Gay Bombay: An Interview with Parmesh Shahani (Part One)

Parmesh Shahani, a recent alum of the Comparative Media Studies Masters Program, now consulting for some of the leading magazines and media companies in India, has published an exciting new book, Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India. The book, which was adopted from his thesis, is a tour de force which manages to apply multiple modes of analysis — ethnographic, historical, institutional, and autobiographical — to explore a moment of change as his home country adjusts to what is at once an economic, a sexual, and a media revolution.

As one of his thesis advisors, I had a chance to watch this manuscript take shape as he learned how to balance the competing conceptual frames needed to understand and explicate this complex set of transitions. Some of the most compelling aspects of the book are the most confessional: Shahani draws on his own sexual experiences to offer insights into how people are living these changes through their bodies. It is a daring approach, especially given the recent history of homophobic backlash in India, but it also sheds insights that no more distanced writing could offer. In my classes, we read the manifesto introduction to Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture which talks about the importance of writing about “culture that sticks to your skin” and the value of first person perspectives for describing our experiences with popular culture. I recall his enthusiasm as we discussed this material and was happy to see him push this idea to the limits as he was writing his thesis.

So, I hope I can be forgiven a teacher’s pride in seeing one of my students make good as I share with you this interview with Shahani about his book, about the place of gay culture in India, and about the methods behind his research.

You write, “Gay does not mean what it does in America, or in the west at large. They have creatively played with it, modified it, made it their own.” So what does gay mean in an Indian context?

Homosexuality isn’t an alien concept in India. A brief flashback. Ancient Indian texts from the Vedic period and the Kama Sutra all indicate that ancient Hinduism had place for a ‘third sex’. Even pre- colonial India was generally tolerant, but things changed under British rule, and in 1861, the British legal system was imposed on to India as the Indian Penal Code. Section 377 of this code was an offshoot of the British 1860 anti sodomy law, and thus male same sex acts were criminalized. The British also collected, translated, rearranged and sometimes rewrote Indian history as part of their ‘Orientalist’ agenda during the two centuries of their rule and part of their rearrangement included eliminating or marginalizing all traces of positive same-sex references.

Flash forward to today. In contemporary urban India (My research was based solely within this context), while there is no guilt-based taboo against homosexuality, being gay has its own unique set of connotations and experiences because of the cultural and social structures, and family pressures that insist on conformity to traditional patriarchal, heteronormative values.

Family, social and community connections are the primary ties, and gay people do not want to let go of these at all. People hardly come out, and even if they do, they want to accommodate their gay identity within the established framework. In the west, if families are un- accepting, then gay men often move away and form separate communities but almost all the people I interviewed for the book who were living in India were adamant that they were very connected to their families and did not want to move away from them at all.

The second aspect is the institution of heterosexual marriage. It is almost like a compulsory stage of life, and for many gay people, this is the biggest challenge that they have to negotiate. Sometimes they manage to avoid it, but many times, they don’t, which creates a whole new set of problems. The pressure to conform is even more intense when the gay person is effeminate and thus visibly marked different. Rebellion against this pressure can sometimes mean banishment but in most cases, the gay person is not thrown out, but pressured to change his ways in order to maintain the family honour.

The third aspect is the law. The Indian penal code continues to criminalize same sex behaviour, and this is really problematic in several ways – in terms of the limitations to health and safe sex outreach, in terms of the restrictions to same sex partnerships in terms of cohabitation and planning a life together, etc. At the same time, there are also so many global influences, whether it is the coverage of gay marriage in the US that gets reported on regularly in India, or films like Brokeback Mountain, or gay dance parties and so on.

When urban Indian gay men construct an idea of their gayness, they draw upon all of these different components and create an imagination with global influences but rooted very much in the local realities. I think that to be gay in Gay Bombay signifies being ‘glocal’; and gayness here stands for Indianized gayness. So, one might dance in a Western style disco anywhere else in the world, but one can only munch on a post-dance jalebi sweet in India. The online-offline group Gay Bombay, around which my book is based, is certainly inspired by Western notions of what it means to be gay – its dance parties, PFLAG style meets, website, etc, have all drawn from Western experiences; but they have been customized, glocalized, and made uniquely Indian. For example, several support group meets take place around uniquely Indian festivals such as Holi (festival of colours) and Raksha Bandhan (which celebrates brother-sister love), and the festivals are appropriated to meet the needs of the group.

How are debates about how we label sexual identities tied up with concerns about

westernization and globalization?

Oh, they are very tied up. In fact, this is the main line of attack used whenever the discourse around homosexuality becomes too public, or too threatening. It seems that being gay is something that needs to be prevented from happening to the impressionable young men and women of the country! Right wing Hindu fundamentalist groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Brotherhood of Volunteers) are only too happy to jump on the “anti-Indian culture” bandwagon at any given time. I write in the book about how the current Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh was clearly flustered by a question about same sex marriages by a Canadian journalist and emphasized that these kinds of things were not appreciated in India. The lesbian themed movie Fire (1998) was deemed as an attack by “ultra westernized elite” on “the traditional set up” through “explicit lesbianism and other perversities” by the right-wing newspaper The Organizer.

Concerns about the negative impact of globalization are also expressed by certain

members of the gay community. The English speaking upper middle classes have largely been the beneficiaries of globalization (jobs, travel, media consumption, internet usage, etc.), but for the non-gay identified homosexuals from the working classes, life might have become harder.

