THE NOT-SO-GAY FACE OF BOLLYWOOD

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-Sukhdeep Singh

Since the inception of Dunno Y..Na Jaane Kyun, there has been too much hullabaloo surrounding the movie. From censor trouble to protests by Hindu activists, you find it in news every other day. But even before all this, the big question that remains to be answered is: ‘Is Bollywood ready for gay cinema?’ At the first instance, this question may sound stupid to you; after all, there have been gay characters in movies, and films like Fashion, Metro and Page 3 depicted the characters in a sensible way (and let’s just not discuss about all the gay parodies that come out of the industry). But just ponder a little; all these characters have been in supporting roles at best! The only sensible movies with gay central protagonists that come to mind are Fire and My Brother Nikhil. While Fire was released in 1996, My Brother Nikhil was released almost 5 years back! In nearly 15 years, the world’s biggest film industry produces only three films whose central protagonist is gay/lesbian. Something certainly must be amiss, given the fact that nearly three movies get released every week!

Is it a lack of audience support, or a lack of financers, or simply a lack of interest from the directors and their unwillingness to experiment with a “taboo topic”? After all, Bollywood is quick to copy its Western counterpart, and movies in the west made on such themes have often gone on to win Oscar awards in various categories.

Funds Crunch

Walking the untrodden path has always been a difficult task, and it’s been only recently that Bollywood has moved away from the usual boy-meets-girl  stories.  Most of these ‘unconventional’ movies have been small budget ones, but have gone on to become hits, thus instilling some confidence in the producers, who are now ready to finance such movies. However, there are still some topics that most choose to stay away from, even though a movie on a similar theme might have been a commercial success.

This is exactly what Onir, the director of My Brother Nikhil who is currently working on I AM, found out. “When I was doing My Brother Nikhil, because the central protagonist was gay, it was impossible to get any financers or producers. We had producers telling us ‘Why don’t you make Nikhil’s character as someone who is heterosexual?’, which was unacceptable to me,” says Onir. “Five years down the line when I am making I AM, where one of the stories has a gay protagonist, the industry is still not very accepting. As long as people are pretending to be gay, they are fine; but gay central protagonists are still not accepted in terms of getting the finances at all,” he adds. Kapil Sharma, the lead actor of Dunno Y.. Na Jaane Kyun echoes the view, “I didn’t have much problem finding the producers… We were lucky in our case, but generally producers aren’t forthcoming.” And in case you are a first time director, getting your film financed can be like searching for water in a desert, as Maanav Raj has discovered.  Maanav has directed many successful commercials previously and also worked as an Associate Director for the movie Pankh, and now wants to venture out into the film industry with a movie that deals with gay romance in the late 80s and early 90s. Ready with the script, he is yet to find any producers willing to take the plunge. “Had I made a guy – gal love story, I would have got funds by now, but I am struggling to find money for this kind of project,” he says.

But with Forbes India estimating the earned income of the LGBT community at 3% of Indian GDP, what exactly is holding back the producers? Is it pure homophobia, or is it the risks involved in investing in something new? “Because it is something that has just started opening up in the country, financers and producers are still not confident about putting their money in. A lot of them are of course homophobic, while others see that the business possibility is difficult, because what happens is that a lot of people, especially men, they, when a film gets labeled as a gay film, are afraid to go to the theatre to watch it because of how they would be perceived…So all those things are taken into account when it comes to financing a film,” explains Onir. Maanav narrates a similar story, “My film could be a good film outside India. Internationally it could get awards, but it is not going to generate money abroad, it’s just going to generate some applause. But at the end of the day, for a producer, he is investing some money; for him it is a business and he needs his money back.”

Unwilling Actors

The woes don’t end there for a director. Getting an actor to play a gay role on-screen is an uphill task that mostly leads to disappointment. Though finding producers wasn’t so difficult for Kapil Sharma of Dunno Y…Na Jaane Kyun,  casting was much of a problem for him. And both Onir and Maanav agree that even if you are able to generate funds for your movie, there aren’t enough takers for the role among our so called “established actors”. “Some of the senior actors like Zeenat Aman and Helen had no issues because of the gay content at all, the problem was for the newer stars, the youner generation ones,” says Kapil. Although Kapil ended up playing the lead role himself, he hadn’t planned to do so initially. “For my role, I had spoken to some actors who had done two – three films, they aren’t stars but are known. They had a lot of hang ups and even if they were playing the role, they wouldn’t do a lot of things. Eventually I decided to do the role that I am doing,” he reveals. For My Brother Nikhil, no actor even wanted to be cast in the movie, and little seems to have changed in these 5 years. “While working on I AM, for one of the segments I had approached a “star” star and for months the person did not even have the time to read the script, which is because of the sub-story and then I realized the insecurity of how a person would be perceived if he plays gay and at the same time not having the balls to do something because of perception,” says Onir. The fear of getting “typecast” is what seems to rule their mind. “They don’t want to play a gay role because it would damage their image of lover boy,” tells Maanav.

