Why a Bollywood memoir has kicked up a storm about being gay in India
(BBC) Bollywood director and talk show host Karan Johar’s autobiography has kicked off a loud debate on being gay in India, writes Sudha G Tilak.
“Everybody knows what my sexual orientation is. I don’t need to scream it out. If I need to spell it out, I won’t only because I live in a country where I could possibly be jailed for saying this. Which is why I Karan Johar will not say the three words that possibly everybody knows about me,” Johar says in the book.
The title of his memoir, An Unsuitable Boy, is a play on A Suitable Boy, the novel by award-winning Indian author Vikram Seth.
Seth has publicly spoken up against a draconian Indian law that criminalises homosexuality. His mother, a former judge and writer, has also written about Seth being gay.
In an interview, Seth had said that it was a “sad dereliction of their responsibility” when famous Indians refused to come out and be “role models” for many others who were suffering silently.
However, Johar’s memoir, co-authored with journalist Poonam Saxena, does not do that.
And Bollywood’s budding filmmakers, activists and Twitterati have come down on him saying he has only trivialised being gay in his films. They say his decision to hold back from explicitly coming out, and opting to leave “bold clues” about his sexuality instead, belittles their suffering.
In response to the criticism Johar writes, “The reason I don’t say it out aloud is simply that I don’t want to be dealing with the FIRs [police complaints]. I’m very sorry. I have a job, I have a commitment to my company, to my people who work for me; there are over a hundred people that I’m answerable to.
“I’m not going to sit in the courts because of ridiculous, completely bigoted individuals who have no education, no intelligence, who go into some kind of rapture for publicity.”
According to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), a 155-year-old colonial-era law, a same-sex relationship is an “unnatural offence”. Last February, India’s Supreme Court agreed to revisit a previous judgement that upheld the law.
In deeply conservative India, homosexuality is a taboo and many people still regard same-sex relationships as illegitimate.
However that has not mitigated the outpouring of anger against Johar.
One of his strongest critics is Apurva Asrani, a script writer and editor of Aligarh, a gay rights Bollywood film based on true incidents.
Asrani went on social media to criticise Johar’s autobiography and his resistance to coming out, saying that he was “appalled”. He called Johar’s extract on his sexuality a “regressive and a cowardly statement“.
Johar’s book also details his lonely childhood. He talks about growing up with weight issues in a plush neighbourhood in Mumbai among children of the film industry as his father was a producer.
The book also talks about Johar’s well known friendship with Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan and his spats with Bollywood’s leading ladies.
Johar’s films have been set in locations in America or Britain dealing with the romantic issues of the rich and the beautiful.
His films have been criticised for stereotyping women as in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and for peddling fluff.
They have often poked fun of gay characters and have used innuendos and jokes while referencing gays in his films.
His production house may have backed many meaningful films that have spoken about gay issues with sensitivity, but his own storytelling in his movies and memoir is wanting, say critics.
In addition to his films, Johar also hosts a hugely popular television chat show filled with Bollywood’s beautiful people discussing their crushes, courting controversies, fuelling gossip and adult jokes.
In the show, Johar also allows gay jokes, uses self-mocking throwaway lines about his sexuality and uses innuendo which has irked critics for trivialising his sexuality.
But he also has his supporters. “His book is remarkably candid and courageous. He has shared his vulnerabilities and fears,” writer and publisher Shobhaa De said of Johar.
Johar, one of the cleverest and most influential Bollywood directors, isn’t giving the pleasure of saying what everyone knows, gay rights notwithstanding.