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Sex sells, sexuality doesn’t…

http://www.sakaaltimes.com/2009/07/15165346/Sex-sells-sexuality-doesnt.html

Sandhya Iyer

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009 AT 6:07 PM

Tags: Bollywood, sex, cinema, homosexuality, influence, sexuality

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Bollywood and alternative sexuality

Even as a heated debate rages on about legalising gay rights, most of the emphasis seems to hinge on its social acceptability. And in this respect, one expects popular art mediums — which have always been an index to social trends and attitudes — to play a definitive role in shaping the mindset about alternative sexuality.

In India, it is cinema — largely Bollywood — that has been culturally and socially one of the most potent and influential mediums. So while societal climate impacts the movies, films seem to impact it equally.

Which is why, it’s interesting to see where Indian cinema, particularly Bollywood, has gone so far in its portrayal of alternative sexuality and whether it can be expected to have a bearing on popular culture.

Bollywood’s baby steps

The subject of alternative sexuality has been such a closeted, taboo one in the country that it’s no surprise that cinema too has preferred to keep it on the sidelines. Or worse, use it merely as a comic relief, while perpetuating stereotypes. The West, on the other hand, where homosexuals fought a long battle for their rights, has been more open about, if not always advocative of, the issue. Hollywood offerings like Milk and Brokeback Mountain have indeed played a role in sensitising the audience.

Back home, we’ve just had a handful of films made on homosexuality over the years and only a few probably tried to engage with the subject meaningfully. Onir’s My Brother Nikhil and Amol Palekar’s Daayra and Thang (Quest) being among them.

There was the much controversial Fire from Deepa Mehta about lesbianism, which created a furore when it released. The film proved to be a whistle-blower of sorts, but actually may have done some disservice to the cause, when you consider how it was largely viewed as ‘provocative’ — one that possibly confuses feminism and lesbianism and assigns it a distinct gender-politics. No filmmaker touched the subject with a barge pole for a long time after that.

It’s strange how the minute a new law is passed, all the social responsibility of propagating it is left at the doorstep of filmmakers. That is not fair – Sachin Kundalkar

Interestingly, lesbianism was portrayed as early as in the ’80s by Jabbar Patel in his much-acclaimed Umbartha. Here, two of the inmates of a reformatory womens’ cell operating under protagonist Smita Patil’s charge, are shown in the act of making love. “These women have no outlet and some of them may have a natural leaning towards lesbianism, so it was not something that couldn’t happen. People accepted it because it went with the flow. I never tried to be sympathetic. We showed reality as it existed,” Patel says.

Viewers who saw it then were probably shocked, but a certain middle-class self-consciousness may have prevented any further discussion on it. Also, in the film, Smita Patil defends the two inmates saying “It’s a mental illness….and they need to be understood.” The audience must have agreed, back then. “Yes, this was the ’80s, so that is what she says. Today, Smita — if she played that role — would have said something different,” Patel feels.

Talking of relatively recent gay portrayals, we’ve had Pyaar Ka Superhit Formula, Page 3, Honeymoon Travels Pvt ltd — all of which at least acknowledged alternative sexuality as a reality.

The Dostana debate

Tarun Mansukhani’s Dostana may be nothing more than a frothy entertainer about two straight men pretending to be gay. But the fact that it was a full-on, successful mainstream film that got people talking (in whatever way) makes it vital to our discussion. There seem to be two radically opposing views on Dostana, though.

Marathi filmmaker Sachin Kundalkar sees Dostana as a fairly significant film. He says, “Alternative sexuality has never really been portrayed in mainstream cinema and certainly not where the whole story revolves around it. The kind of films that so-called sensible filmmakers make on alternative sexuality are seen by a niche audience and this is a segment that is already sensitive to gay rights and so on. Mainstream success is very important — to get more people talking about it. It doesn’t matter that it works more as a sugar-coated pill or makes light of the topic. At least it brings the topic to the fore. That is what we’ve all been fighting for — to get it out in the open,” he says.

Of course, not all agree. Documentary filmmaker Aarti Gupta doesn’t agree to the view that ‘something is better than nothing’. “But that ‘something’ is actually damaging. You have two men in Dostana pretending to be gay. But they are not gay. So what does that do anyway?” she says, adding, “I think a lot of these films have gay themes because the West does it and it’s suddenly considered cool. I don’t think there is any thought behind it.”

http://www.sakaaltimes.com/SakaalCMS/uploads/EF4EC88F-C3F8-4535-8659-D3974932DC49styvpf.gif
Sexuality and films

For a lot of people, the debate on homosexuality and cinema might seem a bit ludicrous when you consider that even female sexuality has not been portrayed in a progressive light in our films. Unlike in the ’50s and ’60s which saw strong women characters, the last couple of decades have seen a kind of objectification of women, where they are only seen from the prism of male gaze. And this is ironical because women have progressed greatly in the last decades and their new roles are still not well-represented in our films. “I think filmmakers can turn to homosexuals later, they should treat heterosexual couples properly first,” says Aarti.

Filmmaker Onir agrees that even though the court verdict of decriminalising homosexuality is a welcome step, it may not change much for Bollywood. “Look at the kind of films that are becoming hits. Kambakkht Ishq! It’s still all about demand and supply here, so you will have women treated like Barbie girls who encourage their heroes to tease them and think of it as a turn on,” he quips.

So unless our films evolve to depict our women as more than sex objects or in a progressive way, treating homosexuality with respect and maturity remains a far cry.

The road ahead

Filmmaker Amol Palekar, who has made a trilogy on the subject of sexual identity (Daayra, Anahat and Quest), believes cinema must play its part responsibly. “I made these films because I’ve always been interested in bringing to the fore the voice of the marginalised section. As long as filmmakers are comfortable with the status quo, we will never see a change. I don’t blame the audience too much, because it’s a fallacy that they do not accept certain subjects. If you make these films well, they will. We need more directors with vision and commitment. We’d never have a Kagaz Ke Phool — a film so ahead of its times — if Guru Dutt hadn’t shown the courage to make it. So I’m all for tolerant and progressive cinema,” he says.

Sachin Kundalkar, on the other hand, believes art must not be pressurised to be socially commited. “Let people make what they want. It’s strange how the minute a new law is passed, all the social responsibility of propagating it is left at the doorstep of filmmakers. That is not fair. Only people who feel for the cause of homosexuality should make it. Directors are creative people and not on some pay roll of a social organisation. I say, let people present the picture they want in their films. I see everything contributing in the larger scheme of things. At least people will be able to see homosexuality for what it is.”

Kundalkar is also positive that the new-age directors will ensure that sexuality in films is portrayed more sensitively in the time to come. “I look up to filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and Nishikant Kamat and I’m sure we will see a change for the better through their films,” he ends optimistically.

Even though Bollywood will have a definite role to play in the shaping of perceptions, the fact remains that it will do so staying within its framework. Says filmmaker Abhishek Bandekar, “Bollywood is an industry that never has and never will tackle any issue seriously. It never can afford to actually, given its audience base and what it represents. If the rest of the world makes cinema for the mind, Bollywood aims for the heart. But what may seem as its handicap, is its unique strength also. Due to its premium on entertainment, light-hearted at that, Bollywood shapes minds and influences opinions in a subliminal way, without really shoving pedantic arguments down your throat. And that is why Bollywood treads its steps very carefully. It can ill afford to take big decisive steps. Bollywood functions like the man on the moon — one small step for the industry is a big one for the nation.”

I’ve always been interested in bringing to the fore the voice of the marginalised section. As long as filmmakers are comfortable with the status quo, we will never see a change – Amol Palekar

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Written by gaybombay

July 15, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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