How many of us are aware that Amitabh Bachchan has long been a gay icon? Or that the popular Hindi magazine Mayapuri runs features in which the heads of male actors are superimposed on female bodies? Indeed, a homoerotic subtext has found expression in Hindi cinema long before the overt contemporary descriptions of alternate sexualities. While Kal Ho Na Ho, released in 2003, included scenes of seemingly gay encounters (see pic), fuelling rumours of a romantic connection between actor Shah Rukh Khan and director Karan Johar, such allusions are in line with a Western paradigm of homosexuality and stand in contrast to the homosexual subtexts of earlier films. Paradoxically, the subtleness in the earlier depictions of homosexuality also allowed such references to be more a part of Southasian sensibility. This, in fact, may be associated with the definition of a rather distinctive model of alternate sexuality – a non-Western, Southasian model.
Some of the concepts that characterise homoerotic subtexts in Hindi cinema reflect a discourse of sexuality already prevalent in Southasia. Many people here will accept their love for a person of the same gender, while at the same time resisting Western labels such as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’. Such bonding is instead identified in terms of dosti and yaari – Southasian concepts of the ultimate in male-male friendship, and key tropes in the Hindi filmi repertoire.
To look at Hindi cinema through the lens of alternate sexualities encourages a rethinking of films such as Zanjeer (1974) and Sholay (1975), which have been remembered largely as ‘angry young man’ movies. Some scholars and activists have pointed to a somewhat different interpretation of these films. According to them, Amitabh Bachchan’s yaaranas (on-screen male bondings) are given as much weight in the script as his characterisation of the oppressed young man challenging the establishment.
It is significant that the concepts of yaari and dosti have been central to much gay reading of Hindi cinema. An often cited case is the Jai-Veeru (Bachchan-Dharmendra) yaari in Sholay, played out most tellingly in the song “Yeh dosti” (This friendship). So iconic was this dosti that newcomer Prashant Raj and Ajay Devgan have been unable to recreate the magic in the just-released, poorly received Aag, Ram Gopal Verma’s remake of Sholay.
Another commonly cited example is the song “Yaari hai iman mera” (This friendship is my faith), sung by the character of Sher Khan (Pran) for Vijay Khanna (Bachchan) in Zanjeer. This film is set in an all-male environment in which men sing and dance for other men; the homoerotic content is strongly evocative of the popular mujra, a dance typical of a traditional brothel. Sher Khan sings and dances in the hopes of relaxing and cheering his friend Vijay; in the course of doing so, he declares his devotion to his yaar. Towards the end of the song, he draws the now smiling Vijay to join him in his vigorous dance. Many in the Indian gay community regard such yaari – in which friends promise to live for each other – as the mainstream representation of their own bonding.
The word yaar itself is quite ambiguous. As K Raj Rao has noted, it can be used to denote a male or female friend, one’s spouse or, in a pejorative sense, one’s wife’s lover. As such, the representation of yaari in Hindi films is open to multiple interpretations; at the same time, dosti is an honoured institution in Southasia, and loyalty to one’s dost or yaar is an accepted virtue. For a gay community struggling for recognition, this playing out of male-male bonding and attachment became significant in the absence of a more deliberately articulated political position on sexuality. “Yeh dosti”, for instance, has long been an anthem of sorts for Southasian gay rallies the world over, with the song’s opening lines – “Yeh dosti hum nahin chodenge/ Torenge dum magar tera saath na chodenge” (We will not give up this friendship/ We may die, but we will never part) – being utilised as an expression of gay solidarity.
The subtle yaari
For their part, the makers of many of these films would probably deny any homoerotic subtext. But what is important is not whether gay readings of the yaaris depicted in Hindi films are right or wrong, or whether the reading of gay references is accidental. Along with those who write, direct and act, after all, it is audiences that create a film. If a gay subtext is found to exist in Hindi cinema, its validity would not be undercut by the denial of the film’s makers.
These queer readings of Hindi cinema subsequently offer a potential new, Southasia-specific paradigm of alternate sexuality, one in which sexuality is not defined primarily in terms of sexual activity. This would be specifically in contradiction to the way that the gay-rights movement in the West has evolved. The yaaris and dostis of the Indian screen, many of which gay Southasians have claimed as their own, are homoerotic in many ways, but do not feature explicitly sexual relationships. This homoeroticism is thus based less on the physical attraction so evident, say, in the film Brokeback Mountain, and more on ‘spiritual’ love. The queer subtext of Hindi cinema has the potential to offer a model of same-sex love that is based on devotion and sacrifice, where eroticism is implicit but not primary.
To say that the subtly sexual dostis of Hindi cinema could provide a Southasian model for queerness is not to suggest that gay Southasians should not overtly express their sexuality. However, utilising established cultural practices such as yaari could enable queer Southasians to speak of sexuality and related issues in a language of their own. That, in itself, could be empowering for people struggling to reconcile being Southasian with being gay, and who are not completely comfortable adopting Western models of gay identity in the current context.
~ Sharmistha Gooptu is finishing her PhD on Bengali cinema at the University of Chicago.