In Sudhir Mishra’s 2004 film Chameli, Chameli (Kareena Kapoor) tells Aman (Rahul Bose) that her friend Haseena, a trans woman, is in love with Raja, a young man. Seeing Aman a bit surprised, Chameli asks him if he feels there’s anything wrong with the two being in love. ‘No,’ he responds. Chameli then goes on to assert that it’s absolutely normal and says, “Jo bhi ho jaisa bhi ho, bas pyaar hona chahiye”. We still haven’t been able to process this simple straight dialogue that frees love from everything. Though we as a society have come a long way from our homophobic behaviour, the contribution of Hindi cinema has not been significant enough. This powerful tool of change remains underutilised and in fact misused when it comes to the LGBTQ representation.

A still from My Brother Nikhil, 2005

Presence of LGBTQ in Bollywood movies and the manner of their portrayal has always been a contentious issue among the folks and activists. Back in the 70s, 80s and the 90s when the majority of the commercial Hindi films revolved around machoism and clichéd love stories, introduction of the LGBTQ characters were for mere comic relief. The cross-dressing by male actors has also been an integral part of the Hindi cinema. From Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan to Aamir Khan, all susperstars have been indulged in ‘entertaining’ the homophobic masses at the expense of transpeople. The caricaturist treatment did more harm to the community.

Filmmaker Onir, who is openly gay, believes that the regional cinema is faring better when it comes to celluloid presentation of LGBTQ. 2019 Tamil film Super Deluxe starring Vijay Sethupathy, Ardhanaari, a 2012 Malayalam movie, and Santosh Sivan’s 2005 Tamil film Navarasa are some of the best examples.

A still from Malayalam movie Ardhanari, 2012

Well, it’s not that nothing good has been done in the Hindi cinema at all. Though miniscule, there have been films which seriously talked about the community. Let’s rewind! 1974 film Kunwara Baap starring late legendary actor Mehmood is credited for one of the real representations of eunuchs. Reportedly, 1975 film Rafoo Chakkar featuring Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh, is said to be the one of the first Bollywood movies with homosexuality reference. The 1975 movie portrayed Rajinder Nath as an admirer of Salma/Salim, played by Paintal. Mast Kalander, which released in 1981, can be said to have Bollywood’s ‘first’ out and out ‘gay’ character named Pinku. Mahesh Bhatt’s 1997 film Tamanna narrates story of a transgender Tikku (Paresh Rawal) who raises an abandoned girl child. It is also a sheer human portrayal of LGBTQ.

Official movie poster of Kunwara Baap, 1974

While the portrayal of the entire LGBTQ community is problematic, the presentation of trans characters has been confined to two categories — either villainous or cheaply humourous. TV shows like Comedy With Kapil Sharma and movies such as  ‘Kya Kool Hain Hum’, ‘Partner’, ‘Masti’, ‘Style’ elicit laughs by portraying them as sexual predators. Mahesh Bhatt’s 1991 film Sadak, Tanuja Chandra’s 1999 film Sangharsh, Mohit Suri’s 2011 movie Murder 2 and Vishawas Patil’s 2013 film Rajjo were among the movies with stereotypical anti-hero depiction of the trans characters. If something is continuously fed into the minds, it tends to be general perception. Instead of being empathetic and making efforts in normalising the conversation, all that Hindi cinema was doing was cashing in on a ‘hit box-office formula’.

At the same time, there is only a single Bollywood movie that celebrates bisexuality. Margarita With a Straw directed by Shonali Bose, who herself is a bisexual, is an honest representation. There have been other subtle presentations of bisexuals through Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das) in Deepa Mehta’s Fire and (Begum) Madhuri Dixit and (Muniya) Huma Qureshi in Dedh Ishqiya. 

A still from Margarita With a Straw, 2014

In the early and late 2000s, some ‘less-massy’ films like My Brother…Nikhil, I AM, Luck by Chance, The Pink Mirror and Aligarh made their ways into Bollywood. They talked about the community without going over-the-top. The transformation has been gradual but noticeable. Credit also goes to LGBTQ directors and writers like Sridhar Rangayan, Onir, Apoorva Asrani and Rituparno Ghosh who have made a point to talk about the cause. 

A still from Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, 2020

Some of the recent films to join the bandwagon are 2019 movie Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga by Shelly Chopra Dhar and Hitesh Kewalya’s 2020 film Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. While the former was a superficial narration of a lesbian couple, the latter openly talked about a gay couple with comic yet sensitive treatment. Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan had all the ingredients of a hit commercial movie and that’s the reason it witnessed overwhelming footfall in theatres.

Bollywood has a long way to go when it comes to giving the LGBTQ community an equal and honest treatment, leave alone casting trans artistes. Hindi movies can take cue from web series like Made in Heaven and Ajeeb Daastaans, where characters take us along with them on their respective journey. We establish a connection with them and that’s what a visual presentation is meant to be.

A still from Netflix show Made in Heaven

Disclaimer : The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.