Rohit Shetty's new film Bol Bachchan may be drawing in large crowds but it commits one of the biggest Bollywood crimes, reinforcing gay stereotypes that Dostana popularised a while ago, writes Aseem Chhabra.
In one of most implausible Bollywood moments in Rohit Shetty's Bol Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan pretends to be a dance teacher, so as to cover up a silly lie that defines most of the film. But in reinforcing the stereotype that all men who teach dance are effeminate, over-the-top and also gay, he flaps his hands and arms, writhers on the floor, swings his hips and performs a lap dance for Ajay Devgn's character, all to a medley of Bollywood songs ranging from Darling, Maar Dala and Jab Tak Hain Jaan.
And just in case the audience was not amused by a straight man suffering and making himself look ridiculous, some parts of the sequence are shown in faster speed. The makers probably thought that if films at fast speed could get Charlie Chaplin laughs (although that had to do with the difference in the speed of the film and that of modern projectors), then it would surely entertain the audience watching Bachchan's character's predicament.
As I watched the film at an advance screening in New York City, that very troubling musical interlude got a lot of laughs. But while the entire film was packed with loud, forced humor, this scene had another dimension to it. The scene seemed to suggest how outrageous it can be to even suggest that a macho star like Bachchan (married to the most beautiful woman in the world), who matches Devgn's talents in thrashing all the baddies in town, could be made to pretend that he is a delicate, girlie dance instructor.
One can accuse Shetty of many crimes (although obviously critics don't have much say when it comes to box office successes of a moronic comedy like Bol Bachchan), but his reinforcement of the stereotype in Bol Bachchan -- and often emphasised in other Bollywood films -- that gays are a comic material, meant to be ridiculed and laughed at, is highly offensive.
It is like Shetty is telling his audience "Look at this man! He's acting gay. He looks odd and peculiar. So go ahead laugh at him. It's okay."
It is unfortunate that despite great breakthroughs due to efforts by activists and pioneers in getting legitimacy -- including now legal recognition for India's LGBT community -- Bollywood continues to make such regressive statements, giving a license to the audience to laugh at people because they may be slightly different than others.Of course when it comes to making fun of gays, Tarun Masukhani's Dostana is a frontrunner, with one running gag after another about its leads (Bachchan and John Abraham) and many of the other supporting actors. There was not one sympathetic or believable gay character in Dostana, a film that purported to break the barriers by making its straight leads pretend to be gay.
I watched Dostana in a packed theater in New Delhi, but much of the laughter in the theater was the result of the audience thrown in situations where the gay characters (real and those only acting gay) were silly, over-the-top, and mostly unreal.
What Dostana never realised was that gays can be funny, rather very funny. But there is a difference between laughing at the gay characters and laughing with them.
Bollywood often makes fun of characters from different communities and there is always an open season to laugh at South Indians. Remember Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om and in Ra.One, where his nerdy South Indian character mixes yogurt with his pasta? That is plain wrong and I am often surprised why more people do not protest against such near racist portrayals by Bollywood of India's regional communities.
As India goes through dramatic changes with liberalisation and rapid transformation of the society, especially in its major cities, it behooves stars like Khan to be more responsible role models. And this does not mean that Khan has to be boring.
Humor is a big part of Indian culture and Bollywood should celebrate it, but not at the expense of minorities and people who struggle with their lives because of all the social stigmas that exist in a traditional society.
Maybe I expect too much from people who get their fame, wealth and adulation from fans. And many celebrities in the west are equally frivolous, living their lives with not an ounce of a sense of social responsibility. But sometimes celebrities in India do cross the line, especially in the name of humor.
Last year at the IIFA ceremony in Toronto, Boman Irani and Ritesh Deshmukh put on an act as gay lovers, holding hands singing Bheege Hoth Tere. While the two were locked in an embrace -- much to the delight of the audience, that seemed shocked and amused at the same time. Khan (who had been on the stage with the two) came and separated them.
"Not like this, not like this, please," Khan said. "Like we said, we're performing for families, wonderful people who still think actors are decent people. So break that." And then talking to the audience, he moved to the next segment, "So, not letting them carry on with this vulgar display of emotion they were doing, I would like to announce now "
More laughter followed. But what did Khan say in that short interlude? That gays are not "decent people" and that the two men acting were engaged in a "vulgar display of emotion."
There is a similar moment in the Bol Bachchan sequence, as Bachchan's character (perhaps exhausted from his aerobic exercises to the songs) falls into the arms of one of Devgn's goons. "Control" Devgn screams, as a scared Bachchan goes scurrying in another direction.
Much like other critics, I was pretty upset with Shetty's film and frankly I could have ignored Bol Bachchan, since I was not going to review the film. Last Thursday, I actually walked out of the film after suffering two hours of its excruciatingly tedious humour. There was at least another half hour of the film left.
But as a journalist who often observes how life is reflected in cinema, it is imperative for me to say that much of the wrong that Bol Bachchan and a lot of Bollywood feed us in the name of entertainment needs to change. If we -- and here I refer to the audience base for Indian popular cinema -- continue to support the way films like Bol Bachchan treat some people as lesser human beings, then we will never progress as a society.