Queering Hindi Cinema: A Commentary on Gay (Mis)Representation in Hindi Cinema

Hindi Cinema is widely acknowledged as one of the most popular and influential medium of entertainment in India. It is most probably one of the few sources of entertainment, other than cricket, which not only geographically but also culturally binds and brings the country together as a whole. Though in certain regions like in South India, local films may be more popular than Hindi films, however, even there Hindi film’s influence over popular culture and especially on the youth is very crucial to understand current trends, behaviour, fashion and lifestyle. Yet within this modern-consumerist-universal Indian identity that seems to emerge from contemporary Hindi films, there are also markers and upholders of the traditional-conservative Indian family.

The 1990s was a phenomenal period for the Hindi film industry as it began its metamorphosis into a modern world class industry as it upgraded its technology and began to make contemporary, edgy and darker films instead of the timeless and repetitive themed soppy stories on love, honour, friendship, where there was a clear distinction between good and evil, between black and white. This influenced transformation in the notions of the masses and specially influenced the ‘newly’ emerged, the mobile and consumerist, urban middle-class Indians. Shohini Ghosh comments that the nature of contemporary spectatorship changed because of the multiplicity of images that were made available (Ghosh 212). The anxieties created were expressed in debates about the media and certain kinds of images were censured for corroding Indian culture and tradition. These images were accused of being provocative and vulgar. Shohini Ghosh explains that the debate on censorship is about sex and sexuality, as explicit sexual representation in the form of imagery or speech had been very limited and were stray incidents before the 1990s (Ghosh 214).

Despite public and Hindu right wing anxieties, representations on/of sex and sexuality continued to find space in different forms of media, which went against conventional family values and at times hetero-normativity. Queer1 images/ portrayals rarely found prominent space in commercial ventures, though, whenever they did, it was in the form of humour which could be found in umpteen number of Hindi films.

Gay representations in Hindi cinema are seen and received in various ways and it is visible in different ways in a narrative of a film. Broadly, it can be read that there are four ways in which Hindi films have incorporated gay (queer) characters and narratives in the plot of the film. The first is in the form of the hijra, the second is in the form of humour, the third is in the form of mental sickness, and lastly, which is the rarest, is in the way in which it shows the complexities of the lives gay people lead. However, at times the distinction between the categories overlap and are blurred.

Being ‘Hijra’ is being ‘Gay’

The first category as mentioned earlier is the portrayal of the hijra. The 1991 film Sadak (directed by Mahesh Bhatt) shows a hijra keeping the naive heroine (Pooja Bhatt) in his/ her custody in capacity as the main villain of the film. This movie was a commercial success. Another very recent movie, Murder 2 (2011), shows the villain as a homicidal murderer who is a married straight-man, who castrates himself with the help of a hijra because he hates women and is shown to be a devil-worshipper. Not only does the hijra identity gets attached with such a character but such representation misleads the public about a community which is forced to live at the margins of society and portrays them in a negative light while ignoring the low status that they have and the hardships that they face with no job opportunities and no recognition by society and the State. This movie made was made on a budget of Rs. 14 crores and it made about Rs. 66 crores.

The 1997 film Tamanna (Wish) is based on the real life story of a hijra, Tikkoo, who worked in the Hindi film industry. It is based around his/ her long time companion, Salim, and their adopted daughter, Tammana. In the movie, Tikkoo attempts to behave and dress like a ‘man’ but because of Tikkoo’s campy mannerisms, she/ he is never accepted as a ‘real man’. It is interesting to note that in real life, Tikkoo did not attempt to be a ‘real man’. The revelation of Tikkoo’s hijra identity to his/ her daughter is the emotional highpoint of the movie and the drama that follows. According to Ruth Vanita, “the film uses the trope of closeting and outing, which are relevant to homosexual people in India today who often lead double lives, but not as much to hijras who usually publicly display their difference” (Vanita 184). She says this because the revelation of Tikkoo’s being as a hijra to Tamanna is like an act of ‘coming out of the closet’. Here the onscreen representation simultaneously imbues the characteristics of both of a hijra and a gay man or a lesbian woman. The movie focuses on the relationship of Tammana and Tikkoo while Tikkoo’s relationship with his/ her long time partner, Salim, is in the backdrop and is given the position of two heterosexual lovers. Vanita writes that the masculine-feminine coding is clear as Salim plays the strong and silent man while Tikkoo is often dramatic, sensitive, hysterical and emotional. The actor who portrayed Tikkoo is a well-known actor, Paresh Rawal, and he was praised for his performance.