“Somewhere they have a lot of inhibitions,” sums up Kapil. Probably there’s a lot of internal homophobia too that these “stars” need to overcome. In a recent report in DNA newspaper, on a question of playing a gay role in a movie, actor Bobby Deol was quoted as saying, “I don’t see myself playing a gay role. My physique and demeanour is very masculine and I am sure audiences will faint at that very thought. Though I will love to experiment, this is something that I can’t carry off.” The statement in itself reveals how actors have stereotypical images in their mind that they still need to get past. What did he actually mean by “a very masculine physique” is something that only Mr. Deol could explain and justify.

If It’s mockery, it’s fine

Strangely though, from the producers to the actors, no one seems to mind it if the movie or the role is making a mockery of the community. So, in almost every third movie churning out from the film industry today, you would find a certain guy having a crush on a straight friend, or a certain Kantaben entering the room only to find the lead actors in a “compromising position”. These sub-plots have in fact become an essential part of the movie.

“As long as it is mockery, as long as people are laughing at it, it is OK; because at the end of the day no one cares. Then it is OK, then they (actors) would all accept,” points out Onir. That would explain the eagerness of actors Imran Khan and Ranbir Kapoor to be chosen for Dostana 2. In an episode of Koffee With Karan, the two actors in fact kissed each other in front of Karan Johar- the host and owner of Dharma Productions- to convince him that they are “comfortable” playing a gay couple. Dostana, it may be pointed out, was yet another movie where the lead actors have to “pretend” to be a gay couple to get a rented house in USA, leading to a series of bizarre situations.

Censorship and Distribution

After going through all the difficulties, there is another hurdle that a movie needs to cross- that of the censors. The Govt. appointed Censor Body in India often has the last word on what the countrymen can watch. Many films, especially if they are on some sensitive or offbeat topic, have faced the heat of censor scissors. Dunno Y… Na Jaane Kyun found itself in a similar situation, when the censors refused to pass the love making scenes in the movie. “They had issues with some intimate shots and it took us three months to convince them that if it is a love story, it has to have some intimate moments. If it would have been a guy and girl love story, than those scenes would have been easily passed. Finally we reached to a compromise. They passed the first intimate kiss, but we had to reduce the length,” says Kapil. However, he feels that they faced objections because it was the first time the censors encountered such a film and there was a certain shock value to it.

Onir on the other hand says that he never faced any trouble form the Censors for his movies. “There are a lot of people who are very sensible and they are not there to screw your script, they are not there to harm you. Of course they have certain guidelines to follow because they are working for an organization.”

After overcoming all the hurdles, it is not necessary that distributors will be ready to take up the movie, as the makers of Dunno Y… Na Jaane Kyun found out. Major multiplex chains like Fun Cinemas, INOX, Cinemax refused to screen the movie because of its gay content, citing that they are a “family theatre”, affecting the release of the movie countrywide. Eventually, the movie could only be released in three cities- Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmedabad. Negotiations are still going on with the distributors, but the movie is yet to release in any other city in India.

Audience Support

Despite all the apprehensions and inhibitions shown by the producers and actors, audiences have come out in full support, clearly giving thumbs up for more such movies in the future. My Brother Nikhil not only won many awards, but was a commercially successful movie too. “My Brother Nikhil had a very long run… If you make a film which has a good story to tell, which is tackled in an intelligent way, people are willing to see the film,” says Onir. Even Dunno Y… Na Jaane Kyun has had an above average collection in these cities. “In PVR Cinemas in Mumbai, the collections have now been fifty- sixty percent. There is mixed audience that is coming,” informs Kapil.

For that matter, even I AM would not had been possible on Onir’s side without public support. Unable to find producers who would be willing to put their money in a movie with 4 sub-stories about child sexual abuse, gender and sexuality, Onir decided to let people become co-owners of the movie. Anyone could become co-owner by contributing as little as Rs 1000. He was finally able to generate more than half of the movies budget and in the end, the movie had around 350 co-owners (those who gave anywhere between Rs 1000 – Rs 1 Lakh) and around 50 co-producers (those who contributed more than Rs 1 Lakh). “The way I AM is made, I have got an entire audience support who are ready to put in money. For me it is a big moral boost because it’s almost telling that yes we believe in your kind of film and subject; and we need to participate in the making of the film,” an ecstatic Onir said over the phone. “I think people in general are more supportive than the so called financers or producers,” he added.

A Beginning has been Made

To say that Bollywood would change overnight would be pure utopia; after all, perceptions take time to change. But the success of these movies would surely instill some confidence among the producers to come forward to fund such movies. Kapil feels that the movies that would be made in the future probably won’t have to experience the same hostilities as his movie did. “Somewhere it had to start. It has been started. We had to go through the consequences… In the future all these people will be more lenient… I think some film makers will have more guts to come out with different aspects of this issue.” And even if financers view it as a good investment, how long will the actors take to shed their inhibitions and phobia remains to be seen.

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