The evolution of gay characters in Karan Johar films: Slow & steady but hurry up already!

While gay characters in Bollywood have been represented in the most cringe inducing ways, there is a glimmer of hope.

ByVikram Johri
The evolution of gay characters in Karan Johar films: Slow & steady but hurry up already!
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When the trailer for Kapoor & Sons released last Wednesday, I was reminded of a piece I wrote last year for DailyO when speculation around the film revealed that Fawad Khan, one of the two brothers of the third generation in the film, plays gay. (The film tackles three generations of a family, with Rishi Kapoor playing the patriarch, Rajat Kapoor his son, and Fawad and Siddharth Malhotra playing Rajat’s sons.)

I reposted the link on my Twitter timeline to coincide with the trailer’s release. It’s a strongly worded piece, if I may say so myself, and rips apart representations of gay characters in Karan Johar’s films. One of the issues I take with casting Fawad Khan as a gay character is my fear that while he will be given sufficient screen time to be dreamy, his story will perhaps not end happily.

The trailer seems to confirm this suspicion. It indicates a common love interest that both brothers share in Alia Bhatt, even if the reciprocity of that affection on the brothers’ part is not made explicit in order, I suppose, for Fawad’s gay track to work. Even though both Siddharth and Fawad may have equal screen time, it is legible to assume that Siddharth will get the girl in the end.

On reading my DailyO piece, a friend took offence, and said: “I think that’s a bit overly pessimistic- and in some ways myopic- view. Let’s wait and watch. This could be huge.” What he was saying was that simply to have a gay character with as much screen space as Fawad seems to have in Kapoor & Sons is an important milestone by itself and should be celebrated.

I agree, to an extent. Gay characters in Karan Johar’s films have been going through a transformation, if we can be generous with our definition of the word. There was Dostana in 2008, in which two straight men play gay so that they may gain entry into the house of the straight girl they both desire. Gay men themselves are divided on how to read that film. On the one hand are those who feel that just by showing homosexuality on screen, even if in a comic format, Karan Johar helped open the space.

Then there are those like screenwriter Apurva Asrani, the writer of the upcoming Aligarh, who during a discussion on NDTV recently, spoke about how torn he felt watching Dostana’s last scene in which Abhishek and John are called upon to kiss. They contort their faces, make gestures of wild disgust before they do the deed, but the camera never shows their lips touching.

If we turn to 2014’s Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya, another Karan Johar production, Siddharth Shukla played a gay man in that film, and at least in terms of representation, his character was a marked contrast to what we had seen thus far in most Bollywood fare. He was buff and traditionally masculine, and for that alone, he earned some brownie points from the community. But beyond that immediate goal, he had little to do in the movie.

In these respects, Fawad Khan’s lead portrayal in Kapoor & Sons is a definite step up. If commercial cinema needs to take time before it can accord respect to gay characters, Kapoor & Sons may be an important milestone in that journey.

This is perhaps what my friend, who works in Bollywood, alluded to. He also, in all fairness, said: “Karan[Johar]’s fare is not really a monolithic entity anymore.” Indeed, Karan Johar has provided support to directors such as Onir who has consistently explored sexual identity in his films. Karan Johar’s own short in 2013’s Bombay Talkies was a bravura attempt at an all-gay storyline.

All of this is true, and yet! We live in a time of great churn in the culture beamed at us from all over the world, and to claim that Bollywood is shifting, slowly but surely, seems at best a compromise. From Transparent, about a man who undergoes transition in his 60s, to Orange Is the New Black, about (straight and gay) female convicts in a US prison, the programming that urban Indians are lapping up is so far ahead of the trajectory that the incremental changes we see in Bollywood cannot come across as anything but dated.

When gay rights made it to the primetime recently after the Supreme Court admitted the curative petition on Section 377, we saw a qualitatively different narrative around the issue. A number of out gay men and women appeared on panels and discussions and the sense was one of hope arising out of SC’s order but also of a nuanced ennui that screamed “WTF!”

For, a lot of us, in our daily lives, have moved far ahead of the curve in terms of who we are and how we see ourselves. That first-wave distress of rights and the battle for a space are efforts we recognise but they are also hardships that we have long overcome in our minds. To then have the law move glacially towards what we already know and feel in our bones is especially frustrating.

Something similar, I reckon, is happening with Bollywood. Karan Johar and Co are moving forward indeed, but so slowly and haltingly that some of us can’t help but cringe. Yes, Fawad plays a gay man with enough screen time but the girl still goes to Siddharth. The story is still about the girl and the boy. That is not palatable to the greedy ones among us, those who have waited interminably for some nifty same-sex desire not merely to be shown but validated and celebrated.

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