There are also other hijra portrayals in films like Bombay (1995), Darmiyaan (In-Between, 1997), and another reality inspired film, Shabnam Mausi (Aunt Shabnam, 2005), which is about a hijra who gets elected as a member of the legislative assembly in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

The trope of using the identity of a hijra has further strengthened stereotypes of hijras being abnormal, mystical and ‘something’ that one should be scared of. Even the movie, Tammana, which attempts to portray a hijra identity somehat sensitively ends up misrepresenting the community and confusing the audience. Gayatri Gopinath has pointed out that one of the ways in which non-heteronormative characters were portrayed was in the form of hijras. According to her, the portrayal of a hijra character was the generalised category of portraying all forms of gender and sexual deviancy. At times, the hijra community has used this fear to extort money from passengers in trains and on traffic red-lights, which can be commonly seen in some of the bigger cities of India. Their social status and poor job opportunities have put them in a situation where they have to resort to begging and prostitution.

Being ‘Comic’ is being ‘Gay’

One of the first characters to indicate a gay identity was Pinkoo from the 1991 film Mast Kalandar (Happy Go Lucky). Pinkoo in this film is the main villain’s spoilt son and, by this relation, is shown as one of the bad guys who is, yet, comic at the same time. He is shown to be flirting with men and trying to get their attention by trying to touch them and by his gestures. In one of the scenes, he is shown to be running his hand over his father and asking “Daddy humara body aapke jaisa strong aur muscular kyun nahi hai?” (“Daddy, why is my body not as strong and muscular as yours?”), after which his father catches hold of his hand and puts it away. Immediately, Pinkoo targets his father’s friend who enters the scene, and who then clearly rejects Pinkoo’s advances. This kind of portrayal signifies that such characters do not have any inhibitions of flirting and trying to seduce any men that they can get. Viewers can read that such characters are debauched and have no morals.

Pinkoo’s character is also used to critique and parody gender roles as in the instance where he rebukes two women laughingly by saying “Aap logo ko ek akele ladke ko raat mein iss tarah chedte hue sharm nahi aati hai kya? Aap logo ke ghar mein baap-bhai nahi hai kya?” (“Aren’t you people ashamed of teasing a boy alone at night? Don’t you people have fathers and brothers at home?”) or when he does a cabaret number, Ek, Do, Teen (One, Two Three), which is a very famous song from an earlier movie, Tezaab (Acid, 1988), enacted by a famous heroine, Madhuri Dixit.

It took Kal ho Na Ho (Tomorrow May or May Not Be, 2003), with a funny gay sub-plot between the two lead heroes that created queer debates once again in the media. The movie has a comic sub-plot of mistaken identities and the story takes place in New York, USA. This is a triangular love story of three friends, Naina, Aman and Rohit. Both Aman and Rohit like Naina; however, the interaction between Rohit and Aman, who are both heterosexual, as seen by Rohit’s housekeeper, Kanta-ben, is mistaken for a gay relationship which shocks and disgusts her. Her reaction to their alleged relationship and Aman’s mock insistence that they are in a relationship are some of the humorous parts of the movie. The reaction of Kanta-ben and the interrogation of Rohit by his father at none other than a strip club shows family’s and society’s paranoia over homosexuality. In this sense, Kanta-ben being the object of comic-relief at some level is a critique of society’s paranoia. In another scene, after Rohit and Naina have agreed to marry each other, the wedding planner/designer is an effeminate white man who is shown to be cheering when Rohit and Aman accidentally come in close proximity to each other while dancing, and at his reaction, Kanta-ben pushes the designer away in anger/irritation and he holds on to Rohit’s father out of shock/fright, and Rohit’s father reacts by pushing him away violently. It almost seems as if that homosexuality spreads by being touched by a gay man.2

