There has been considerable hype about the upcoming release of Dunno Y . . . Na Jaane Kyun, a film by Anil Sharma, scheduled to be released in or just after July 2010. It is being touted widely, by The Times Online for example, as India's first "answer to Brokeback Mountain." The Times story suggests that this is the first time "the sub-continent’s ultimate cinematic taboo is to be broached, with the first depiction of a gay kiss." The claim is true only if interpreted narrowly. There are a couple of problems with this narrow interpretation.
First, this narrow interpretation risks distorting the record.
Second, the narrow interpretation reinscribes implications redolent of neocolonial attitudes, namely that:
(a) Bollywood is entirely imitative, derivative of Hollywood models (in this case of Brokeback Mountain), and more generally of the modular form of Western cinema; and
(b) Bollywood, and Indian cinema generally, have arrived at “modernity” only recently, reinforcing the belatedness and “backwardness” of the country's cultural forms.
It is, admittedly, true that there has been a taboo against all kissing until recently in Subcontinental cinema. And the claim is true if the "gay" kiss is interpreted narrowly to imply exclusively a "male-male, non-heterosexual" and not female-female kiss. If the hype implies there has never before been any non-heterosexual kiss depicted in a film made by director of Indian descent and shown to Indian audiences, then that is an unfortunate distortion of the truth. I'd like to suggest that this distortion should not go uncorrected.
The Times' account is not the only one to proclaim the unprecedentedness of Dunno Y . . . Na Jaane Kyun. The Guardian carried a similar story, in an equally breathless tone. PBS recently launched (May 8, 2010) a new news show co-hosted by Jon Meacham and Alison Stewart called Need to Know (filling the vacated slot of Bill Moyers’ Journal) and the co-hosts seem equally excited about Sharma's film. And this is only the middle-highbrow press. There are numerous other popular media outlets whose reporting introduces other problematic issues that I cannot address here.
One of the main issues in the news coverage that does seem important to address is how the film is likely to be received in India when it is released. Many fear an anti-gay backlash. Sharma himself seems bravely upbeat, saying in an interview that Indian cinemagoers are now “mature enough” to handle such material. If this is true, then surely it is because those cinemagoers have encountered similar material at the movies before, in Indian cinema. The Times story itself acknowledges that there have been other precedents of note. It mentions, for instance, that New York, a film about 9/11, caused a stir because it showed the buttocks of the lead male actor, John Abraham. Another hit film from 2008 called Dostana portrayed two straight men pretending to be gay. Incidentally, the root of the word “Dostana” is the same as the root of the word “Dosti,” a term which has come to connote same-sex love, just as "gay" has come to connote same-sex love (or more narrowly male-male love) in the Euro-American context. And then there is the iconic antecedent from 1975, Sholay, which became the standard-bearer for a covert representation of “Dosti.” This film’s representation of male-male friendship could arguably be seen as a representation of homosocial bonding, if not homoerotic intimacy--a "bromance" avant la lettre--and indeed it was appropriated by the GLBT community in the Subcontinent as a kind of sleeper icon representing their community. So in this sense, even interpreting the term "gay" narrowly, Dunno Y . . . Na Jane Kyun is not exactly unprecedented as a representation of gay love, though certainly these earlier films don't “go all the way” to present a genuine gay kiss.
And if we were to ask, in a more capacious inquiry, whether this new film is indeed justified in claiming to be the first film to present a non-heterosexual kiss, then the answer is even more unequivocally No. Amid all the hype about this new film, it might be worth recalling Deepa Mehta's Fire, first released over a decade ago in 1996. I mention it first of all because it might give us an inkling of the reception Sharma's film might receive when released. Fire also portrays same-sex love. It tells the story of two women, named Radha and Sita, both stuck in unhappy marriages, who turn to each other for comfort and physical and erotic affection. The film enjoyed a positive critical--and academic--reception when it opened in Toronto first, but subsequently , when it opened in India, met with violent reactions from ultraconservative groups there who felt it insulted Indian culture by flirting with obscenity, threatening “family values,” attacking traditional heterosexual Indian marriage and, perhaps most reprehensibly, offering non-heterosexual love as a compensatory or better alternative to the heteronormative status quo. The Censorship Board reviewed the film twice and passed it twice, despite objections and even somewhat pathetic and desperate demands from the right to change the names of the lead female characters from Hindu names to Muslim names, presumably because Hindu culture does not condone such behavior or because Hindu women don't do things that Muslim women might.
For me a more important reason to invoke the example of Mehta's film is that it gives the lie to the canard that only now has Indian cinema managed come up with an answer to Brokeback Mountain, as though once again to rehearse the insinuation that all of Indian cinema is imitative, derivate and belated, with respect to the Hollywood and Western cinema generally. Now Mehta's film is not a "gay" film if "gay" means only male-male love to the exclusion of female-female love. Still, it depicts a pretty explicit non-heterosexual relationship as a challenge to the traditional heteronormative relationship.
Nor is Fire, stricto senu, a "Bollywood" film. Yet it was shown in India to the Indian public and had a profound impact on discourse about Indian sexual/domestic arrangements. When Mehta's film appeared it was an important intervention in many debates in the Indian public sphere about film but also about Indian society--debates about patriarchy and the social contract called marriage; about the oppression of women and GLBT subjects by social and sexual mores; about class; about censorship and the law (a propos, the Supreme Court seems set to put its seal of approval on the decriminalization of homosexuality in India through an amendment to the Indian Penal Code's Section 377); about violence and religion, and about the violence of religiosity. Not least, it showed two women kissing and doing more than that in bed, within the confines of a heterosexually organized domestic space. It is not too much to say that the film has already participated in reshaping tastes and outlooks, and so in some sense (re-)constituting the public culture into which Dunno Y . . . Na Jane Kyun will enter. And this was released well before Brokeback Mountain.
I don't mean to suggest that Mehta's film was without its problems. Among the problems was the director's insistence, despite all the visual evidence to the contrary, that the film was not about same-sex love, about lesbianism. Mehta claimed rather vapidly that it was really about "choices" for women. The director’s very language suggests a rather opportunistic, neoliberal, and instrumentalist access to the theme of same-sex desire or lesbianism. An insistence on “choice” makes lesbian love a non-issue, even as it deploys the figure of lesbian love, possibly to establish a vaguely “feminist” credibility in the neoliberal-humanist discourse current in enclaves of well-meaning liberals, enclaves in which one might place many middle-class educated diasporic Indians. Mehta's refusal to take lesbianism seriously is also tantamount to reneging on the challenge the film was assumed to be posing to the oppressive demands of patriarchy and to the dominant ideology of compulsory heteronormativity. For it is a refusal to take same-sex love seriously as an alternative mode of loving and living, an alternative to the hetero paradigm. (Wasn't its presumptive challenge the reason why the film was celebrated and vilified?) For all its flaws, however, Fire was an important milestone for Indian cinema (not only Bollywood cinema). So I'd like to invoke it here to contest the inflated claim of pathbreaking originality made on behalf of Dunno Y . . . Na Jane Kyun, however good the film turns out to be.