Kapoor and Sons might just be a game changer for gay men in India. Here's how
If you were keeping close tabs on publicity surrounding just-released Bollywood flick Kapoor and Sons, you'll know this: several months ago it was rumoured that resident heartthrob Fawad Khan was going to play a gay character in the film.
Without any official comment the rumour quickly lost traction... only to be confirmed as the film released across India and beyond on March 18, making clear that Fawad Khan's character is in fact gay.
Kapoor and Sons is more family saga than romantic drama, which means Fawad's character's sexual orientation is a sub-plot rather than the film's main event.
Still, it's something of a moment for Indian cinema.
Kapoor and Sons is about a family of five that equal parts loves and hates each other.
Rahul and Arjun are brothers living on opposite sides of the world. Played by Fawad Khan, Rahul is a successful novelist in London and Arjun is a bartender and aspiring novelist in New Jersey.
The film sees the brothers thrust back into family life when their beloved grandfather suffers a heart attack. Rahul and Arjun return to India to find their parents on opposing sides of a battle for resources and affection and unwittingly get sucked into toxic family dynamics that position Rahul as the favoured son and Arjun as the no-good trouble maker. There's a love triangle and plenty of subterfuge too: Tia, played by Alia Bhatt, kisses Rahul but finds herself falling for Arjun.
In Kapoor and Sons people aren't really what they appear to be, and the film devotes much its screen time to unraveling each character's secret life and store of long-held grievances. And that's where Rahul's sexual orientation becomes important.
When Rahul's mother discovers he's gay she breaks down and wonders what she's done to deserve a son 'like him.' This is an opportunity to push an intelligent message and Kapoor and Sons seizes it.
A key scene sees Rahul's mother Sunita confront him about pictures she's seen on his laptop, pictures that make clear his partner in London is a man.
Rahul has led the family to believe he's been involved with a foreign woman when really he's been using the geographical distance between himself and his parents to fully inhabit his identity as a gay man. Though she's previously been shown to be fairly progressive, Sunita breaks down when she realises Rahul is gay. She accuses him of lying and wonders what she's done to deserve a son like him.
It's an all-too-real tableau that many gay men in South Asia are forced to enact.
In the absence of informed, non-judgemental conversations about male sexuality in mainstream Indian media and in the home it's plausible that gay men of Indian origin abroad find it easier to keep questions of marriage at bay with vague mentions of entanglements with foreign women rather than with open admissions of gayness.
Add to this the state of India's legislation on homosexuality (an act that sought to decriminalise homosexuality was overturned by the Supreme Court and now hangs in limbo) and you can understand some of the pressures and prejudices gay men and the LGBT community as a whole face in India.
Fawad plays a gay man minus the cliched camp that heteronormative Bollywood typically saddles gay characters with. The effect is that Kapoor and Sons places Rahul's personhood before his sexual orientation, allowing him the complexity films so often deny non-mainstream characters.
Against these odds, can Fawad Khan's portrayal of Rahul really impact how a movie-going Indian audience views gay men?
It might just. Though several Indian films before Kapoor and Sons have featured gay characters - notable names include Deepa Mehta's Fire, Hansal Mehta's Aligarh and Onir's My Brother Nikhil - they've mostly been viewed as art films or niche cinema and have had a limited audience.
In contrast Kapoor and Sons is an aspiring blockbuster and its sheer reach could potentially 'normalise' gay men by bringing gay characters into mainstream conversations in a way indie flicks just can't.
Add to this the fact that Fawad plays a gay man minus the cliched camp that heteronormative Bollywood typically saddles gay characters with (remember Abhishek Bachan's exaggerated flamboyance in a dance number in Bol Bachchan?) and you might get a general audience to arrive at a point of great enlightenment: gay men! They're just like us! They're not always affected or bitchy or uniformly libidinous or all about the drama (though they might be sometimes, and that's ok too), they're complex individuals wrestling with multiple demands on their time and emotional capacity like we all are.
Rahul -- responsible, mature, artistically stymied but still hopeful -- embodies this. The fact of his orientation is withheld from us until quite late in the movie which has the effect of placing his personhood before his sexual preferences. In this way Kapoor and Sons' writers allow Rahul the complexity films so often deny non-mainstream characters, making clear that gay men in India are people first; they're writers and artists and bankers and entrepreneurs with hopes and fears and ambitions, like anybody else, they resist categorization.
Kapoor and Sons isn't pitch-perfect. The film makes a few mistakes, is cautious, takes baby steps. In fact, I can't recall the word 'gay' being mentioned at all in Rahul's and Sunita's confrontation. But it is a start.
In fact, this point is very deliberately brought home when Rahul makes clear to his mother that being gay is as much a part of him as his literary inclinations -- it's his identity, not a fad or choice or a consequence of living abroad.
And of course there's Fawad Khan's own star power and persona.
He's the hottest ticket in Bollywood right now, where he's hit the right notes in terms of sex appeal, mystique and refinement. He's splashed across a boggling array of magazine covers, he's known to make women go weak in the knees. Fawad Khan playing a gay man is a game changer not only because his star power will draw attention to the difficult negotiations of being a gay man. What's really key in his accepting the role is that Kapoor and Sons challenges notions of 'ideal' masculinity by casting a popular sex symbol as a gay man.
It raises questions that need to be asked and debated right now, especially in the wake of well-known instances of sexual violence in India. Questions like: what does it mean to be an Indian man? How do you define maleness in India, and can this definition include fluid sexuality? Is manliness in India directly related straightness, and how does that effect us all?
Kapoor and Sons isn't pitch-perfect. The film makes a few mistakes, is cautious, takes baby steps. In fact, I can't recall the word 'gay' being mentioned at all in Rahul's and Sunita's confrontation. When Rahul finally does come out to his family he prefers to say: "I've never liked women and I'm never going to like women [in that way]."
But it's a start, and it's exciting to imagine which cinema stereotypes the film's writers -- and it's star, Fawad Khan -- will overturn next.