Claiming Hindi Cinema: A Queer Reading

There has been a growing body of work which looks at viewing Hindi (Bombay) films from a queer1 perspective. The reason for that is, as Ruth Vanita writes, “Bombay cinema, although in Hindi, represents perhaps the closest thing to an all-India cultural language that exists today” (Vanita, in Lover’s rite, 209). She states that the languages used in its narratives range from Urdu, Hindi and English to, in many cases, other Indian languages like Punjabi, and that it often uses dialects that are commonly used in urban spaces. The popularity of Hindi films is not restricted to native Indian audiences, as they are popular amongst the Indian diaspora, in countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Fiji, Dubai, and Singapore.

Thus there is an immense fascination for films, especially Hindi films, among millions of people for their entertainment and glamour – offering people a two-three hour escape into a diverse array of situations and locations. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to examine the reason for Hindi Cinema’s popularity, but the way Hindi films reflect on people’s lives must nonetheless be critically examined. It is important to understand the relationship between representation and reality, wherein more than one reading of popular cultural texts (films in this case) may exist.

Reading Films as Cultural Texts, and Spectatorship

The interpretive mechanisms that have been used for certain Hindi films by scholars like Gayatri Gopinath, Ruth Vanita, Shohini Ghosh and others indicate that there is always scope for newer cultural reinterpretation of films that highlight the presence of a multiplicity of images in a single cultural text/film and point towards the fact that processes of interpretation are dependent on the location and expectations of the audiences. Anthropological research may indicate that studying culture is more of an observational activity rather than an interpretive one. However, according to Clifford Geertz, culture is something that is continually re-interpreted because it is essentially semiotic. The cultural meaning that is embedded within one culture may be incomprehensible to another one because of the inaccessibility of meanings from that particular culture or the lack of knowledge, and it may end up giving things an entirely new or different meaning. In a similar way, when films are viewed, and because of the visual codex, there is a possibility of generation of multiple meanings, as an individual spectator may interpret films from his or her own cultural setting.

Spectators, while viewing a film, may have at points an ‘analogical identification’ with a film. This analogical identification or a sense of empathy by spectators, while viewing a film, may be over socially proscribed or transgressive love which could be over class, caste or other identities and this may arise out of numerous factors. For example, the portrayal of a romance between the lead hero and heroine may not be acceptable to the family and/or society on religious grounds and in this case, queer spectators would be aware of such a couple’s location as an ‘outsider’, which they would be able to identify because of the transgressive element of the narrative. The interpretive mechanisms that an audience uses depend on the audience’s practises, knowledge and expectations which intersect with the film. The impact of such a narrative may depend on the context in which a film is viewed and subsequently, the spectator may construct an imaginary self while viewing or after viewing the film and therein lies the possibility of the generation of new meanings and modes of conduct.

A Queer Interpretive Reading of Hindi Films

Gayatri Gopinath highlights how the film Fire allowed for a new interpretive strategy to read between homosociality and homoeroticism: for example, when Sita (Nandita Das) massages Radha’s (Shabana Azmi) feet at a family picnic or when Sita oils Radha’s hair where these activities become erotically charged because of their sexual involvement (Gopinath 286). It can be said that Fire opened up a new way of reading films using an interpretive strategy. A queer reading looks at the narrative of a film which may have homosocial elements which could be interpreted and read as homoerotic. The concept of homosociality and homoeroticism was then applied to dosti, yaari or male bonding which was re-looked through a queer perspective and a new homoerotic angle emerged to study some movies. R Raj Rao, Gayatri Gopinath, Shohini Ghosh, Ruth Vanita, Hoshang Merchant, Ashok Row Kavi, etc. have tried to interpret certain film narratives to understand the influence of Hindi cinema on film goers, irrespective of their sexuality. Thus, films like Sholay (1975), Namak Haram (1973) and Anand (1970) may be read as homoerotic texts.

The movie Dosti (1964) by Satyen Bose is about two orphaned boys, Ramu and Mohan. The focus of the movies is their friendship/ relationship. Vanita points out that their relationship fulfils all necessary criteria of true love/friendship. The intensity between Ramu and Mohan’s equation is portrayed through the medium of poetic speech, song, and narrative. The relationship develops in the context of shared ordeals, a chosen family and break-up, and ends on a happy note with the public acknowledgment of their union. The final scene in the movie shows an old lady blessing them by saying “bhagvan karey tumhari jodi isi tarah bani rahey” (“May God keep the pair of you united thus forever”) (Vanita, in Gandhi’s tiger, 183). Vanita points out that the word “jodi” is popularly used for a married couple and this blessing is usually provided by elders to couples. Thus the movie represent the pair to share, somewhat, the same space that a heterosexual couple does except here the couple is a male pair.