Globalization is also viewed as a positive prism to promote the decriminalization of

homosexuality. This point of view wonders if it is right for a country that aspires to

be part of global scene to victimize its minorities. As the journalist Karan Thapar

writes in a recent Hindustan Times article, “by continuing to do so we make a mockery of our commitment to human rights leave aside all the Geneva conventions we have signed up to. So, for the sake of our democracy, this must be repealed.”

On a lighter note, some of my interviewees, especially the older ones, were very

uncomfortable with what they felt were the Westernized aesthetics of the younger

generation. One of them was particularly dismayed at the younger lot’s disdain for body hair and mustaches, something that he described as inherently Indian.

How are shifts in the status of gay people in India being represented in Indian popular culture, especially in Bollywood films?

I’m not at all satisfied with the way gay people are currently being represented in

Bollywood films. Given the number of gay people within the film industry itself, I’d

have liked that the representation be more nuanced! However there have certainly been

some shifts over the years and these give me hope there will be progress in future.

We should remember that Bollywood has a long tradition of having comic sequences or songs featuring cross-dressing male stars. For instance, Amitabh Bachchan in a sari in

1981′s Laawaris (The Orphan), Rishi Kapoor in a dress in 1975′s Rafoo Chakkar (The Runaways), Aamir Khan in a gown in 1995′s Baazi (Game), and there are so many more

examples. Post the economic reforms of the 1990s, we begin to see the gay sidekick as a regular comic character in many Bollywood films, like Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke (Companions on the Road of Love, 1993), Raja Hindustani (Indian King, 1996) and Taal (Rhythm, 1999). These markedly effeminate, comic gay characters are ridiculed but also indulgently patronized by the protagonists, and effectively neutralized. Thus, the camp phenomenon Bobby Darling (who often plays himself in his on screen appearances) is teased and mocked in whatever film he is a part of, but his place in the youth gang is never in doubt. It is of course understood that he will never behave transgressively with the hero, coo over him or insinuate desire for him. He is accepted, despite being different, because his loyalty as a friend and overall integration into the master narrative overrule his effeminate behavior and implied homosexuality.

In recent years, the camp comic has been replaced in films like Page 3 (2004) and Let’s Enjoy (2004) with the debauched, decadent gay designer, hitting on straight men with impunity for his own sexual gratification. I suppose all of this mirrors Hollywood and its initial portrayals of gay men as comic characters or villains. It is still very rare to find somewhat complex gay characters, as in films like Bombay Boys (1998) and Split Wide Open (1999). I want to point to three films that make me hopeful about change, and one trend that I believe is going to accelerate the process. These three films are 2003′s Kal Ho Na Ho (If Tomorrow Does Not Come), 2005′s My Brother Nikhil and 2007′s Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd.

In Kal Ho Na Ho, there is a funny ‘gay’ subplot between the two lead actors, played by stars Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, who form the two corners of the love triangle in the film, with actress Preity Zinta as the third. Shah Rukh and Saif’s characters pretend to be gay throughout the film, much to the disapproval of Kantaben, the housekeeper. They constantly caress each other and spout double- entendre dialogue to shock old Kantaben, and they take us on the ride with them. It is not us, the viewers, but Kantaben who is old fashioned. Shah Rukh and Saif also camped it up with each other as emcees of the annual Filmfare Awards in 2004 (India’s Oscar equivalent) – a show that was broadcast to millions of viewers over television. I find the casual breeziness with both these stars treat gayness, both on film as well as on stage, energizing. What’s the big deal, they seem to suggest. Get over it. (The film, incidentally also featured a gay kiss between two white New Yorkers in one song sequence, and an overtly camp Indian wedding planner!)

I was very impressed with My Brother Nikhil in 2005, a Bollywood film that dealt with the trials and tribulations of a gay champion swimmer who is found to be HIV positive (based on the real life story of Dominic D’Souza). Its debutant director Onir had managed to portray homosexuality with decency, sensitivity, romance, and something that was completely incidental to the story, which I thought was amazing.

The 2007 film Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. had two gay sub-plots. The story was about six couples on a honeymoon package tour vacation in Goa. During the course of the vacation, two of the respective husbands on the trip get attracted to each other. One comes out to his wife, who is furious about the deception, but they land up becoming friends. The other one gets back in the closet and says nothing to his newly married wife. The film won the Best Film award at the inaugural Indian Queer Media Awards in 2007, that honor sensitive media representations of LBGT characters.

The trends that I think will accelerate a more vibrant, complex portrayal of gay

characters are that of multiplex cinemas and a corporate-managed portfolio-style

approach towards film making. Over the past five years, both these trends have enabled a wide spectrum of Bollywood films being made, right from the low-budget indie like Bheja Fry (Brain Fry) to the giant mega-expensive Singh is Kinng type of extravaganza. At the lower end of the spectrum, there is enough of a chance for creativity and diversity; studios are now bankrolling different type of efforts and small-sized theatres and the ancillary satellite/DVD markets are ensuring that the shelf life of these low budget films gets extended.

Parmesh Shahani is based in Bombay, India, where he works on new media, venture capital and innovation for Mahindra & Mahindra and also serves as the Editorial Director of Verve magazine. He is also a research affiliate with the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium. His prior work experiences have included founding India’s first youth website, business development for Sony’s Indian television channel operations, writing and editing copy for Elle magazine and the Times of India group, helping make a low-budget feature film and teaching as a visiting faculty member at a Bombay college. Parmesh holds undergraduate degrees in commerce and education from the University of Bombay, and a graduate degree in Comparative Media Studies, from MIT. His first book – Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India (New Delhi, London, Los Angeles, Singapore: Sage Publications) was released in April 2008.