play, transgender trees in the back?”
This lack of inclusion of transgender actors in Bollywood is disconcerting, as there have been many films in the past which include transgender characters being played by cisgender actors.
Many transgender actors are on the rise, however.
Shree Ghatak made her Bollywood debut in Ram Kamal Mukherjee’s Season’s Greetings.
The 2019 film deals with regret and family relationships.
Ivanka Das, an actor, dancer, choreographer and model, has starred in both TV and cinema.
Her latest is LGBTQ+ friendly film Goodbye.
While there is still a lack of LGBTQ+-friendly films in Bollywood, it is slowly changing as more LGBTQ+ actors and characters appear on the big screen to celebrate their sexuality and who they are.