Indian cinema has often had a chequered past with diversity and inclusion, failing to fully represent the Indian LGBTQIA+ community and its people, identities and narratives. Mainstream Indian films featuring gay and lesbian characters have often been marred by tokenism and naive stereotyping. Time and again what has emerged is cynically reductive and even regressive.
Richer representations of queer lives have come from the independent sector, and particularly from regional film industries outside of the Mumbai mainstream. A case in point is A Place of Our Own, the new film from the Bhopal-based Ektara Collective, which is receiving its UK premiere at BFI Flare 2023. A step forward in the evolution of Indian queer cinema, it demonstrates warmth, complexity and empathy in its intimate exploration of two trans women (Roshni and Laila) and their endless quest to find a place they can call their own in an Indian society that discriminates and stigmatises against difference. Its refreshing de-othering of Roshni and Laila is part of an almost documentary-like perspective that lays bare the displacement and violence faced by the Indian trans community.
In advance of the film’s BFI Flare screenings, we track back through 10 milestones in LGBTQIA+ cinema from the subcontinent.
Badnam Basti (1971)
Director: Prem Kapoor
Many taboos were overturned as part of the iconoclastic momentum of Parallel Cinema, the new wave of politically engaged alternative filmmaking that emerged in India from the 1960s onwards. Challenging gender and sexual norms, Prem Kapoor’s controversial Badnam Basti was once thought lost, but was rediscovered in 2019 and reclaimed as India’s first queer film.
Based on a novel by Kamleshwar, the film uses an Indian cinema staple, a love triangle between two men and a woman, but subverts expectations in exploring the characters’ bisexuality – suggested rather than explicitly foregrounded, due to the censorship of the time. Kapoor’s film was a breakthrough at a moment of great political instability, when Indian cinema was beginning to shift and modernise, and nothing was sacred anymore.
Director: Deepa Mehta
Fire’s story of two women falling in love led to protests in India, but Deepa Mehta’s film is also about how women find companionship and solidarity when confronted with patriarchal oppression, loneliness and neglect.
As the relationship between Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das) gradually reveals itself, what the film unmasks is that male hypocrisy is often glanced over while women are effectively denied both status and identity. Sexual desire is not only repressed by the forces of tradition but is something the men in the film feel they can possess and control. Mehta’s film controversially derives its character names from the Hindu goddesses of Radha and Sita, subverting them into something far more radical and sensual. It reclaims and reinterprets Indian history and culture from a queer and feminist perspective, pointing to a progressive, cosmopolitan contemporary India.
My Brother… Nikhil (2005)
Inspired by the life of Indian AIDS activist Dominic D’Souza, who contracted HIV and was forcibly quarantined, Onir’s courageous film tells the story of Nikhil Kapoor (Sanjay Suri), a talented swimming champion who is diagnosed with HIV.
Set in Goa in the late 1980s and early 90s, My Brother… Nikhil was made before the proliferation of LGBT-themed films in mainstream Indian cinema. The measured script details the systemic prejudices inherent in all facets of society, including the family, which ostracises Nikhil for his sexuality, and government institutions, which forcibly discriminate against him, leading to his increasingly sombre exclusion. The results can be a little sentimental at times but were significant in helping to open a door for future LGBTQIA+ films and also raising greater awareness about AIDS in India.
Memories in March (2010)
Director: Sanjoy Nag
Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh is an icon of India’s queer community and was one of the first openly gay artists in Indian cinema. Through his bold work he consistently explored his own sexuality and reframed what was possible in terms of imagining queer life on screen. His death, aged only 49, was a massive loss for the Indian film industry.
Ghosh wrote and starred in Memories in March, which follows a bereaved mother, Arati (Deepti Naval), who discovers her son had a secret life and is gradually forced to come to terms with his sexuality. Ghosh plays Ornub, the son’s gay partner, who challenges Arati’s socially determined perceptions of love and companionship, leading to a tersely demarcated critique of the hypocrisies of middle-class Bengali society.
Margarita with a Straw (2014)
Director: Shonali Bose
Incorporating the experiences of filmmaker Shonali Bose as a bisexual woman in India, Margarita with a Straw is the story of a queer disabled woman (played superbly by Kalki Koechlin) who goes on an intimate journey to unravel the complicated meanings of her sexuality. Bose came up with the idea for the film during a conversation with her cousin Malini Chib, a disability rights activist. Laila (Koechlin), who has cerebral palsy, is a flawed, complicated character who is depicted in terms of both vulnerability and independence.