Dosti has been seen as one of the oldest movies to have queer connotations. However, from the early 1970s, homoeroticism has been specially associated with Amitabh Bachchan’s onscreen characters. The audience for an Amitabh movie was predominantly young men in their twenties and thirties. His films were ‘action films’ and did not primarily cater to women. According to R. R. Rao, the bond that Amitabh Bachchan’s character would form with his other male co-actors onscreen complemented the presence of an all-male audience that had gathered to watch him and a sort of homoerotic interaction (like holding hands, putting arms around shoulders and waists, etc.) would take place in the darkness of the hall. Amitabh Bachchan expresses undying love for other men onscreen, all in the name of yaari, and this may have inspired homoerotic interaction among male film-goers. Raj Ayyar explains yaar as “an individual with whom one feels a deep almost intangible connection. Definitions of this term have varied through time, sometimes denoting a lover, at other times a friend…a yaar embodies elements of both a friend and a lover…” (in Rao 304). Amitabh Bachchan and his co-stars reinforced the idea of yaari in their films and if their involvement was sexual, it is up to interpretation.

In both Namak Haram and Anand, Rajesh Khanna plays the role of the hyper-emotional, ‘feminised’ man while Amitabh Bachchan plays the intense brooding lover who is consumed by the rage of losing his beloved friend in his arms. In Zanjeer (1973), Amitabh and Pran’s friendship is similarly located in the heterosexual arrangement. Another example of homoeroticism in Amitabh Bachchan and his co-actor’s character is Sholay (1975). The two protagonists, Jai (Amitabh Bachachan) and his male friend Veeru (Dharmendra), are shown to have a very special equation. In a sequence of the movie, Vanita points out that the villain calls the love between Veeru and Basanti (Hema Malini) as “yaarana,”, which is another construction of the word ‘yaar’ that has been applied to the male-male bond . Lastly, as Jai dies in Veeru’s arms, Jai tells Veeru to never forget their friendship and that Veeru will pass this story on to his children, and before he breathes his last, he says he does not regret dying because he spent his life with his friend and he is dying in his arms. In most Hindi movies, when the heroes share such an equation, one of them is either killed or they find themselves getting married to a woman; very few films have shown the men to be together at the end.

Again using the example of the movie Dostana (1980), Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha compete for the attention of Zeenat Aman and in this competition Zeenat Aman gets merely passed on from one to the other. There is a song sequence where Amitabh sings about his grief of losing their friendship. Amitabh Bachchan sings to Shatrughan Sinha in a tear-filled voice about his bewaffai (unfaithfulness), which is usually associated with an unfaithful lover. Words such as yaar and bewaffai can be applied to both a friend and a lover, and there is a scope that the social taboo provides enough space for friendship between people of the same-sex, which may have sexual undertones. Of course, at the end Zeenat goes away and the movie closes with both the friends holding hands and walking into the sunset.

The heterosexual love interests in some of these films seem to be secondary. Ghosh points out that Hindi cinema hardly ever uses sexually explicit scenes to convey love, and to depict friendship, it uses similar devices as it uses for love. They have used the plot of friendship, love and sacrifice in numerous ways. In some of these male bonding movies, one male protagonist would give up his beloved to his friend, thereby establishing love between friends as superior to love between lovers.

Homoeroticism in Hindi film song-and-dance

Another example of homoeroticism in Bollywood songs is the characters enacted by Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra in Sholay (1975). The song “Yeh Dosti” from Sholay has been used in many Gay Pride Parades in New York and San Francisco, which has Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra singing a duet of undying loyalty and love. This can be viewed as an instance of diasporic interpretation where that which may be acceptable in a certain culture may be found queer in another2. Waugh also notes the physicality present in the narrative of this song, highlighting how the two friends, “clutch and caress each others hands, shoulders and head and thighs more consistently than the handlebars (of their motorbike)” (Waugh 291). Even the lyrics of the song, like “Though two in body/ We’re one in soul- /never shall we be separated”, play on the notion of friendship and love and the importance of male friendship over all else. The song echoes themes and motifs usually employed for romantic songs in heterosexual contexts, such as the notion of two bodies- one soul.

Ruth Vanita observes that Hindi songs enjoy immense popularity among the gay subcultures because of their ungendered character and the relative autonomy of songs from the main narrative of the films. The narrative of most Hindi film songs is romantic in context and its articulation emphasises the objective category of love rather than focus on the gender of the characters of the movie. Thus, by lyrically rendering a generalised paean, they make themselves accessible to reinterpretation and to being appropriated to express love in a non-heterosexual context.

Songs also serve as interludes to the main narrative of the film. They often articulate such non-temporal events such as dreams hallucinations, fantasies, etc. The lyrical and visual narrative of a song usually relies on elaborate dance sequences in exotic locations. Thus, we may conclude that songs provide an alternative space within the narrative of a film and in this space things which otherwise cannot be accommodated in the main narrative of the plot are accommodated. This, Ghosh observes, may be understood with Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque. It is used to express people’s desire to transport themselves into a space which might be exaggerated and surreal, but which nonetheless provides them the opportunity to break free from oppressive hierarchies to utopian freedom.

