The Supreme Court of India is currently deliberating on whether or not to ensure legal recognition and protection for same-sex marriage in the country. While the world awaits the decision, it is an apt time to take a look at the representation of same-sex couples in Hindi cinema.
In the Hindi film industry, there has recently been an uptick in the number of mainstream films exploring queerness and same-sex relations. “Badhaai Do,” meaning “give congratulations,” was released in 2022 and portrays a nuanced friendship within the queer community, shedding light on adoption and marriage inequalities same-sex couples face in a heteronormative society. Participating in a lavender marriage — a male-female, mixed-orientation relationship often undertaken to hide the stigmatized sexual orientation of a partner — the film’s leads struggle to create a balance between their relationships and respective partners while maintaining a united front against societal stigma. This dramedy expands the conversation on the social acceptance of queer relations in Indian society.
Queerness has often been paired with the comedy genre in Hindi pop culture, frequently serving as a punchline for comedic relief. A few examples include the portrayal of the school dean in “Student of the Year” and small jokes in “Kal Ho Naa Ho.” These portrayals reinforce stereotypes and construct caricatures of LGBTQ+ individuals, creating space for society to make generalizations about and ridicule queer people.
Released in 2016, the film “Kapoor and Sons” follows Rahul Kapoor (Fawad Khan), a closeted gay man caught in the middle of intense family drama. The film is beautifully written by Shakun Batra and Ayesha Devitre Dhillon, who offer Khan multiple facets to explore beyond his sexuality, making him a more complex character. What made the film stand out at the time of its release was that it is one of the few non-comedy mainstream films that took on the task of depicting a gay character.
After the SCI ruling in 2018 in Navtej Singh Johar vs. Union of India — which decriminalized same-sex relationships in the country — there have been fewer insensitive portrayals of LGBTQ+ folks in Indian cinema.
While there have been a number of same-sex films exploring sexuality amongst men, there have been few depictions of women-led same-sex relationships. “Fire,” a film released in 1998, was groundbreaking in this respect. Directed by Deepa Mehta, the film became a point of debate, controversy and protests at the time of its release, playing a pivotal role in paving the way for queer cinema.
The 2019 film “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga,” which translates to “when I saw a girl, I felt this,” starred some of the biggest names in the Hindi film industry. The film follows Sweety Chaudhary (Sonam Kapoor) in her struggles to come out to her conservative family. Although the film falters in a few places with its lack of character development and plot, it was entertaining and unapologetic in delivering an important message to viewers.
Though many of these films have allowed the sexuality of their leads to take center stage, a few gems through the decades explored their characters and stories through an intersectional lens. “Margarita with a Straw,” released in 2014, follows Laila Kapoor (Kalki Koechlin), an aspiring writer with cerebral palsy who moves to New York to pursue a career and begins to explore her sexuality. The film is well-written, well-acted and well-directed, making it a stand-out film in contemporary Indian cinema. Similarly, Neeraj Ghaywan’s “Geeli Pucchi,” or “wet kiss,” explores an inter-caste, same-sex relationship between leads Bharti Mandal (Konkona Sen Sharma) and Priya Sharma (Aditya Rao Hydari).
Unfortunately, there is much room for development in the portrayal of transgender characters in Hindi cinema. “Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui” and “Laxmii” are two recent films starring cis-gender actors portraying trans roles. The lack of authentic casting creates room for marginalizing already underrepresented communities.
Apart from feature films, queer characters have also found their way into Hindi television series. “Class” is one of the latest additions to the few series portraying same-sex relationships. Characters Faruq Manzoor (Chintan Rachchh) and Dhruv Sanghvi (Chayan Chopra) were relatable and a delight to watch. “Made in Heaven,” another popular series, also includes a male lead Karan Mehta (Arjun Mathur) with same-sex preferences. Both series also illuminate the aggravated police brutality that queer folks endure in India.
While Hindi cinema has definitely become more nuanced and sensitive in its portrayal of queer relationships since Johar vs. India, there are many areas for improvement, from casting queer artists, exploring new cinematic genres and portraying more complex characters. The Indian Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on same-sex marriage recognition has the potential to spur further change.