• Film

The Taboo Has Fallen – Queer Cinema in India

It was only on September 6, 2018, that homosexuality was finally decriminalized in India with the Supreme Court overturning the British Colonial-era Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and calling the law “irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary” in its ruling. (The law still exists in some British colonies, but Singapore is another country that has overturned it.) Before Section 377 was established, the Mughal-era Fatawa ’Alamgiri, a sharia or body of religious law was in effect in India, that mandated lashing and death by stoning for homosexual acts.

The Sanskrit text Kamasutra, however, has a whole chapter on homosexuality, and the sculptures in the Khajuraho temples portraying homosexual acts make it clear that it was prevalent and accepted in ancient India. But homophobia in modern India, with its patriarchal society, has been relentless, with countless gay men and women remaining in the closet, or getting thrown out of their homes, taken to doctors to be ‘cured,’ or committing suicide.

So, this taboo topic was reflected only obliquely in traditional Indian cinema until relatively recently. LGBTQ relationships have been long hinted at in Indian films and the pedestrian ones show stereotypical homosexual characters with hackneyed portrayals for cheap laughs, or else gays are shown through a heterosexual lens that focuses more on the reactions of the people around the protagonists rather than their own experiences.

Shohini Ghosh, in her book “Fire: A Queer Classic,” talks of the evolution of gay cinema in India. “Riyad Wadia’s independent, experimental film BomGay (1996) inaugurated queer films in India…Wadia’s next film A Mermaid Called Aida (1996) is a feature-length documentary on well-known transsexual Aida Banaji. Like most documentaries, both films circulated through an expansive network of non-commercial screenings … The films of Prathibha Parmar, a UK-based director of Indian origin, also exerted considerable influence among the emergent gay and lesbian movement in India.”

The documentary BomGay is an anthology of six short films that was never released for public viewing. Deepa Mehta’s Fire was the first mainstream film to show a lesbian relationship when it was released in 1998.

But in recent years, mostly in indie cinema and some from mainstream Bollywood, there are exceptional films that broke barriers, increased awareness and started conversations about gay and transgender lives that are worth watching. Here are a few.


1.  Sisak (Sobbing, 2017)

Directed by Faraz Arif Ansari, this is the first silent short film about gay life in India set in Mumbai. Two men who travel on the same train every day can’t bring themselves to speak to each other. The Times of India’s reviewer said, “. . . Ansari creates a palpable chemistry between his protagonists, just through a mélange of closeups. The characters’ names aren’t revealed (because, does it really matter?), nor is there any physical touch, yet there’s an intimacy that’s unexplainable. Through their performances, Dhruv [Singhal] and Jitin [Gulati] bring much to the table, making the struggle more heartfelt.”


Director Ansari shot the 20-minute guerilla-style on Mumbai’s local trains over nine months. Unable to find funding for this taboo subject, he used up his own savings and crowdfunded the postproduction. The film was screened at the Cannes film festival and won several awards.

2.   My Brother… Nikhil (2005)

The film is based on the life of the AIDs activist Dominic D’Souza and is set in Goa in the 1990s. A swimming champion’s life falls apart once he’s diagnosed with HIV. His parents throw him out of the house, he loses his place on the swim team, is arrested and is kept in forced isolation as the law of the day allowed. This was one of the first films to deal with the subject of HIV and with the discrimination and ostracization that HIV-positive patients were subjected to. The New York Times reviewer wrote, “… its impact lies in having served up a story about love and loss – sentimental staples of contemporary Indian cinema – with a gay man at its center, and having done so without kicking up the slightest fuss from India’s cultural conservatives.”  The film is directed by Onir and is in Hindi.


3.  Margarita with a Straw (2005)

Directed by Shonali Bose, this Hindi-language film tells the coming-of-age story of a queer woman with cerebral palsy who travels to New York with her mother to study on a scholarship. She falls in love with a blind woman while also having an affair with a man. Bose developed the story through a Sundance writing lab and premiered it at the Toronto Film Festival. The exploration of sexuality through the lens of disability in a sensitive and unsensational way was appreciated by critics. It was subsequently shown at festivals around the world and won several awards, including for its lead, actress Kalki Koechlin.