It is interesting to note that such behaviour is considered to be foreign and un-Indian. For example, in the British film, Bend it Like Beckham (2002), based around a teenage girl, Jesse, who is British by birth and Indian by ancestry, is questioned about her sexuality and close-ness with her female best friend, Jules, because both of them like to play football. In one scene, Jules’ mother accuses of being a hypocrite and a lesbian to which someone exclaims “But she is Indian!”. This scene quite accurately captures the perception that homosexuality does not exist in India or among Indians who do not live in India. It is commonly considered that homosexuality is a foreign import or western phenomena.

Being ‘Abnormal’ is being ‘Gay’

The film Girlfriend (2004), by Karan Razdan, is based around the two girls, Tanya and Sapna, and their close friendship, which at some point becomes sexual because of and after a night where they both get drunk together. When Sapna gets into a relationship with a guy named Rahul, Tanya becomes overtly jealous and schemes to break them up. It was shown that Tanya as a child was sexually abused and it indirectly pointed towards the reason for her lesbian sexuality. This movie pathologises the so called sexual deviancy of its character Tanya and queer sexualities is conceptualised as essentially being ‘abnormal’ and mentally unstable. There is one particular scene where it shows that Tanya is not only abnormal but aggressive and masculine as well when she is involved in a ring-fight at a shipping yard where people have bets on who will win. The scene opens with Tanya riding a motorbike at a break-neck speed after meeting Rahul and quickly shifts to a fight sequence where Tanya defeats her opponent, who looks like a WWE wrestler, without much difficulty and collects only ten thousand rupees from the girl who was collecting the money from the audience; further, as she leaves, Tanya suggestively touches her cheek with the bundle of money.

There were a few stray movies in the 1980s which had queer characters, like the films Holi (Holi, 1983) and Subah (Morning, 1983). In the film, Holi, which is set in a boys hostel, one of the boys is shown to be effeminate and accused of sexual relations with other boys in the dorm. He is bullied and harassed because, firstly, he is not masculine and, secondly, it is implied that he is the one who is passive and most probably penetrated; while the boys who have had some kind of sexual relation with him or who have penetrated him neither are harassed or bullied. Subah, which is set in a women’s rehabilitation centre, shows two women inmates in a relationship being singled out for punishment; when the protagonist of the film, who is a warden, speaks up for them, everyone is shocked by their relationship. Thus, such characters are shown to be harassed, to be bullied and are pathologised or punished, and rarely the violence against such characters are shown.

Being ‘Gay’ is being ‘Queer’

A breakthrough movie was My Brother Nikhil (2005), directed by Onir. This movie is about the marginalisation of state swimming champion Nikhil Kapoor (Sanjay Suri) once he tests positive for HIV. His marginalisation happens at two levels, the public and the private. For example, when Nikhil enters the swimming pool, all others in the pool leave, and also, when he is arrested by the police and put into a rat infested sanatorium. On the private, when he is physically thrown out by his parents from their house and has to move in with his boyfriend Nigel (Purab Kohli).

In My Brother Nikhil, other than gay representation, the notions of masculinity and social normativity, amongsgt others, are challenged through its text. Shohini Ghosh points out, firstly, that Nikhil Kapoor is an athlete whose masculinity ‘passes’ as heterosexual and this challenges the categories by which gay men are sorted into. Secondly, women’s attraction towards Nikhil and his sexual orientation would compel the spectator to revise their idea about gay and straight masculinities. Finally, through Nigel and Nikhil’s relationship, this movie provides a space where it can be seen that homosexual relations are more than just the desire for sex.