This is an intersectional work that uses the coming-of-age narrative to explore how sexual identity is a fluid, evolving and at times contradictory concept. The relationship between Laila and Khanum (Sayani Gupta) is framed with an unsensational gaze, a welcoming approach since both characters are burdened with their own imperfections.
Director: Hansal Mehta
Section 377 is part of a penal code outlawing gay sex, which had remained in force in India for 157 years. In 2018, the Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality. Made three years before this landmark ruling, Hansal Mehta’s social issue film Aligarh revolves around the true story of Professor Siras (Manoj Bajpayee), who was suspended from Aligarh university for having sex with another man. Siras was later found dead.
Apurva Asrani’s powerful screenplay explores the social and political convolutions of persecution through the lens of the media, the judiciary and social activism. Anchored in Bajpayee’s masterly performance, the image of Siras singing along to old Indian film songs becomes a moving refrain, detailing a dignity that no bigotry can expunge.
Iratta Jeevitham (2017)
Director: Suresh Narayanan
In 2015, the southern Indian state of Kerala became the first state to announce a transgender policy, protecting the rights of trans people and putting an end to years of discrimination. Inspired by a short story by Ahmad Mueenudheen, director Suresh Narayanan’s debut film Iratta Jeevitham begins with the love story of two women, Sainu and Ameena, before becoming a tale of transition.
Having disappeared from the coastal village of Anchangadi, Ameena returns 10 years later as a trans man now named Adraman. With a shift away from an urban milieu, the coastal rural landscapes provide a distinctive counterpoint to the exploration of themes such as social acceptance and transgender identity. Iratta Jeevitham is a work rooted in the current and ongoing transgender political activism in Kerala, again demonstrating the radical interventionism of regional LGBTQIA+ films.
Director: Kaushik Ganguly
An unsentimental tale of love between Puti (Riddhi Sen), a trans woman, and Madhu (Ritwick Chakraborty), a flute player, Bengali director Kaushik Ganguly’s film explores the estrangement experienced by the trans community. In a cruel society where trans people are often marginalised, ostracised or exploited, Puti’s desire to undergo sex reassignment surgery is also complicated by economic barriers. A new gender identity remains out of reach.
Adopting a non-linear structure with flashbacks, Ganguly’s dignified, human treatment of the ‘kinnar’ community (also known as ‘hijra’, though that term is often now viewed as derogatory) amplifies a third gender history that stretches back thousands of years and is linked to both Hinduism and Islam. Nagarkirtan is a regional work, significant in mapping the complex struggles faced by transgender people and communities in India today while also connecting to Ganguly’s recurring interests in sexuality and gender across an eclectic body of work.
Director: Geethu Mohandas
Popular film genres often bring with them a sense of familiarity, but they also offer the opportunity to bend the rules. Moothon uses the conventional trappings of the gangster/crime genre but subverts traditional gender representations, framing the central protagonist Akbar (Nivin Pauly) as bisexual.
The queer romance is depicted by director Geethu Mohandas with a tenderness that makes it universal, focusing on the companionship that emerges between Akbar, a gangster, and Ameer (Roshan Mathew), a gay man who is deaf. Since the Indian gangster film is fixated on masculinity, the queering of the genre is a real break from the past. What makes this work altogether more unusual is the casting of Nivin Pauly, one of the major stars of south Indian cinema, in the main lead. It was significant both in helping Moothon to reach a wider audience and in disrupting the expectations regarding contemporary stardom.
‘Geeli Pucchi’ (2021)
Director: Neeraj Ghaywan
With his award-winning debut film Masaan (Crematorium, 2015), director Neeraj Ghaywan gave us one of the best contemporary deconstructions of the caste system. More recently, his section of the four-part anthology film Ajeeb Daastaans (Strange Stories), called ‘Geeli Pucchi’, argues that to understand sexuality you can’t overlook the issue of caste; the two are intertwined yet rarely ever represented on screen together.
The story finds Bharti (Konkona Sen Sharma), a Dalit worker, fall in love with Priya (Aditi Rao Hydari), a Brahmin data operator. However, it soon becomes apparent that Priya privileges her caste status over her queerness. Ghaywan’s film offers a stark commentary on the ways in which caste conditions the choices many people make, even if this means suppressing sexuality and love. A monolithic system of discrimination thereby remains intact.
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