India: Bollywood’s first gay rom-com ‘breaks stereotypes’

Eschewing the typical Bollywood storyline of boy meets girl, and struggles to marry in the face of family opposition, a new film approaches things differently – with a gay couple.

Touted as India’s first gay male romantic comedy, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (Be Extra Careful About Marriage) stars popular actor, Ayushmann Khurrana, as an openly gay man, who battles conservative attitudes to be with his boyfriend.

Packed with romantic scenes, including a kiss between the male leads, the film offers a rare portrait of same-sex love in a small town in India, which [decriminalised homosexuality] in 2018.

“The point was not being apologetic about (gay love); not depicting it as a problem, not take it as a disease,” director, Hitesh Kewalya, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone, ahead of the film’s release on Friday.

LGBT+ people are rarely represented in Bollywood, and in cameo roles often cast as crude caricatures added for cheap laughs.

But since India scrapped the [anti-gay] ban, depictions of LGBT+ people on television have started to shift from mocking stereotypes to including gay men on dating shows, and drag queens in a singing competition.

Arthouse films with smaller audiences have sensitively depicted LGBT stories, such as My Brother Nikhil, which tells the story of gay man’s struggle with AIDS, and the 2014 drama film, Margarita With A Straw.

Bollywood’s first major LGBT+ film, about a lesbian couple, was released last year , though critics said its same-sex references were subdued.

“Our industry, unfortunately, has survived on stereotypes … and I didn’t want to do that. That was my biggest responsibility”, said Kewalya about his directorial debut.

“I wanted to break every stereotype using this platform.”

Despite fears of a backlash, responses to the film’s trailer – viewed more than 51 million times – have been positive, with a leading Bollywood magazine calling it “hilarious and game-changing”.

The film is backed by some of Bollywood’s biggest producers, and 39-year-old Kewalya said it would be the first mainstream commercial movie to openly explore a same-sex relationship.

He said the Supreme Court’s ruling […] had allowed him to be more upfront with some scenes, including the kiss, which he feared could be cut by censors.

But homosexuality in the country remains taboo, with discrimination and abuse against LGBT+ widespread. Outside cities, it can be worse, with threats of violence, brutality, and even death.

Parental acceptance is also a challenge.

This is reflected in the film, which shows one of the families struggling to come to terms with their son’s sexual orientation, and pressuring him to marry a woman.

In one scene, Khurrana’s character is seen strutting across a terrace, wearing a rainbow cape, and announcing with a megaphone that his partner’s father suffers from homophobia, “a disease with no cure”.

This is not Kewalya’s first attempt at tackling a taboo topic. In 2017, he wrote Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (Beware of Marriage), a film about erectile dysfunction.

Be Extra Careful About Marriage draws on his own experiences at design school, where he first interacted with LGBT+ people, and started to understand their struggles.

Since the release of the trailer in January, Kewalya said he had received scores of messages from LGBT+ Indians.

One gay person told Kewalya that he would take his parents to watch the film, and then come out to them.

“If such things happen … that will be the success of the film more than anything else,” the father-of-one said.

-Annie Banerji @anniebanerji -Thomson Reuters Foundation

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