The director of My Brother Nikhil (2005), Onirban, feels that Hindi Cinema has hardly ever done justice to homosexuality or the gay characters in their films. There have been very few films that have focused on the lives of queer people without being stereotypical like Fire (1998), My Brother Nikhil (2005), I am… (2010), Turning 30 (2011), and some of them have tried to show queer people in an unbiased way but end up indirectly reinforcing stereotypes like Page 3 (2003), Fashion (2008), Pankh (Wings, 2010) Dunno Y… Na Jaane Kyun (Dunno Y – Wonder Why, 2010) to name a few. Most of these films are targeted at a niche audience who live in cosmopolitan cities, belong to middle and upper classes, have been educated in English schools (there is a lot of English usage in these films) and they are shown at a fewer cinemas, usually the multiplexes. This gives the impression that gay issues and lives are an urban and cosmopolitan phenomena and that they can be recognised and received only within this area.


Through the methodology of this piece, representation of queer (gay) characters and images has been grouped which highlight an evolutionary pattern. The initial phases of representation were primarily indirect and operating within the ambiguous categories of friendship as well through stereotypes such as that of the hijra as being representative of all sexual deviancy. The move to more direct forms of interrogation emerged later in tandem with economic, social and political changes.

The role of the audience has also emerged as a significant aspect of understanding the impact of Hindi films. At the most fundamental level, this is informed by the commercial nature of the film industry which is driven by market demands and must, therefore, take the audiences’ opinions and beliefs seriously. However, the Hindi film industry still remains an industry that largely operates through the use of stock characters articulating stereotypical notions, which may further reinforce those stereotypes and may perpetuate negative notions and attitudes towards non-heteronormative sexualities and individuals. Thus, we may observe that a complex interplay of forces shape the internal dynamics and politics of representations and, hence, the question of homosexual discourses must be viewed as being embedded in these political, social, economic and cultural processes.


Notes –

1 Please note that the terms ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ have been interchangeably used throughout this article. The term queer is an umbrella term which is convenient and often used to describe the various sexual ‘minorities’ like Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, etc.
2 The success of Kal ho Na Ho led to the more recent Hindi film Dostana (Saga of Friendship, 2008), by the same film-production company, which had a very similar light hearted take on gay people, to the extent that it parodies such behaviour and people.

Bibliography –

Ghosh, Shohini. Queering India: same-sex love and eroticism in Indian culture and society. Ed. Ruth Vanita. Routledge, 2002. Print.
—. The phobic and the erotic: the politics of sexualities in contemporary India. Ed. Brinda Bose and S. Bhattacharya. Seagull, 2007. Print.
Gopinath, G. Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the shade. Ed. A. Grossman. Harrington Park Press, 2000. Print.
—. Impossible desires: Queer diasporas and South Asian public culture. Duke University Press, 2005. Print.
Kavi, A. R. Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the shade. Ed. A. Grossman. Harrington Park Press, 2000. Print.
Pandey, V. N. Sexual Sites, Seminal Attitudes: sexualities, Masculinities and culture in South Asia. Ed. S. Srivastava. Sage Publishers, 2004. Print.
Rajan, G. (2006). “Constructing-contesting masculinities: Trends in South Asian cinema.” Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 31.4 (2006): 1009-1124. Print.
Rao, R. R. Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the shade. Ed. A. Grossman. Harrington Park Press, 2000. Print.
Shahani, P. Gay Bombay: Globalisation, love and (Be)longing in contemporary India. Sage Publishers, 2008. Print.
Shahani, P. Global Bollywood. Ed. A. P. Kavoori, A. Punathambekar. New York University Press, 2008. Print.
Vanita, Ruth. Lover’s rite: Same-sex marriage in India and the West. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.
—. Gandhi’s tiger and Sita’s smile: Essays on gender, sexuality and culture. Yoda Press, 2005. Print.


Ankush Bhuyãn is an independent researcher, and freelance writer and editor. He has worked with various publishing houses and holds a Masters degree from the University of Delhi. He has presented student research papers at various national and international conferences. His interests vary from travel and wildlife to films to sexuality among many other things.He may be contacted at bhuyan.ankush@gmail.com.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>