4.  Iratta Jeevitham (Double Life, 2017)

This Malayalam-language South Indian film is the story of two women who reunite after one of them leaves home for a decade, returning as a trans man. The film is directed by Suresh Narayanan and is based on a short story, exploring the struggles of social acceptance for queer relationships in a village setting as opposed to an urban milieu.


5.  Nagarkirtan (The Enuch and the Fluteplayer, 2017)

Nagarkirtan is about the relationship between a trans woman seeking gender reassignment surgery and a flute player. The two meet when the woman runs away to a hijra (eunuch) community in Calcutta and they develop a relationship. The flute player offers to sell his ancestral land to help with her surgery, but circumstances cause her to run away from him, and the story in inevitable tragedy. Directed by Kaushik Ganguly, the Bengali film was praised by critics for its unsentimental portrayal of the lives of the transgender community, abandoned by society and subject to injustice and trauma as they struggle with their identity. The film won the Jury Award at the 2018 National Film Awards in India, including an award for the lead actor, Riddhi Sen.


6.  Moothon (The Elder One 2019)

In this Malayalam and Hindi-language film, directed by Geetu Mohandas, a young boy leaves his island home of Lakshwadeep and goes to Mumbai to search for his missing older brother. In the underbelly of the city, he is thrown into an abusive orphanage, seeks help from a prostitute and is almost sold into child slavery. He finds the brother who is a gangster and has a relationship with a deaf gay man, subverting the tropes of the usual gangster film. A major South Indian movie star, Nivin Pauly, plays the brother. Mohandas shared the Global Filmmaking Award for her script at the 2016 Sundance film festival with three other filmmakers. Moothon premiered at the Toronto film festival and received positive reviews.


7.   Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (How I Felt When I Saw That Girl, 2019)

This rom-com was the first mainstream Bollywood movie about lesbian love filmed after the lifting of Section 377 and features the performances of real-life father and daughter, actors Anil Kapoor and Sonam K. Ahuja. The story is about a young girl from a middle-class Punjabi family who falls in love with a woman but creates complications when her family thinks she’s in love with a man. The film is directed by Shelly Chopra Dhar and got a wide release in India as well as internationally. India Today’s reviewer wrote, “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is a precious film. It is an important film for the times we live in. It will not be a blockbuster. But it might just make you change the way you look at love. If you choose to let your ‘dil’ [heart] take precedence over your ‘dimaag’ [mind].


8.  Aligarh (2015)

Based on the true story of a college professor at a university in Aligarh who loses his job when he is ambushed and filmed while having sex with a man, this Hindi-language biopic is directed by Hansal Mehta. The professor is befriended by a journalist and his case is taken up in the courts, but he is found dead before his court victory is announced. The film premiered at the Busan festival, then had its European premiere at the BFI London festival and received a rave review by Screen International for its “subtle, sensitive take on a controversial real-life court case involving the victimization of a gay college professor, Aligarh underscores the growing strength and diversity of Indian independent cinema.”


9.  Memories in March (2010)

This English-language film was written by and starred a gay Indian icon, the late Rituparno Ghosh, who died of a heart attack at 49. The story is about a bereaved mother who travels to Calcutta for her son’s funeral and discovers his secret life. Her journey to acceptance of his homosexuality (as a stand-in for the audience) is facilitated by her son’s boyfriend played by Ghosh who challenges her middle-class thinking and unwitting hypocrisies. The film is directed by Sanjoy Nag.


10. Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012)

Writer/director Rituparno Ghosh tells the story of two lovers who wish to adopt a child. Because of the laws prohibiting same-sex couples from adopting, one of them (played by Ghosh) seeks gender reassignment surgery. The action goes horribly wrong as his lover rejects him. The search for gender identity, the class differences that can affect the acceptance of one’s sexuality, and the lessons learned for self-acceptance are all themes explored in the Bengali-language film which is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Chitra” which, in turn, is based on a character from the Indian epic the “Mahabharata.” The film premiered at the New York Indian Film Festival in 2012.