Another characteristic of Hindi film songs is that the songs often serve to resolve erotic tension in the narrative. In the pre-1990s era, this may be seen in the fact that the lead pair burst into song and dance at the moment where their expression of love threatens to become unacceptably erotic. Songs, therefore, replace onscreen sex and sensuality and the present day avatar can be seen in the popular Hindi film ‘item number’. Thus, sexual undertones form an integral part of the lyrical and visual imagery of songs and this may be seen as a reason for their popularity and interpretive feasibility for articulating non-heterosexual love and sexual desire.

The songs of some films stand out in the context of interpretive significance. A song in the film Dosti sung by one of the protagonists presents the relationship between the two male friends as a consolation for his sorrows of being physically challenged. Here the relationship between the two is articulated as chahna or ‘love’. Further on, he puts his arm around his weeping ‘friend’ and continues: “At least your companion on the journey (humrah) is someone of your own” (Vanita in Gandhi’s tiger 189). Vanita says that this song, with its ambiguity and overlap of the categories of friendship and love serves as a good example of how the un-gendered love song functions out of context.

Continuing this theme of male-bonding songs in the 1990s, the title track of the film Main Khiladi Tu Anadi (1994) also expresses male-friendship in lofty and exaggerated sense. However, as Waugh notes, the genre of male-bonding songs has also undergone a change in the interval, and the latter song exhibits both parody of the genre as well as greater suggestiveness through bolder physical gestures and dance sequences, and the semiotic play of winking. The synchronised pelvic thrusts of the heroes may be homoerotically interpreted. Moreover, the prelude to this song in the film is a spat between the two friends after which they tearfully make-up and this making-up provides the context for this song.

The re-appropriation of Hindi film songs for different contexts also occurs in movies themselves through the device of parody. An example of such a parody in the homosexual context is the cabaret number in the movie Mast Kalandar where the ‘presumably’ gay/ non-heteronormative character of Pinkoo parodies famous songs like Madhuri Dixit’s hit number “Ek, Do, Teen”, and uses songs and their meaning to serve his own interest, which is to flirt with men at the bar. Before the beginning of the song, Pinkoo sings the lines “aadmi hoon aadmi se pyaar karta hoon” from the film Pehchan (1970), which here is taken out of context and becomes an articulation of Pinkoo’s ‘ambiguous’ sexuality.

A contemporary song that has gained immense popularity is the song “Ma da ladla Bigar Gaya” from the film Dostana (2008). This song not only comically expresses the plight of a conservative mother who learns about her son’s deviant sexuality, but its lyrics also playfully re-appropriate romantic legends such as that of Heer-Ranjha. Here the folktale is inverted, and Ranjha meets Ranjha. The implications of such a comparison are potentially many, not the least because the tragic nature of the original Heer-Ranjha legend itself. However this song can be read as an attempt to understand sexuality through the inversion of old traditions and legends and their expropriation, thus highlighting another case of re-interpretation.

Conclusion

The politics behind queer readings of film narratives allows for mainstream discourses and gender ideologies to accommodate gay identities. Not only that, multiple readings are like incisions through which aspirations and desires of peoples who have been invisibilised by hegemonic forces emerge. Hence, such readings and interpretations by audiences and scholars allows for queer identities to find and claim a history that has always been there, as well as to make newer places in popular culture.

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Notes –

1 The word ‘queer’ has been used to identify the various ‘sexual minorities’ that exist. Identities like gay, lesbian, transgender, etc. has been interchangeably used with the word queer. It becomes a convenient way to bring all such minorities under one umbrella term.
2 Gopinath (2005) has used a framework of queer South Asian diaspora or a ‘queer diasporic viewing practice’ which attempts to look at various same-sex desires in popular Indian cinema, from multiple sites and the contradictory meanings that emerge from these locations.

Bibliography –

Geertz, Clifford. The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books, 1973. Print.
Ghosh, Shohini. The phobic and the erotic: the politics of sexualities in contemporary India. Ed. Brinda Bose and S.Bhattacharya. Seagull, 2007. Print.
Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible desires: Queer diasporas and South Asian public culture. Duke University Press, 2005. Print.
Ramasubramanian, Srividya., and Mary B. Oliver. “Portrayals of sexual violence in popular Hindi films, 1997-99.” Sex Roles. 48.7/8 (2003): 327-336. Print.
Rao, R. R. Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the shade. Ed. A. Grossman. Harrington
Park Press, 2000. 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.
Waugh, T. Keyframes: Popular cinema and cultural studies. Ed. M. Tinkcom and A. Villarejo. Routledge, 2001. Print.

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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.

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