About six months ago, after the release of Student of the Year, gay activist Ashley Tellis wrote a scathing opinion piece in DNA newspaper under the headline ‘Shame on You, Karan Johar’. In the movie directed by Johar, Rishi Kapoor plays the gay principal of a school where the story is set. He is an old man with a crush on the happily married sports teacher who reciprocates in a platonic sort of way. By the end of the movie, Kapoor is shown defeated and dying in self-willed isolation. Tellis called Kapoor’s character ‘so busy bending backwards to please hetero audiences with what they want to see, that he forgets that he must appear plausible as a character to be taken seriously at all’. He also wrote that Johar ‘trots out scene after scene of homophobia (the heroes of Student of the Year keep asking each other if they are gay, and hug only once the spectre is dispelled) in every film of his; homosexuality haunts every second scene of the shit he has been dishing out to us for years—but only as joke. Little does he realise that the joke is on him’.
Tellis’ article is a bitter rant of betrayal. Critics look for meanings where there are none, activists look for slights. Student of the Year might be a terrible movie, but it is commercial cinema in which everything is shallow and stereotypical. The school, the romance, the students, everything is set in a parallel fantasy universe that makes Indian audiences buy tickets. Why single out the homosexual for not being true to character? A school principal could make similar charges about how his profession is depicted and that would also be valid.
In Bombay Talkies, Johar does not have to look at the box office, and you can make a fairer assessment of his depiction of gays. The movie comprises four shorts as a paean to 100 years of Indian cinema; the first film is by Johar. This is the plot: it opens with a young man, played by Saqib Saleem, beating his father up just before walking out of home. This is in retaliation for his father thrashing him because he is gay. Saleem is soon seen in a newspaper office as an intern bonding with Rani Mukherji, an associate editor. He is brash and impetuous, especially with innuendos about sex. She invites him home for dinner and he senses that her husband, played by Randeep Hooda, is a homosexual in denial. Saleem tries to court him and over the course of a couple of scenes breaks his reserve—as depicted in a kissing scene—but his mask instantly comes on again, followed by a slap. Saleem cruelly exposes him to Rani, who walks out of the marriage. In the end, Hooda is shown as a broken man, punished for his cowardice in failing to accept reality. Saleem faces no final judgment. Only the woman seems to get her liberation.
Does Johar move beyond clichés with Bombay Talkies? In large measure, yes. His characters—the out-of-closet gay wearing his sexuality on his sleeve and the man in denial—are relatively complex and real. The movie has the feel of an art film with a realistic tone to it. There is no wedding song. There is a kissing scene that has to be something of a first from a mainstream Bollywood director. The movie is still a bundle of clichés, but that is the nature of entertainment. It is still melodrama, but that is just the way Johar thinks. His newsroom has to be the most tastefully designed one in the country. If Dibakar Banerjee were to make the same movie, the newspaper office would have broken chairs and seedy-looking reporters. Both exist out there at different addresses in the country.
For the origins of Johar’s attempts to introduce homosexual relationships into the mainstream, you would have to go back to Kal Ho Naa Ho, which he produced in 2003. There is no gay character in the movie, but the maid Kantabai finds Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan in postures that shock her into thinking they are having it off. Dostana, which too Johar produced, went a step further. Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham are not gay but pretend to be partners. Student of the Year has an overtly gay character. And now Bombay Talkies. It is easy to deride some of these characterisations but a gradual progression of sorts is unmistakable.
In an interview to The Times of India in 2008, gay activist Ashok Row Kavi said that what Dostana did was bring to “notice gays as a concept in the Indian family… the heterosexual family has been engaged in dealing with the issue of gays”. Any which way you look at it, it is an assertion impossible to refute. Dostana, in fact, did something extraordinary—it brought into common usage a term for a gay relationship in India. Before that, there were only derogatory labels. No amount of real sensitive depictions in art films could have achieved this.
That is also a valid way of looking at Johar’s depiction of homosexuality in his mainstream movies. It is a sort of guerilla method of getting the unspeakable into the drawing room. To make something humanly natural, you have to first recognise that it exists. Remember the act of Saif Ali Khan and Shah Rukh Khan at the Filmfare Awards that spoofed how Kantabai saw them in Kal Ho Naa Ho? It was both popular and funny. If you can laugh with something and not at something, then there is some form of progress being made against discrimination.
Johar’s shallow depiction of gays has probably done more to change the way India’s sexual majority looks at them than real portrayals. Bombay Talkies might be a finer work, but it is talking to the converted, the country’s liberal literates. The rest of India, which is 99 per cent of it, needs a Dostana to jiggle their prejudices. Johar needs feel no shame for what he has been dishing out.