A rainbow in black and white
It has been ten years since the release of Venkat Prabhu's Goa, which featured prominent gay characters, and yet, few films since then have followed suit. What’s stopping our filmmakers?
If you are an avid consumer of Tamil cinema on social media, you already know the latest trend on the block: Celebration of film anniversaries. Whenever a beloved film reaches an important landmark, hashtags and messages about the film populate social media. #25YearsOfBaasha, #32YearsOfNayagan… you get the drift. One such hashtag — ten years of Venkat Prabhu’s Goa — prompted this piece. It was one of the first films to show a same-sex relationship sensibly. Ten years since, barely any films have featured such characters. So, the question is, where are our gay stories?
They are in films mostly away from the mainstream, one could argue. Lokesh Kumar, who made the critically-acclaimed My Son Is Gay, agrees. “In the hundred years of Tamil cinema’s existence, we don't have a single, solid homosexual protagonist. The best we have are supporting roles, whose stories are barely explored.” Certain portrayals are sensible but often, fleeting and light-hearted. The reasons are manifold. First, there’s the shroud of judgment from society. “I have an idea to make a spinoff of Vanjagar Ulagam, where the audience knows the protagonist is gay, but the gangster world he is in doesn’t. Eighty per cent of the industry won’t have the guts to bankroll such a story,” says Manoj Beedha, whose film was a home production. Thanks to the taboo tag, such stories are thought to be ‘high-risk’ projects. “Without producers’ support, we can't do anything, though we have plenty of original stories,” adds Lokesh.
You can’t, of course, ignore the business angle of it all. It is generally believed that there isn’t much return on such films. “Even if I produce my film, it has to be distributed by someone established for it to reach people. Getting a return on their investment is a concern and you can't blame them. It is a business after all,” says Lokesh. “The dynamics of the cinema business has changed. If such films are made, make it on a budget so that the film can recover its budget from, say, Amazon or Netflix,” says Anita Udeep, director of 90 ML, which had a lesbian love angle.
Rohit Nandakumar, who made the Zee5 web-series, Kallachirippu, that garnered praise for its nuanced portrayal of same-sex relationships, says that such content has takers. “Everyone at Stone Bench (backed by Karthik Subbaraj) wanted me to make Kallachirippu as a film. But I chose instead to make it as a web series.” Producer Sashikanth of YNot studios also gives a similar perspective. “Over the last ten years, several projects with such subjects came our way. We developed a few for some time as well. But they haven't seen theatres due to creative issues — the development didn't feel right and it was more due to the content than the subject matter. I have no resistance to them though and would take it up.”
Another hurdle is the lack of sensitive narratives that are empathetic to the community. “The important thing is to portray them sensibly. Even now, there are several short films which are being made on the subject. But how many of them are nuanced and empathetic?” Rohit feels that more representation from the community could help in bridging this gap. “My first series and the second one have important characters who belong to the LGBTQ community. But I can only say so much through my research. As a cisgender male, I can make them part of my world. But if we have representation from such voices, it may be more honest.” He quotes the example of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. “His stories don’t come with the homosexual tag, rather he shows the roster of emotions they feel just like we do. That’s how it should be, stories about human beings.”
How does Bollywood fare better in comparison then? Last year, we had Sonam Kapoor headlining Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, and this year, we have Ayushmann Khuranna playing an openly gay man in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. “Bollywood has a wider market. Anything they make is consumed by more people across the world,” argues Anita. “Low budget for Bollywood means 25 crores; for us, that is a medium budget film. And also, our actors have an image and tend to pick scripts that fit their image. We write stories for actors, not vice versa,” she says. The involvement of popular names would help in taking such stories across centers, believes Manoj. “What if a Mani Ratnam were to make such a film?” he asks.
So, does that mean that should such films get made, and made well, there is an audience? Anita isn’t sure yet. “We talk so much about women empowerment, but even basic rights like freedom of speech are not in place. We don't feel safe.” She wonders then how people, who have trouble with basic issues, will even begin to embrace same-sex relationships. “It’s like introducing a PhD concept to a school student. I am not sure how much they will comprehend.”
Lokesh disagrees though. “I am sure there’s a curiosity for such stories. In fact, even though it has been more than three years since the release of my film, My Son Is Gay, I still get messages asking when the film will come to theatres.” Sashikanth provides a similar perspective as well. “A good film will reach its audience. Talking about reach, even some masala entertainers crafted to appeal widely, tank at the box office. The argument can't be that it won't reach the masses. It has to be whether it will be successful or not.”
This is something that is predicted to change. “The whole concept of what is mainstream and what is offbeat is fluid,” says Sashikanth. “I am not denying the existence of the traditional mindset. If the social structure resists an idea, the industry will naturally reflect it. It will change… you will see such films. People think it is taboo, but that shouldn't restrict filmmakers.” Rohit agrees. “Within six-eight months, I am sure we will see at least one film about homosexuality. It might not be a great film, but it will be an important step. You can’t stop evolution.”