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a high school student who is obsessed with her gorgeous junior, it is far ahead of its time in its theme and tellingly outdated in how it deals with it.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.

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