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Can the subaltern be gay?

In the recent Bengali film 'Meghnadbodh Rohoshyo', two young men, both poor, love each other. It is a refreshing alternative to the filmic stereotype of artistic and affluent gay men

A scene from Aligarh.
A scene from Aligarh.

The thing that struck me most about Meghnadbodh Rohoshyo, a Bengali film full of thoughtful touches, is the gay love story between Bulu, the caretaker of the house, and Shambhu, the cook. One day, halfway through the film, the protagonist disappears and the rest of the film is about the mystery of this disappearance. It takes inspiration and its serious-sounding Sanskritized title from the Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s book-length poem Meghnadbodh Kabya (The Poem Of Meghnad’s Killing), which is based on the episode in the Ramayan where Ravan’s eldest son Meghnad is killed by Laxman, after being betrayed by his uncle Vibhishana.

The film runs on the same premise—an intimate’s betrayal—and lines up a number of subplots to knot the mystery. The rage of a son who is the sole caregiver of his infirm mother because his father (the protagonist) has remarried. The hurt of a first wife whose husband has left her to her illness. The rancour of an “unsmart’ nephew who owes his living to an imperious, affluent uncle, and his shame about his love for another man.

A scene from Meghnadbodh Rohoshyo.

These subplots are nicely coloured in. A conversation between a second wife and first wife is distant but cordial. A step-mother is empathetic to her stepson. Two subaltern men—non-English-speaking with “non-air-conditioned jobs"—fall in love and have an affectionate relationship in private. A young man is fond of a cousin who is clearly poorer and less sophisticated—he is the sort who wears thick, hand-knitted sweaters with large patterns over polyester trousers, and knows that he looks out of place in the wealthy branch of his family. There is one marvellous moment when the protagonist tells his wife that the cigarettes his son and her daughter are smoking are probably more than cigarettes. The film is full of little things like this, as if to say, “What if we could deal with our awkward relationships with a little more grace?"

But I was especially struck by the love story of the cook and the caretaker. Gay characters are rarely poor or even lower middle class in Hindi and Bengali cinema, the two categories of cinema to which my ambit runs (also, my ambit runs to widely-released films in India, not the boutique festival-circuit films). There must be gay people in every social class, but do we see them in films?

“We had a help called Gaur da in our home," says director Anik Datta over the phone. “He was effeminate, he would say ‘Helleo’, we used to tease him (about his mannerisms). In our time, we didn’t have any public discourse on homosexuality. I didn’t realize there was a thing called homosexuality until quite late in life. But when I did, it was immediately apparent that there were gay people all around us—in our families, homes, offices, communities. There’s no type which is likely to be gay, obviously. To be clear, I am not specifically interested in the gay identity, but this must have been on my mind when I was writing. I just wanted to tell a good story."

A scene from Kapoor & Sons.

The gay figure has emerged as a character in their own right only recently, in the past decade or so (before this, they were the subjects of lazy caricature). But even the sensitively conceived gay man is already configured to a type: urban, educated, affluent or middle class, usually creative. The stereotype of the gay character is the designer (multiple films). We have seen a film director and photographer (Kaushik Sen’s Aar Ekti Premer Golpo), we have seen a writer (Fawad Khan in Kapoor & Sons), we have seen advertising professionals (the English-language film Memories In March, starring the late director Rituparno Ghosh), we have seen the principal of a posh school (Rishi Kapoor in Student Of The Year), we have seen a professor of Marathi (Manoj Bajpayee in Aligarh), we have seen an industrialist (Vikram Chatwal in Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd), we have seen a choreographer and musician (Rituparno Ghosh and Jisshu Sengupta in Chitrangada), we have seen two graduate students at New York University (Kalki Koechlin and Sayani Gupta in Margarita With A Straw.)

Overwhelmingly, gay characters in Hindi and Bengali cinema are creative professionals—people who work in the arts, like designers, photographers, musicians, writers, and in advertising. The stereotype of the creative gay person even has academic credentials. In his extremely influential book, The Rise Of The Creative Class, Richard Florida argued that cities that have large numbers of the creative class, including gay people and bohemians, will thrive economically. He defined the creative class as that segment of people who are paid to think for a living—this does not mean only the artistic professions, but also doctors, lawyers, engineers, computer programmers, academicians, and so on. This theory created a direct link between creativity and the gay community.

