When Mainstream Indian Films Celebrated Queerness

· Updated on August 8, 2019

Written by Anusha Narain

The landscape was monochromatic, heteronormative with nary a defiant image in sight. Then came along the decade of action movies, with a splattering of homoerotica, and colored the screen with a rainbow of possibilities.

The decade in question is the 1970s, a defining period in the history of Hindi cinema that saw the rise of buddy movies. Feature films from the 50s and the 60s explored the leading man’s relationships with women, but the 1970s gave him a chance to indulge in more varied forms of liaisons. The shift held magnificent implications for gays in India; the leading man became the one persona that legitimized homosexual urges of men through his own escapades. Let’s see how.

The highest-grossing movies of the 70s, such as Dostana, Yaarana, and Zanjeer, were from the buddy movie genre and illustrated the powers of male bonding.The films followed, more or less, the same narrative arc: An angry young man in a violent conflict with the powerful antagonists, he needs and finds a trusty friend to take on the bad guys. This friendship becomes the pivot of the protagonist’s experience, secondary only to their combined mission.Together the two solve mysteries, fight crime, and get passionate revenge.

These stories of retribution, afforded the hero little time for women. There is a token female lover, but her presence is perfunctory to the story, while the best friend is imperative to the narrative. The hero was always found to be looking for a way to get away from mushy displays of love. Back where he belonged, in a man’s world with that one special mate.Sex between the two men is never overtly mentioned but their special bond, verging on romantic love, is demonstrated through various song lyrics and gestures.

For example: In Silsila, a love story that spans across generations, the leading man grieves the death of his friend by breaking a TV set. The heroine tells him, “Now you will have to make do with me.”

In Zanjeer (Chains), the friend sings to the hero, “My friend is my better nature, he is my life.”In Qurbani (Sacrifice), the two friends dance and sing, “I will sacrifice my life and my heart for my friend.”

In the 70s blockbuster Sholay (Embers), a remake of The Magnificent Seven, the two men sing “even death can’t tear us apart.”Later in the movie, one of them takes a bullet to save the other.

A review of the 1973 film Namak Haram in the film magazine Filmfare, described it as having “A touch of Homo.” In a song from the movie, the hero films the friend with a camcorder while he sings adoringly, “If one parts with one’s friend, one suffers immeasurable heartache.”

The 60s love triangle movie Sangam finds the hero in a Hamlet-esque angst. The hero is apparently sadder over the loss of the friend than the lover. Leading one to believe, he held the friendship in higher regard than his love.

In Dostana(male friendship), they walk together into the sunset after competing for the same girl, swearing to always put their friendship before any female love interests. In Dosti, a story of two orphaned handicapped boys, they lean on each other to survive in a hostile world.

The leading ladies in these movies received very little screen time or lines. The marginalization of the heroine in the movies also pushed women away from the theatres. In previous decades, women came to watch the soft romantic comedies, but the action-packed revenge sagas of the 70s held little appeal for them. Moreover, because of overwhelming patriarchal attitudes, Indian movie theatres have always been, to a great extent, all-male domains; and now they became even more so.

So, now theatres turned into men-only territories. In the dark environs of the theatres, men watched men singing songs of everlasting friendships, proclaiming undying devotion for their comrades, enveloping each other in fond embraces. And in those intense moments, they felt emancipated from centuries of regressive attitudes and free to look at other men as lovers.

As R. Raj Rao aptly explains in his paper Memories Pierce the Heart, “Coming back to our audience within the context of the movies they are watching, their ‘‘deviant’’ behavior, even if some part of their mind is prompted to call it that, is sort of validated by the actions of the matinee idol. If Amitabh Bachchan can express undying love for other men on the screen, all in the name of yaari (friendship), why can’t they too indulge in a little mischief?”

Notably, these movies remained the highest grossers for many years to come. Moreover, a great number of movies, right until the late 80s, dabbled with the themes of male bonding because their predecessors achieved massive success at the box office.

They say a smart movie maker always gives the people what they want and is aware of the orientation and preferences of his audience. Could it be that movie makers were faintly aware of the orientation of a sizable majority of moviegoers and tried to legitimize homosexuality through hidden references?

So, chance passionate glances exchanged between friends and love ballads masquerading as songs of friendship were peppered into seemingly innocuous heteronormative movies all to prompt that gay audience member to indulge in some experimental love; and perhaps return for more action to the comfort and promise of the movie theatre? One will never know.

Queer readings aim at destabilizing the assumption that relations between the binaries of masculine and feminine genders are a constant and advocating fluidity of identities and sexuality. It’s refreshing to look at these classics through a queer lens. In any event, the 70s remain a golden period of Indian cinema, one that glorified the struggles of the proletariat and pure, unbridled male bonding.

Rao, R.R., 2000. Memories pierce the heart: homoeroticism, Bollywood-style.Journal of homosexuality,39(3-4), pp.299-306.

Gopinath, G., 2000. Queering Bollywood: Alternative sexualities in popular Indian cinema.Journal of Homosexuality,39(3-4), pp.283-297.

Kavi, A.R., 2000. The changing image of the hero in Hindi films.Journal of homosexuality,39(3-4), pp.307-312.

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