Why south Indian films can’t shake off the queer phobia

LGBT, LGBTQIA+, Queer, Transgender, Mollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood, Sandalwood, Movies, South India, Cinema, The Federal, English news website
South Indian films still have a long way to go in their portrayal of the queer community. Photo: iStock

Early last year, Tamil movie ‘En Maghan Maghizhvan‘ (My Son is Gay) was in the film festival circuit and won the Best Film Award at the Second Indian World Film Festival. With a U/A certificate from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), compelling performances from its talented cast and positive reviews right from its premiere, the film was set for a success. However, despite everything going in its favour, ‘En Maghan Maghizhvan’ never hit the theatres and the movie-goers barely registered its existence.

Mainstream south Indian films, like much of the subcontinent, have always struggled with queer subjects. Indie films can afford to be transgressors, accessible only to those who seek them out and, therefore, avoid tighter scrutiny. The ones who want a theatrical release and a good run at the box office seem to find only two kinds of queer characters — hypersexualised villains or jesters with unfunny punchlines (read homophobic stereotyping). And yet, we will ourselves to go back and power through them all for the rare exceptions. It’s almost worth it to get a glimpse of ourselves on the silver screen.

The Malayalam movie ‘Randu Penkuttikal’ (Two Girls) that came out in 1978 is widely considered the first Indian film on homosexuality. Featuring Kokila, a high school student who is obsessed with her gorgeous junior, it is far ahead of its time in its theme and tellingly outdated in how it deals with it. In the end, the protagonists marry suitably young men having renounced a “phase” of their teen years. It served a crowd-pleasing climax that disappointed only those who identified with Kokila’s taboo longing — especially because they would have to wait for eight more years before another ‘queerish’ Mollywood movie would be released. ‘Deshadanakili Karayarilla’ (The Migratory Bird Doesn’t Cry) would come to use Chughtai’s Lihaaf technique — or presumably, defense — layering the work with cues and nuances, but never spelling it out for the audience. The film ends with the girls found dead together in bed after having committed suicide.

Queer stories couldn’t have happy endings, reigning sensibilities wouldn’t allow it. But one would hope the plots, characters and morals binding them would evolve with a new generation of filmmakers and viewers. Instead, apart from a few outliers, they seem to have collectively regressed in the next three decades.

In Tollywood, the ‘mada‘ character began to take shape in the late 1970s and Venkateswara Rao made it his own. A loose translation of ‘mada‘ is “effeminate men”. They bat their eyelashes and bite their lips, have flamboyant styles and make exaggerated gestures. Portrayed as depraved and deprived, they can’t control themselves from coming on to any straight male, and the hypermasculine hero is usually an object of their lust. Their entire roles are centred around this proclivity and the trope makes no distinction between gay men, cross-dessers and transwomen. This vile stereotype is played for cheap laughs and used often. Ali, Rao’s heir apparent, took over in the 90s and his string of movies have codified the character. From ‘Nuvvu Vastavani’ (So You Would Come) and Yuvaraju to Bujjigadu and Chirutha, Ali plays variations of the same role where he attempts to seduce, grope and harass straight men.

It’s not too far from ‘Avana nee?’ (Aren’t you him?) to ‘Nenu aa type kaadhu’ (I’m not that type), the former by a Tamil comedian to the equivalent of the ‘mada’ trope and the latter by a Telugu hero who is offended by another straight man standing too close to him. And it certainly isn’t a leap to imagine how this wariness and repulsion seen frequently on screen spills over to the real world. The pervading stereotype is seen across languages. Even the popular Malayalam movie ‘Action Hero Biju’ received flak from some viewers for the objectionable depiction of a gay man who comes on to the police officer for no discernible reason.

When not hypersexualised, LGBTQ+ people are still shown as evil deviants that the straight and upstanding heroes have to bring down — not even a Clarice Starling will do. The queer aspect adds a different shade to the otherwise run-of-the-mill movie villain without the filmmaker having to put in extra effort and it gives the actor a chance to play someone he normally wouldn’t — it’s a win-win for everybody except the community they’re portraying. In Vikram’s big Tamil hit ‘I’, he was deformed by a transwoman who teamed up with his enemies when he spurned her advances. At least it was played by Ojas Rajani, a trans celebrity makeup artist. The next year he played dual roles in ‘Iru Mugan’ (Two Faced) — the queer character ‘Love’, an evil scientist intent on destroying the country, who is taken down by ‘Akhilan’, an ex-RAW agent. The serial killers in the Kamal Hassan-starrer ‘Vettayadu Vilayadu’ are a gay couple.

So, why are such films that are harmful to an entire community churned out? Because it’s doubtful if films that are queer-themed will appeal to audiences, and producers are simply not willing to take that risk, say filmmakers. Mani Shankar Iyer’s project ‘Maghizhvan’ was cut down to a featurette because he failed to get funding for it. “No filmmaker wants to make films or characters in a creepy manner and once people stop enjoying such sequences, there’ll be a change,” filmmaker Pavan Sadineni was quoted in an interview as saying.

Another reason simply could be using them as a foil to the macho men, as Jalapathy Gudelli, a popular Telugu film critic, once noted. “The effeminate nature of gay persons as depicted in movies has been a deliberate attempt to make the hero seem more desirable, assertive and dominant.”

Despite the bleak picture, there have been a spate of recent feature films with queer characters that have been loved and lauded by the audiences. Based on Living Smile Vidya’s autobiography, the Kannada film ‘Naanu Avanalla… Avalu’ won two National Film Awards. ‘Muni 2: Kanchana’, a Tamil horror comedy, was a commercial success where the journey of transwoman was sensitively presented. ‘Mumbai Police’, the Malayalam Prithviraj-starrer, has a gay protagonist whose life (and role) isn’t defined by his sexuality.

The way forward is easy enough to preach, but much harder to put into practice. The law has changed, but we are still waiting on audiences’ mindsets to follow. Filmmakers and actors need to decide that slapstick humour at the cost of someone’s dignity is not worth it. A wider range of films need to reach theatres or come home through streaming platforms. We could always start with baby steps — the next time a queer feature comes on, grab a bucket of popcorn instead of the remote.