Gay characters are rarely poor or even lower middle class in Hindi and Bengali cinema, the two categories of cinema to which my ambit runs. There must be gay people in every social class, but do we see them in films?-

In Florida’s understanding, a cook would not be a creative professional though the work itself is creative, because a cook is not paid to think or create. A cook is paid for the manual labour of cooking. A chef is distinct; it is a professional designation with more autonomy and, of course, better pay. In other words, Florida’s creative class is a demographic of people who are middle class and above. In cinema, this is pretty much the social-class profile of the gay person. To be a designer or a writer or a student at NYU, you need to be at least middle class.

Florida’s concept of the creative class has shaped urban policy, and hipster-style gentrification, in countless developed cities. Singapore, the only developed country that still criminalizes gay sex, is believed to have been moved by Florida’s text to allow the opening of gay bars and cafés in the Noughties. The gay creative person, as an idea, is so well-established that it is perhaps self-evident today.

This is the sort of filmic stereotype that the wise, salty granny played by Tanuja in the film Rules: Pyaar Ka Superhit Formula had punctured beautifully. “Do fat people never fall in love?" she asked when her granddaughter worried about being too fat for her crush. If you consider the evidence in our films and in Hollywood, it does look like that. Only the beautiful and the gym-going are destined for on-screen love. The question Tanuja’s character might have asked here is: Do poor (non-English-speaking) people never identify as gay?

There is no publicly available data on homosexuality and income in India; however, there are several news stories of girls from poor and lower middle-class backgrounds falling in love with people of the same gender. The story of a 17-year-old girl and a 23-year-old girl running away to Mumbai to get married was reported in May. Last year, the story of two women who had married each other was reported from Jaipur: their husbands worked at a liquor vend. There are many such stories reported every year. The opposite happens in the movies—the stories that get told are of affluent and cosmopolitan gay characters.

There are, however, three extremely influential Hollywood films that go against type. In Brokeback Mountain (2005), Heath Ledger and Jake Gylenhall meet on a farm where they herd sheep. In Monster (2003), Charlize Theron is a homeless prostitute, and her partner, played by Cristina Ricci, is unemployed. In Moonlight (2016), the protagonist, played by three different actors at different stages of his life, grows up in a poverty-stricken single-parent household and eventually sells drugs for a living.

A scene from Dostana.

There is nothing comparable in terms of influence, or beauty, in Hindi films. But a couple of recent films have done things differently. In Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, based on the real-life story of Prof. Ramchandra Siras in Aligarh Muslim University, Manoj Bajpayee lives in a matchbox-sized apartment, travels on cycle-rickshaws, and keeps his drinking water in cheap plastic bottles. He appears lower middle class, but this is an optical illusion created by the Karan Johar brand of cinema. The majority of gay men we have seen in mainstream cinema have appeared in films connected to him—the fake gay men of Dostana (produced by Johar), the closeted principal of Student Of The Year (directed by Johar), and the reluctant romance in a short film directed by Johar in the anthology Bombay Talkies. His characters in general, gay or straight, inhabit vast spaces, glamorous clothes and lives of perfect interior décor. But in Aligarh, Bajpayee plays a university professor—even if his personal effects are shabby, that is likely his choice. A professor in a central university is a coveted government job with robust pay and benefits. He fits Florida’s understanding of the upper middle-class, creative professional.

The professor’s lover, however, is a rickshaw-driver. This man barely appears on screen for a couple of scenes, but it is worth listing simply because the poor gay character is such an anomaly on the Hindi screen. Also worth remembering is the fact that Aligarh is based on the real life and suicidal death of Prof. Siras, a pointer that in the real world, a poor man is just as likely to be gay as an affluent, educated one.

There is another relationship of social unequals in Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya (2014), where Madhuri Dixit Nene and Huma Qureshi play begum and maid, and lovers. It is unclear how equal the relationship is given the employer-employee relationship, but Qureshi looks pleased enough to lead men on and dump them.

I have never seen a gay story like Bulu’s and Shambhu’s—where both partners are subalterns. The men seem to have comfortably settled into a relationship, they make plans on the phone to meet, their conversation has the cosiness of those who have been intimate for a while. Shambhu, the cook, is confidently effeminate. At one point, a character tells her mother: “You know, your cook is probably gay." The mother doesn’t respond with alarm, she has probably guessed as much.

There is only one moment where the caretaker shrugs off the cook’s arm at a public space, which speaks of embarrassment. But really, given our anti-Romeo squads and generally toxic anti-dating culture, anyone could feel this way.

“Baba, can these people also be gay?" I thought my mother or father, with whom I saw the film, would say something like this. I must have thought it myself, which is why I set out to write this. It is testament to Datta’s fine, unforced portrayal that none of us needed to say it aloud. He opened a window, and we believed what we saw.

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