A young man comes out of the closet on a dating show, while a drag queen belts out Bollywood hits in a singing competition – both aired on Indian television programmes in the past month, but would have been unthinkable until recently.
With 800 million viewers across the country, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council India, campaigners are hoping that television can help smash stereotypes about the LGBT+ community.
Indian television’s newfound openness rests with a Supreme Court decision in September, which struck down a British-colonial era law that criminalised gay sex.
“We finally have legal recognition, but the fight for equality starts now. We now need societal acceptance,” said Sushant Divgikar, who performed on the singing reality show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa on Zee TV.
Divgikar appeared as his drag queen alter-ego, Rani Ko-He-Noor, a character he uses to sing both the male and female parts of Bollywood hits.
“With my drag persona, I am challenging gender stereotypes,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Not just on Indian television, but in cinema as well, homosexuality or cross-dressing was often an element of comic relief”, said Aparna Bhosle, business head of Zee TV, in an email.
“Today, with the legal acceptance to alternate sexual orientation, we can look forward to more respectable, dignified depictions of characters who’re homosexual or practise drag”.
On a special episode of MTV’s reality dating show ‘Elovator Pitch’, a gay man was wooed by 10 contestants – including one who had not previously been open about his sexuality.
Rahul Bharti, 24, said he chose the opportunity to come out on television as a way to tell his mother and father.
“I couldn’t tell them personally as I was scared how they would react. I have grown up watching MTV and I took part in the show only because I wanted to tell my parents”, he said by phone.
Bharti’s parents didn’t speak to him for a few days, “but are now dealing with it”. He said he hopes for wider acceptance of LGBT+ people now, as many in the entertainment industry are breaking down harmful perceptions that they helped to create.
While MTV has had LGBT+ characters on many shows in the past, this was its “first attempt in unscripted content to include the LGBTQ community”, said Ferzad Palia, head of the youth division at Viacom18, which operates MTV in India.
The Supreme Court decision “has widened the scope for such conversations, so it was a natural progression for us in storytelling and putting out our thoughts”, Palia said by email.
“Elovator Pitch essentially deals with choices and MTV believes that everyone has an equal right to choose”.
Such changes are welcome, said Harrish Iyer, an equal rights activist who hosts India’s first radio show on LGBT+ issues, called ‘Gaydio’.
“Being a marginalized community, it’s a struggle to transition from the novelty to the norm, but I think we are getting there”. he said.
-Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll, Thomson Reuters Foundation