By Poulomi Das
In March 2016, the Lok Sabha voted against Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s introduction of a private member’s bill to decriminalise homosexuality for the second time in three months. Unfortunately, his bill that sought to “decriminalise sexual intercourse in private between consenting adults, irrespective of their sexuality or gender” found favour with a measly 14 members, while 58 opposed it. At the time, Tharoor blamed the BJP for using its “brute majority” to thwart his attempt, calling India the world’s largest hypocrisy.
Earlier in January that year, a humiliated 15-year-old boy set himself on fire in Agra, unable to endure the bullying and shame that followed after a neighbour spotted him with his male partner. The incident that became a tragic reminder of why India needed to address discrimination faced by homosexuals, was followed by an even more potent portrait of a prejudicial society that punished homosexuals for not being like the rest of us. Hansal Mehta’s riveting Aligarh based on the real-life victimisation of gay professor Ramchandra Siras released in theatres.
In fact, by hiding his sexuality in plain sight, Kapoor & Sons afforded its gay protagonist a rare complexity that was completely divorced from his sexual orientation.
The silver lining in those dire months, when the prevailing climate fostered viewing homsexuality as “unnatural” appeared in an unlikely source: Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions. Just a week after the Lok Sabha chose to side against same-sex relationships, came Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons, a brilliantly observed study of the gnawing resentment that families silently carry throughout their lives fully knowing the repercussions they have on each other. Starring an eclectic ensemble cast – Fawad Khan in top form, Alia Bhatt, Sidharth Malhotra, Rajat Kapoor, Ratna Pathak Shah, and Rishi Kapoor — the film also became a watershed moment for India’s LGBT people and allies, by having a gay character in the lead, and arguably mainstream cinema’s finest coming out moment.
Kapoor & Sons wasn’t the first instance of a gay protagonist headlining a film offering; In the past, Bollywood has had Deepa Mehta’s Fire, Onir’s I Am and My Brother… Nikhil, Karan Johar’s short in Bombay Talkies, Netflix’s Loev, and of course, Aligarh. While all of these stories strive to emphasise the extreme prejudices faced by people in same-sex relationships, they’ve also been conveniently slotted as “arthouse films,” attaining little or no box-office success. Barring a few exceptions, these films have also unknowingly furthered the “foreignness” so many of us are guilty of attributing to homosexuality, by focusing on its characters’ uniqueness. For a long time, gay representation in Bollywood traversed the “our world vs their world” line.
To my mind, this is precisely where Kapoor & Sons broke new ground. The film featured a gay protagonist whose sexuality served as a sub-plot instead of being the central conflict in a mainstream film that more or less, centred around him. His homosexuality is incidental to his personality, as he exists among a slew of straight characters who harbour even worse secrets of their own. Even though it forms a part of the conflict toward the end, his sexuality is not spelt out in a dramatic life-changing declaration that mainstream Bollywood films are notorious for. By withholding his orientation until pretty late in the film, Kapoor & Sons made it possible to have a gay character whose sexuality neither defined him nor made him any different from the rest of us.By withholding his orientation until pretty late in the film, Kapoor & Sons made it possible to have a gay character whose sexuality neither defined him nor made him any different from the rest of us. Image credit: Dharma Productions
It’s a surreal feat, especially in a mainstream film backed by one of Bollywood’s biggest production houses that has the power to influence, if not change mindsets. More so, when you consider the humiliating stereotypes that mainstream Hindi films (including Johar’s own) have embraced in their misguided portrayal of homosexuality; right from Saif Ali Khan and SRK’s overtly flamboyant act in Kal Ho Naa Ho, Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham exploiting it as a prop in Dostana, to Rishi Kapoor’s egregious OTT act in Student of the Year.
In mainstreaming a heteronormative world where gay characters exist only to perpetuate cliches and be caricatures, Fawad Khan’s Rahul Kapoor is a refreshing anomaly. He is a successful, responsible, beer-guzzling, Chinese food-loving, bad joke-cracking, empathetic elder son, the object of our affection for most of the film. Even his character’s name is a sly nod at the aspirationally masculine legacy Bollywood hero name. It’s a clever, albeit quiet, touch that shatters assumptions of manhood.
In fact, by hiding his sexuality in plain sight, Kapoor & Sons afforded its gay protagonist a rare complexity that was completely divorced from his sexual orientation. It tricked audiences into seeing Rahul as one of us, even as he continued to Skype and chat with his boyfriend.In mainstreaming a heteronormative world where gay characters exist only to perpetuate cliches and be caricatures, Fawad Khan’s Rahul Kapoor is a refreshing anomaly. Image credit: Dharma Productions
One of the film’s moving moments comes minutes before the reveal when Rahul is in a harmless exchange with his mother Sunita (Ratna Pathak Shah), trying to convince her to come visit him in London. She laughs off his offer and his playful challenge, with an affectionate, “Because I know you better than anyone else.” It’s at this moment that the frivolity of the exchange swiftly tenses and Fawad wears a look of intense pain – it foreshadows his mother’s grief when she realises that that isn’t true.
When his mother finally confronts him about lying to her about having a girlfriend and expresses disgust at the fact that he isn’t who she thought he was, Rahul delivers the film’s most powerful line: “Aapko mere jhoot se gham hai hai ya mere asliyat se (Are you saddened by my lies or by my reality)?” His tearful apology comes with utmost clarity – he can’t apologise for his sexual orientation. The film articulates in so many words that being gay is as much a part of his identity as being a novelist or an adored son is. What is even more evocative about this moment is the fact that Sunita doesn’t try to change him, even though she takes her own time to come around to understanding him.
The burden of Rahul’s character in the film, and the consequences of playing it can also be gauged by the fact that at least six mainstream actors refused the part of Rahul Kapoor when Johar offered it to them. Which was a great thing, considering how well Fawad Khan – the object of male and female thirst across demographics – succeeds in normalising the gay man. And it doesn’t seem to have cast the slightest shadow on his stardom.
In a way, Sunita’s quiet acceptance of her son in Kapoor & Sons directly echoes “the monologue” from Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. Michael Stuhlbarg’s Mr Perlman tells his son Elio in the film’s most emotionally intense exchange to nurse the pain of his heartbreak and feel the full brunt of it, instead of snuffing it out. His revelation of envy and non-judgement for Elio’s “more than a friendship” with Oliver, is the kind of understanding from a parent that most gay kids can only dream about.
Even in 2018.