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‘Dostana’ a bit of Bollywood daring November 9, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Movies.
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Film idols Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham star as a pair posing as gays to get nearer to a woman. For India, that’s cutting edge.
By Anupama Chopra 
November 9, 2008
Reporting from Mumbai, India — “We are gay — this is my boyfriend.” The shock in this statement comes not so much from what is being said but who is saying it. The speaker in question is John Abraham, an A-list Bollywood hero, known for his chiseled chest and sexy smirk. The “boyfriend” is being played by Abhishek Bachchan, another well-known actor who is considered Bollywood royalty (he is the son of superstar Amitabh Bachchan and the husband of leading actress Aishwarya Rai). 

Abraham and Bachchan, both strapping matinee idols, have built their careers playing sensitive lovers and good sons, but in their upcoming film “Dostana” (Friendship) they are breaking with tradition, risking their carefully cultivated screen images and testing the sensibilities of Bollywood audiences.

“Dostana,” which will have its worldwide theatrical release Friday, is the first big-budget mainstream Bollywood film to feature gay protagonists. But the movie has more in common with “Three’s Company” than “Brokeback Mountain” or “Milk.” That’s because the characters aren’t actually gay. They are heterosexual men pretending to be homosexuals so they can save on rent and share an apartment with a curvaceous and conspicuously single magazine editor, played by popular actress Priyanka Chopra.

Predictably, both fall in love with her but are forced to keep up the charade of being lovers themselves. The film, set in Miami, is a breezy romantic comedy, with what producer Karan Johar calls “a candy-floss take on homosexuality.” But in a country where homosexuality is a criminal offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison, candy floss is cutting edge. 

While police in India don’t usually arrest people simply for being gay, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a law dating back to 1860, criminalizes even private, consensual sex between adults of the same sex. Subsequently, the law has pushed homosexuality underground and there are no reliable numbers on the gay population in India. In 2004, the National AIDS Control Organization pegged the number at a minimum of 2.5 million, but some media estimates suggest a much higher number, as many as 50 million out of India’s total population of 1.13 billion.

Despite the numbers, the Indian gay story has rarely become fodder for film. Popular Hindi cinema has largely reduced gay characters to comic sidekicks or, on occasion, villains. India’s first bona fide gay film was a 12-minute adaptation of a poem by R. Raja Rao, who is one of the best-known gay fiction writers in the country. The film, titled “BOMgAY,” made in 1996, circulated at festivals and private screenings. It generated media buzz but was never commercially released.

In 2005, “My Brother . . . Nikhil,” a low-budget drama about a gay man’s struggle with AIDS, found distributors and critical acclaim but failed to connect with mainstream audiences at the box office. The film’s director, who goes by the single name Onir, says: “After ‘My Brother . . . Nikhil,’ I met several producers who said they loved it but nobody wanted to make another film that went near the subject.” In comparison, television has been quicker to feature gay characters and themes, in news shows and on the occasional soap opera, but is still a long way from airing a show like “Will & Grace.”

With the $10-million “Dostana,” Johar and his stars are entering uncharted waters. Which is why even a faux-gay angle is couched in glittering, mainstream trappings — stars, sun-kissed Miami beaches, trendy styling and several set-piece songs. But within these commercial parameters, Johar and writer-director Tarun Mansukhani are attempting to push the envelope.

To convince their landlady, the heroes invent a romantic back story about how they met and several scenes show them flirting with each other, holding hands and even doing a simmering tango. Another leading Bollywood actor, Boman Irani, plays a gay magazine editor who visits the girl on pretext of work but is more interested in checking out her two roommates. Most critically, the film features the stock, smothering northern Indian mother who becomes hysterical when she first finds out that her son is gay (she isn’t in on the lie) but eventually she blesses the union telling her son’s boyfriend: “I’m not sure whether you’re my son-in-law or daughter-in-law!”

This is the character that Johar and Mansukhani are hoping that viewers will connect with and take home. “The mother is the progressive element for India,” Johar say. “She carries the one message I want to send to parents: that their child’s sexual orientation is not something that should not be blessed.” It certainly helps that the message is being routed through attractive and popular stars. Actors in the Hindi film industry have largely shunned such roles, which might sabotage their larger-than-life images and alienate their fan following. Another leading director, Madhur Bhandarkar, had a difficult time persuading actors to play gay designers in his recently released film “Fashion.” “The two roles were rejected by eight to 10 actors,” he says. “Each one told me, ‘I would love to work with you but I can’t do a role like this.’ ”

But Abraham and Bachchan had no such qualms. “I was laughing as I heard the script,” says Abraham. “It’s not offensive or derogatory. I said yes and didn’t even think of the repercussions if there are going to be any.” Bachchan was equally sanguine about the role. He says: “I’m not the kind of actor who is obsessed about one’s image. I’m obsessed about not having one.”

Both were so comfortable with the content and each other that Mansukhani often had to rein them in to keep the contact from becoming too cartoonish. Otherwise, he says, “they would go drastically over the top.” The stereotypical gay flamboyance is not what the director was seeking. “I know exactly the tone I wanted,” he says. “They did not need to be effeminate. We wanted to get humor in without making it cheesy.” The priority was to make it lightweight and inoffensive, to the traditional and perhaps timid Hindi film viewer but also to the gay community. Johar says: “Even within the fun and games, handling it sensitively is a challenge. If we offend even one member of the homosexual community, it will really disturb me.”

Johar, who earlier hosted a popular chat show on television and is considered a style icon, has been fielding questions about his own sexuality since he directed his first film in 1998. He has neither denied nor confirmed the rumors, but his ability to handle the issue with grace has created confidence that his film will do the same. Vikram Doctor, columnist and gay activist, says: “Karan is a class act. He is comfortable with himself, and that is an inspiration. Hopefully ‘Dostana’ will reflect that.” Parmesh Shahani, author of “Gay Bombay,” believes that “any mainstream acknowledgment, even if it is tongue-in-cheek, will go a long way. Laughing about it is the first step toward more textured and nuanced characters.”

But at least a few are wary that the humor might be interpreted as ridicule. “This is token homosexuality,” says Onir. “There is a need to normalize instead of perpetuating stereotypes. Moreover, being physical is an integral part of our culture, but by stereotyping that holding hands is gay behavior we are adding to the homophobia. The question is: What signal are we sending out here?”

The signal may be mixed but it’s timing is apt. The Delhi High Court is currently deliberating a petition filed by the Naz Foundation (India) Trust, a nongovernmental organization that supports gay rights, which asks that Section 377 be reevaluated to decriminalize private consensual sexual activity. Prominent Indians such as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and acclaimed writer Vikram Seth have publicly demanded a legal change. Even the Health Ministry and Law Ministry have suggested the same. However the government maintains that gay sex is “against the order of nature” and propagates Western values. The hearings continue and a verdict is expected before year’s end.

While “Dostana” doesn’t make any political statements, Johar is confident that it will add to the conversation. He says: “This is a baby step, but endeavors like this do open up vistas. Cinema has a tendency of opening up mind-sets and making you a little more prepared for things. It will be a talking point. And there can therefore, someday, be a ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ ” 

Chopra writes frequently about Indian cinema and is the author of “King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema,” among other books.

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