Cinema has the power to weave stories to the masses in ways that affect their perceptions and beliefs. Bollywood has been a major influence on Indian culture for decades like everyone wants a campus life like in “Student of the year”! It is well-known for its elaborate song and dance sequences and its ability to reflect and shape the cultural norms and values of our society. Look at how Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gum became the ideal family staple and ‘bole chudiya’ the go to wedding song. One area where it has had a significant impact is in the representation of queer characters in its movies. The queer community has had to fight its way towards fair representation.
In the past, Bollywood portrayed queer characters in a negative light, often as villains or as mentally unstable individual. This representation was harmful and reinforced negative stereotypes about the queer community- all trans people as brothel owners, man, talk about consistency in the wrong place! As time went by, Bollywood began to use queer characters as comic relief, perpetuating harmful stereotypes about queer individuals. Reducing queerness to merely display funny or bizarre! yay! Ribbons! Men in pink tight T-shirts! They were the butt of all the jokes and their sole purpose was as a plot device, not as flesh and blood people with their own feelings and thoughts.
However, in recent years, there has been a noticeable shift in Bollywood’s representation of queer characters. Bollywood has started to portray queer characters in a more positive and nuanced manner. For example, the movie “Kapoor & Sons” (2016) portrayed a gay character in a realistic and sensitive manner, and the movie “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga” (2019) explored the struggles of a queer woman coming out to her conservative family. These characters are main characters shown having emotions, feelings and problems just like everyone else – cue people screaming finallyyyy!.
This shift towards a more positive queer representation has had a significant impact on the queer community in India. Not only does it make millions from the community feel heard, it also shows them in the light of normalcy and not with the filter of abnormality. Research shows that watching films with positive queer representation can make queer individuals feel more validated, accepted, and empowered. The increased representation of queer characters has helped to start a conversation about queer rights and acceptance in our society. It has also helped to normalize queer identities. It helps closeted individuals and individuals with internalized homophobia to see themselves in a newer and more positive light. Furthermore, Bollywood’s positive representation of queer characters had a positive impact on queer youth in India. Young queer individuals are now able to see themselves represented on the big screen, which can be incredibly empowering and validating. To see other people like themselves in roles and journeys that they otherwise did not have access to, enables them to imagine, dream and innovate. This is confirmed by research studies that show that positive queer representation in films can have a significant impact on the self-confidence of queer individuals.
Authentic queer representation in Bollywood empowers the queer community by reducing stigma surrounding them and by throwing light on the problems that they face. Problems like anxiety, discrimination, loneliness and identity loss. As humans, all we want is to be seen, heard and validated. The representation therefore helps lift some of the load off of the mental health problems that they face by giving the community something to relate to; something to resonate with. As the representation improves and becomes more grounded in reality, so will the wellbeing of the queer community be more holistic. So will increase the acceptance of their nuanced lives.