Popular culture has made a taboo topic the subject of media and living-room debate in India. And many feel rightly so and high time it did!
A little background first. Homosexuality in India is a legally punishable offence under Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, with punishment that can extend to 10 years of imprisonment. With an officially estimated 2.6 million-strong gay community in India, this creates a strange problem for the government. The Health Minister believes the law makes it difficult for his department to effectively run programs to manage HIV/AIDS among the most vulnerable within the gay community. The law forces homosexuals to largely stay underground as they are open to legal exploitation otherwise, along with the health workers and doctors who work with them.
As a society, Indians are not comfortable discussing sex and sexuality, all the attention given the Kama sutra notwithstanding. Homosexuality is very high on the taboo list in the middle-class Indian living room. Thus, a gay person coming from a typical middle- to lower-middle-class Indian family is most likely to hide his sexuality even from his immediate family, often getting forced into an arranged marriage by his relatives. This leads to much unhappiness for all concerned in the long run, not to mention the increased health hazards, as the law prevents government-run HIV/AIDS containment programs from reaching him.
Enter Bollywood. "Dostana" (which means "friendship") is a big recent hit featuring big Bollywood stars Abhishek Bachchan, John Abraham and Priyanka Chopra, and it has a gay theme as the two male leads, Abraham and Bachchan, pretend to be a gay couple. Reviews of the film, both in print and on TV, speak about the "chemistry between Abhishek and John." Interviews of the stars themselves also refer to this "chemistry," and all of this is streaming into our living rooms through prime-time TV across both news and general entertainment channels.
Its not that the gay theme has not been touched upon earlier in Bollywood films. Two other films in just the last couple of years "'Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd." and "Fashion") had gay references, but not as the main theme of the film. What "Dostana" has done is to make the gay theme the crux of its storyline. The presence of big stars and the hit status of the film has helped in bringing the issue of homosexuality into the mainstream consciousness and discussion.
While it would be naive to assume that homosexuality will become either socially or legally more acceptable after a Bollywood hit, many hope that a little more openness and public discussion will lead to a more enlightened view being taken on this issue. And that is the power that Bollywood popular culture wields over us!
Here's the trailer: