LGBTQ representation in mainstream Indian media

By Amber Kaul

Although the Indian Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of decriminalizing homosexuality in 2018, LGBTQ+ topics remain controversial in Indian popular culture. Specifically, Bollywood has a long history of ridiculing LGBTQ characters, usually gay men or hijras. In recent years, however, the portrayal of LGBTQ relationships and issues has improved in Indian cinema. 

  1. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019): Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, directed by Shelly Dhar, stars Sonam Kapoor as Sweety Chaudhary, a Punjabi with a strictly conservative family, and Regina Cassandra as her girlfriend Kuhu. Although the main focus of the movie isn’t the couple itself, the movie touches on issues that the majority of Indian pop culture has failed to address. It brings up the criminal aspect of homosexuality in India, which weighed heavy given its real-life decriminalization just a few months prior to the film’s release. The movie also breaks several stereotypes about LGBTQ individuals, including many Indians’ perception that it is simply a “Western nuisance” or the widespread notion that it is “just a phase.” Perhaps the most striking aspect about this movie is the fact that it integrates LGBTQ with Bollywood – although Bollywood often is the epitome of heteronormativity, with its typical boy-chases-girl, boy-marries-girl script, this movie manages to combine traditional marriage scenes and dance numbers with a lesbian couple. In this way, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is able to warm up Indian audiences to the idea of two brown girls dating by portraying it in a manner in which they are familiar with. And although we shouldn’t have to package LGBTQ+ experiences in a comfortable, heteronormative box, this movie is a step in the right direction.
  2. Tamanna (1997): Tamanna, directed by Mahesh Bhatt, stars Paresh Rawal as Tikku, a hijra who raises a baby girl that he finds in a dumpster. Hijras neither identify as female nor male; they are instead recognized as a third gender by India and Bangladesh and are an important part of LGBTQ history in India and Hinduism. They played integral roles in the Kama Sutra (the Hindu manual on human sexuality), as well as in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. It wasn’t until the British invaded India that they faced persecution, both legal and cultural. When India gained its independence, the legal penalties were lifted, but the cultural taint still remained. Although historically Bollywood movies would only use hijras for comic relief, Tamanna represented a turning point in that a hijra was portrayed as their own individual, capable of raising a family and earning respect and forgiveness from others. Hijras are often overlooked as a significant part of ancient and contemporary India, and Tamanna assisted in spreading awareness about their existence. 
  3. Ladies and Gentlewomen (2017): Ladies and Gentlewomen, directed by Malini Jeevarathnam, is a Tamil documentary that not only explores the relationship between a married lesbian couple but also tells the stories of other queer women who have been ostracized, killed, and driven to suicide due to homophobia. In particular, it details how although LGBTQ+ is seen as an “urban” concept, rural areas in India are full of lesbian, bi, and pan people, contrary to popular belief.

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