Mumbai: What India's Landmark LGBT Ruling Means for Bollywood

Courtesy of Mumbai Festival
'Loev'

The decriminalization of homosexual acts was welcomed by India's entertainment industry, but challenges remain before more diverse characters and storylines appear onscreen.

On Sept. 6, India's Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Section 377, a colonial-era penal code that criminalizes same-sex relations in the country and makes them punishable by up to 10 years in prison, is unconstitutional and infringes upon the fundamental rights of Indians.

With the ruling, India's highest court had effectively decriminalized homosexuality in the country. The landmark decision was met with an outpouring of joy and enthusiasm from the most prominent figures in the Indian entertainment industry. Bollywood heavyweights such as Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Aamir Khan, Karan Johar, Anil Kapoor and many more tweeted their support for India's LGBT community and their happiness at the ruling.

Despite the celebrations, India's film industry has had little time to adjust to the new legal environment. The Hollywood Reporter surveyed the mood among Indian filmmakers at the Mumbai Film Festival and the prevailing consensus was that the change in the law would provide opportunities for more diverse storytelling, but significant cultural and structural obstacles remain. 

"The gatekeepers, they are governed by very traditional wisdom, and most of them are just looking for a reason to say no. The old law gave them that cover," says director Sudhanshu Saria, referring to the studios and producers who run India's film industry. "I think it's a step in the right direction. Professionally speaking, I feel like it's one less reason for a producer or investor who previously dodged your project, dodged your pitch when you come up with something that is set in a homosexual environment. I'm not saying they're going to rush at it with open arms; I still feel like everyone wants their standard boy-meets-girl romance. But, now there's one less legal reason to say no." 

Saria's 2015 feature Loev, which was warmly received on the international festival circuit and had its Indian premiere at the Mumbai fest in 2016, is a rare Indian film that features homosexual relationships as key elements of the story. Starring Shiv Pandit and the late Dhruv Ganesh, Loev takes a more nuanced approach to same-sex love and also tackles the issue of homosexual rape. 

Even before the Supreme Court's ruling, India's independent cinema scene has been far more forthright in embracing LGBT themes and characters. Deepa Mehta's 1996 film Fire, which depicts a lesbian relationship between two women trapped in loveless arranged marriages, is one of the earliest and most significant independent LGBT films in Indian cinema.

At this year's Mumbai festival, writer-director Rima Das' Bulbul Can Sing features a character that can be construed as gay although it is not explicitly stated. Das told THR that she "wanted to show this character because, despite the Supreme Court's ruling, in villages, people are not even aware of what it is like to be gay."

"They are confused about sexuality and they don't even know that this thing exists, which is the reason I wanted to introduce this character and wanted him [to be respected]," she adds. 

Das' focus on changing prevailing social attitudes chimes with the view of Saria, who sees those attitudes as a hurdle to seeing more diverse cinema in India. "If you gave me a choice between changing the law and changing the social attitudes, I would always pick the social attitudes. I don't think it's something that goes away overnight. You won't have people saying 'Oh, now the law is gone. I'm gonna stop being a bigot,'" Saria explains. 

Any change in embracing more LGBT-focused stories and characters will come from independent cinema at the bottom rather than Bollywood at the top, says producer Vinay Mishra, co-founder of HumaraMovie, a company that focuses on young filmmakers. "I think it's unlikely we'll see anything coming out from a larger player or a larger studio," says Mishra, whose company is producing the gay-themed feature Lala & Poppy, directed by Kaizad Gustad (Bombay Boys, Boom). 

Mishra is confident the changes in the law will make a difference, but he believes that supply will dictate demand rather than the other way around. "People are talking about this, of course, but on the demand side, will people actually accept this kind of content? A lot depends on who creates this kind of [LGBT] content with the right kind of sensibility and ingenuity. But I believe the supply side will increase. That is what is going to push this, I think, much much more than a huge demand for this kind of content," says Mishra. 

Although reticent to veer too far from the boy-meets-girl formula, Bollywood has, in recent years, taken small steps to introduce LGBT characters and themes. Two notable recent examples include Hansal Mehta's Aligarh, a true-life dramastarring Manoj Bajpayee as an academic who is fired from his post for being gay, and Fox Star Studio's box-office hit Kapoor & Sons, a comedy that features a gay son coming out to his family. 

Ultimately, both Saria and Mishra agree, the embrace of LGBT stories in Bollywood comes down to whether these films can be profitable. "It's all just money. The minute [a gay-themed film] makes money, 10 of these types of films will be announced and all will be merry," Saria says. 

Saria adds: "It's all absolutely positive, but I just want to make sure that we don't overestimate the changing of the law, that we don't overestimate its effect on the industry's reluctance or eagerness to make more movies on these subjects.

"I think the industry here," he adds, "just like in Hollywood for the most part, simply follows the money."