A new subgenre has emerged in Hindi cinema: Queer romantic comedy. For now, it’s a trickle, with one or two films a year. It started with ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ (2019), followed by ‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan’ (2020), then last year’s ‘Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui’ (2021). The release of the ‘Badhai Do’ trailer, starring Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar, earlier this week confirms that a new genre is in town. And the success that some of those movies have had at the box office means they won’t be anymore.
We are far from ‘Fire’ (1996), which provoked violence and vandalism in different parts of India. Or low-budget independent projects like “Bomgay” (1996) – arguably India’s first queer film – or “My Brother Nikhil” (2005). Even more recent projects like “Margarita With A Straw” (2014) or “Aligarh” (2015) were made on shoestring budgets. Although both received critical acclaim, neither made a splash at the box office. “Aligarh” had prompted angry comments and a call for a ban from the city’s mayor and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Shakuntala Bharti. We are also far from homophobic representations in films like ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’ (2003) or ‘Dostana’ (2008).
Now, no one seems to be calling for bans or protests against queer rom-coms. This is, of course, because the Supreme Court of India in 2018 struck down the provisions of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalized consensual same-sex love. With legal sanction, prominent men and women in the motion picture industry who wouldn’t have touched gay characters with a barge pole are now happy to play them. And there is more money to make these films.
But not everyone is happy with how this subgenre is developing. write for Arre, Karthik Shankar describes “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga” as a missed opportunity: “its main protagonist is a cipher, who is defined by nothing but his repressed homosexuality. » Akshita Prasad, writing for Feminism in India, felt that ‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan’ was a step in the right direction but lacked nuance. The critics’ patience seems to be wearing thin as time goes by. “Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui” was called out for casting Vaani Kapoor, who had previously only played cis-het women, as a trans woman. Others have called his depiction transphobic or complacent. Even the trailer for “Badhai Do” was criticized for its portrayal of the lavender wedding.
What does this growing impatience with the subgenre of queer romantic comedies tell us? A real problem or the tyranny of cancel culture? Either way, critics don’t seem to engage with the films as genre-representing texts, and as a result, they don’t fully understand what purpose they serve as generic films. As film scholar Sean Crosson writes in his book Sports and cinema (2013), two main theoretical approaches to understanding gender emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. the second, inspired by the work of Louis Althusser, treats them as “ideological investments” by governments or industries to maintain hegemonic structures. These two approaches have become increasingly important in film studies since the 1980s.
Although I describe queer romantic comedies as a distinct emerging subgenre, I would like to clarify that they can be treated as a subgenre for both classic Bollywood romantic comedy and queer Hindi film. The queer romantic comedy tries to incorporate some elements of heterosexual romantic comedies such as ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ (1995) or ‘Kaho Na… Pyaar Hai’ (2000). Gazal Dhaliwal, the author of ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh’ said Midday that she wanted her film to be the “DDLJ” of the LGBT community.
This desire for a more normative romance, even in the fantasy world of a Bollywood masala film, has caused critics to describe them as “escapists”. Similar criticisms were leveled at the 2017 Oscar-nominated film “Call Me By Your Name” (2017). Adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, this is perhaps the kind of on-screen romance we’ve all been asking for for a long time: it’s a gorgeous depiction of an almost improbable summer love between two stunningly handsome men. . But, its detractors say it is not a “gay” film, apparently refusing to tackle gay identity.
“All utopias…are well-manicured lies”, wrote Ben Ratskoff in the Attorney. Ratskoff, perhaps rightly, finds call me by your name lacking the cultural and identity politics of homosexuality that is an integral part of the lives of so many people in our world, regardless of their sexual orientation or choice. Focusing on a scene in which Oliver almost eats – but ultimately doesn’t eat – a cum-filled peach that Elio has masturbated into, Ratskoff accuses the film of prudery: Power.”
call me by your name provides an escape – but, after all, isn’t that the point of all fantasy? A literal translation of utopia is “no land”; those who imagine one also know that it can never be. But is this reason enough to stifle the imagination? Or, for that matter, is it fair to criticize someone for imagining a more ideal situation than the one we live in? And, wouldn’t it be ideal if two people, regardless of gender or sexual desire, could pursue their love interests without falling prey to social and existential crises?
India may have decriminalized non-heteronormative love, but there is still virtually no social acceptance of it. In his 2018 book Global Gay, French researcher Frédéric Martel writes: “In India, as often in Asia, the issue is not only legal: an entire culture contributes to making homosexuality taboo. Societal values, the caste system, arranged marriages, the high likelihood of being disinherited for coming out, all work against gay liberation.
We still have a long way to go before these deeply ingrained social attitudes are reversed. For now, we only have these Bollywood fantasies. Will they be able to create a nascent gay culture in India? Only time will tell.
The writer’s novel Ritual was published in 2020. He teaches journalism at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat