Box office is why Karan Johar cannot afford to make an honest, powerful LGBT film

Films centred around lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders are rare in Bollywood. Sensitive, low budget films are not deemed entertaining enough. Those made for cheap laughs are superficial

Box office is why Karan Johar cannot afford to make an honest, powerful LGBT film

Monojit Lahiri

It was the gifted Bollywood character actor Divya Dutt’s recent comments about her same-sex love in Sheer Quorma (with the feisty Swara Bhaskar as her partner) that triggered this piece and got me wondering: Why this unspoken taboo about this genre?

Is it about our mental conditioning relating to man-woman relationship? Is it about not wanting to hear, see, read or know about anything relating to liaisons outside/beyond traditional, conventional, moral strait-jacket handed down to us, across generations by societal and family commandments and instantly labelling anything that challenges this template as filthy, weird or unnatural?

Is it about the way Bollywood trivialises this issue in cheap and sensationalistic fashion to generate laughter from a dumbed-down audience base? Or is it about the age-old stigma – which despite de-criminalisation laws - that still remains strong as ever at a subliminal level in the so-called, civilised, refined and liberated circles, totally unaccepted in letter and spirit?

“This no-no for this genre speaks more about us as a critical mass than the films. After all, we are what we consume and celebrate. We have Rohit Shetty’s homophobic model and Madhur Bhandarkar showing this lot in a poor light and we are cool with it,” says LGBT spokesperson Harish Iyer.

Others point to a Dostana, Bol Bachchan and Student of the Year where deliberate measures have been factored in to make this frat the butt of dumb jokes with innuendoes galore. Yet another lot suggest that it has to do totally with the entertainment factor that is missing. Most of the more serious types gracing this genre – Fire, Aligarh, Margarita with a Straw, My Brother Nikhil were not really in the entertainment zone.

While they enjoyed modest eye-balls, they didn’t – in intent or content – bogie with the howling mobs’ idea of mass entertainment: Big glam, sexy stars, hi-decibel drama, romance, song, dance, music, exotic locales nor did they offer absorbing story-telling of the Article 15, Badhai Ho, Raazi, Andhadhun, Mulk, Badla, Lukka Chupi, Manmarzian kind.

Actually, three things are responsible for this sorry state of affairs. The first is us, our mindset. Iyer nails it when he says ‘we are what we consume’. As a people – despite our posturing – we remain hugely conservative and it’s going to take decades before the LGBT template is acceptable as a separate but legitimate stream. Hence, except a tiny minority, to the mass audience, this group (as a frat or a movie theme) is bad news.

Secondly, Bollywood – as a solid influencer – has only worsened the scene by mostly trivialising and caricaturing it for laughs. The effeminate chhakka remains a sure-fire hit for mass audiences looking for cheap laughs. Interestingly, Karan Johar – who produced Kal Ho Na Ho and Student of the Year – is himself a self-confessed gay, but sadly hasn’t had the guts to offer a powerfully honest film embracing this genre. He has the resource and the brains to do so but... which brings us to the last point: Box Office.

Bollywood – as critic Saibal Chatterjee once famously pointed out – is less about excellence, honest and powerful portrayals and more about ROI, business and Rs 200 crore benchmarks. The LGBT films can never hope to enjoy the mass appeal of a Houseful 4, Kabir or War and since that seems to be the ultimate aim of the Biggies, this brand of film will always remain as a small, parallel initiative, viewed more as an NGO kind of social reformist thrust than mainstream entertainment.

Pity, because in the West, we’ve had tons of films that have won both critical and popular acclaim. Be it Brokeback Mountain, Princess Cyd, Women who kill, Strong Island, Battle of the Sexes, Catfight...We are always looking west for inspiration. Can’t we, like them, take a quantum leap, open our minds and embrace this genre with passion?

It’s clearly a tough call...and the loss is totally ours because we are closing our eyes to a fragmented landscape that needs co-option along with all the understanding and compassion on earth. Until the day this happens, this tragic us and them will continue...and the loss is ours.

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