Taboo or Not Taboo? Bollywood Musicals' Boundaries Pushed With Violence, Homosexuality Onscreen

Kyle Hilton

Seemingly prepared to push the limits of violence again, Kashyap returns to Cannes this year with 'Raman Raghav 2.0 (Psycho Raman)' about a notorious Mumbai serial killer.

Indian cinema is world renowned for churning out escapist fantasies where, in between epic song-and-dance numbers often in nonsensical settings, the hero always gets the girl. The formula for Bollywood success is relatively simple, but if it works, and it does so to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars each year, why change it?

In recent years, for a number of societal and demographic reasons, there has been a greater willingness among Indian filmmakers to, on one hand, better reflect India as it is in reality, and on the other, move toward stronger depictions of violence and sex. Cinematic taboos such as homosexuality, graphic violence and nudity now are routinely broken by independent filmmakers looking to shine a light on tough topics and give a voice to the marginalized, and these small acts of defiance have even affected the mainstream film industry. Both these strands suggest that Indian audiences, once so sheltered and conservative, are changing and demanding a greater variety of stories featuring characters previously airbrushed out of Bollywood spectaculars.

Violence in Indian cinema has surreptitiously been on the increase for years now: Films like 2006’s Zinda, a blatant rip-off of Oldboy, and Ghajini from 2008 pushed graphic violence as the new normal. But local audiences were given a metaphorical punch to the gut in 2012 when Anurag Kashyap’s five-hour, blood-soaked epic Gangs of Wasseypur hit the screens. With Tarantino-esque levels of violence and gore, Wasseypur created a stir at Cannes that year and ushered in a new era of exaggerated action that permeated mainstream films such as Salman Khan’s Dabangg series and Akshay Kumar starrer Rowdy Rathore.

Seemingly prepared to push the limits of violence again, Kashyap returns to Cannes this year with Raman Raghav 2.0 (Psycho Raman), about a notorious Mumbai serial killer. The film, starring Kashyap favorite Nawazuddin Siddiqui, screens in the Directors’ Fortnight section on May 16.

Raman Raghav 2.0 (Psycho Raman)

If violence slowly has become more acceptable, India’s censors remain infamously prudish when it comes to sex. One area where their conservatism is being tested is in depictions of homosexuality onscreen. In a country where gay and lesbian acts, even between consenting adults, are punishable by law, there have been a slew of films tackling the issue of homosexuality in Indian society.

“It was impossible to make films like this before,” says Hansal Mehta, director of the critically acclaimed Aligarh, which tells the true story of a university professor who loses everything, including his life, when he is discovered to be gay. “The reasons why we couldn’t make these films in the past is because there was no audience as well as no means of exhibiting and finally there were no studios willing to back these kind of ideas.”

In the hyper-masculine world of Bollywood, current stars such as Aamir Khan and Salman Khan are feted for their overt machismo and sculpted physiques, epitomizing the supposed ideal of an Indian leading man. When gay characters have appeared in Bollywood films, they often have served as comic relief through cross-dressing or effeminate overacting.

Released domestically in February and rated the equivalent of an R, Aligarh is among the more high-profie gay-themed films that are not only broaching the taboo of homosexuality but challenging the notion that gay characters can’t be central players in a mainstream film.

“Independent cinema keeps the mainstream alive,” says Mehta on the influence of smaller-budget films on Bollywood. “In the last few years, you’ve seen Bollywood look beyond the formula and deal with a wider variety of subjects, trying to infuse subtle political statements.”

Independent releases such as Sudhanshu Saria’s Loev, which made an impact on the international festival circuit last year, and Raj Amit Kumar’s 2014 lesbian thriller Unfreedom have added to what could be described as a nascent gay cinema in India. But Fox Star Studios’ March release of the big-budget Kapoor & Sons showed that even Bollywood was willing to depict gay themes and characters in a mainstream movie. A family dramedy, Kapoor & Sons focuses on two brothers (Fawad Khan and Sidharth Malhotra) who deal with familial strife, made all the more acute when one of them comes out.

Mehta feels this shift is audience-driven and a byproduct of a rapidly growing middle-class in India that is much more interested in outsider stories. “There is an audience that is demanding this, an audience that has been exposed to a lot more,” he says, alluding to the millions of Indians who have studied and lived abroad in places like the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. “There is a whole generation of filmmakers, particularly in the last two decades, who have been exposed to a wider range of cinema.”

The representation of sex and nudity in mainstream Indian cinema always has hewed close to the public sense of morality, but even that is being severely tested with recent developments. It is easy to forget that it was only in 2007 that Richard Gere shocked a whole nation, and made international headlines, when he kissed Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty onstage at an HIV awareness benefit. Before apologizing, Gere was burned in effigy and many prominent religious leaders in India called for his arrest. Fast-forward to 2012, and Bollywood has embraced Canadian-born Indian porn star Sunny Leone as a fully edged star in such mainstream hits as Jism 2 and Singh Is Bling.

But Bollywood’s relationship with sex and nudity, though outwardly becoming less restrictive, is pernicious and masks the censorship of real issues, argues filmmaker Leslee Udwin. Director of the devastating BBC documentary India’s Daughter, an investigation into India’s rape culture that was inspired by the horrific assault of a woman on a Delhi bus in 2012, Udwin says that introspective films that question patriarchal hegemony are routinely banned — as her documentary was in a storm of controversy in March 2015.

“Censorship is in full sway in India and it’s taking some very dangerous and regressive directions,” says Udwin. Yet she’s certain this will backfire and lead to more local films looking at the human condition. “When you have that level of repression, artists will rebel against that, it’s a natural impulse. There will be an increase in these types of films. Ultimately, artists do feel that they have a responsibility in dealing with human beings and human narratives.”

Mehta agrees: “We are going to reflect the realities of our world through our stories. I am going to continue doing that.”