I have three answers, just ask the question,” says Heena Rehman aka Octopus, to Tabu’s Krishna Mehra in Vishal Bhardwaj’s spy thriller on Netflix, Khufiya. She is talking about national secrets, but as she looks into Tabu’s eyes, she is also asking whether she is ready to be with her. Did Azmeri Haque Badhon, the Bangladeshi actor who acted as Octopus, have any hesitation in playing a lesbian? “I’m in love with her in real life,” she says with a laugh. “She is such a diva. I have always admired her and her work. So, it was not that hard for me to romance her,” she adds. They even had their own song, ‘Hum ko aur rolana ho to mat aana’, sung by Rekha Bhardwaj with lines of Abdul Basit’s poetry.
As an actor, Badhon had no hesitation in taking the role. “As a human being I’m not homophobic. I believe that everyone in this world should have the right to pursue their truth. I was a little worried about the audience reaction in my country but they loved my work, my decision and the chemistry between Octopus and Krishna Mehra (Tabu),” she adds.
Khufiya is one of several recent movies and shows, which are normalising same-sex love, even if the Supreme Court has referred the question of same-sex marriage to the Parliament.
From a spectacular commitment ceremony between two women in the second season of Made in Heaven on Prime Video where the reluctant mother makes a joyous appearance to the tragic love affair between two men, which leads to a series of horrific deaths in Netflix’s moving series, Kohrra, same sex-couples are out and about in the entertainment industry. As Alankrita Shrivastava, one of the directors of Prime Video’s Made in Heaven says, “Law and society don’t necessarily move together. Often the two things move at a different pace. Society becoming accepting of same-sex love is as crucial as the law needing to change.”
Shrivastava says it was important to show the commitment ceremony because they wanted a positive affirmation and joyful celebration for same-sex love, even if couples are still not allowed to marry by law in India. “We wanted to show what is possible versus what is going on in the other track, the lead character Karan Mehra’s life where his mother is not ready to accept that he is gay. The idea of the show was to have all kinds of matches. We wanted a ceremony that was not apologetic or half-hearted but a powerful coming together of two individuals who really love each other,” she says of the scene in the show where the two women arrive dressed as warrior goddesses mounted on gleaming black horses, subverting the ideal of the knight in shining armour.
Same-sex love has travelled the distance from being a joke as in Dostana (2008), where the heterosexual leads pretend to be gay to be roommates, to being front and centre of the movie as in Prime Video’s Maja Ma (2022) where the lead character, a perfect homemaker played by Madhuri Dixit, comes out as gay towards the end of the movie, or this year’s Gulmohar (on Disney+Hotstar), where Sharmila Tagore plays a grandmother who wants to spend her last years in the company of her beloved, a female singer, in Puducherry. Or Badhaai Do (Netflix, 2022), which features a gay couple coming together for convenience. Rajkummar Rao plays a gay police officer in love with a stylish lawyer, played by Gulshan Devaiah, while Bhumi Pednekar plays a physical education teacher in love with a Northeastern hospital assistant, played by Chum Darang. Their theme song, ‘Hum they seedhe saadhe’, is truly sentimental.
Harshavardhan Kulkarni director of Badhaai Do says the creative industry is more tolerant and always has been. “We have lots of queer people who are part of the industry and that probably makes the industry less judgemental. In the last two years, there have been three mainstream films with queer protagonists (Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020), Maja Ma (2022) and Badhaai Do). Each one of them has been exploring queer characters, not always in the right way, but not at all like earlier years where they were absolutely misrepresented or used for just humour,” he says.
In the Netflix series set in a posh school in Delhi, Cla$$, director Ashim Ahluwalia was keen to avoid tokenising representations of queerness. He wanted his two young men, Faruq, the young Kashmiri drug peddler, and Dhruv, the principal’s ace swimmer son, to be multi-dimensional, not solely defined by their sexuality or gender identity. They were complete people with their sexuality just one part of who they were.
In so many ways, says Ahluwalia, what truly struck him about the show’s success was how it made Faruq and Dhruv incredibly relatable to audiences. It granted mainstream viewers a rare opportunity to inhabit their perspective, a perspective we don’t encounter every day in the world of Indian cinema and television.
“There was a genuine sense of empathy,” he says. “My inbox was flooded with messages from teenagers who saw the show as a catalyst for important conversations, helping them open up to their parents about their own identities. Having relatable characters on screen, ones who resemble you, is absolutely vital, especially in making queer kids feel less isolated.”
At the same time, he says, he doesn’t think every LGBTQ+ story needs a fairy tale ending, a perspective he has noticed being critiqued at times. “We can’t erase the challenges and hardships that come with these narratives. All stories, including LGBTQ+ ones, are fundamentally human, encompassing both the joys and sorrows that life brings,” he says, which makes Karan’s troubles with the law, with his own consciousness, and with his mother, so poignant in Made in Heaven.
Made in Heaven also shows the many kinds of same-sex love. It isn’t always romantic or sexual. Sometimes, as the bond between Karan and his school friend, Nawab, shows, it can be love and friendship of the purest kind. Companionship is also the subject of a new film set in Australia and directed by Raghuvir Joshi, Sahela. To be shown at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, it explores what happens to a marriage when the husband comes out as gay, love doesn’t disappear but it mutates, as the wife rebels against those telling her to seek compensation from her husband. “Why should he be punished for being gay?” she asks.
Starring Antonio Aakeel and Anula Navlekar, Joshi said casting the film was not a problem. “It wasn’t the gay part that was hard as much as it was getting the interiority of the characters,” says Joshi, given how much of Akeel’s struggle is with his own soul. This is light years away from the casting troubles that plagued Kapoor & Sons in 2016, when it was Pakistani actor Fawad Khan who finally played the closeted older brother, a role rejected by several mainstream actors. With actors such as Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar and now Tabu having played LGBTQ+ characters, the acceptability has risen.
Tabu’s sexuality was an important aspect of Khufiya. As Rohan Narula, its writer, says, Khufiya was not only about the secrets in espionage that govern global politics but also about the secrets we keep from our loved ones and from ourselves. “We also thought that it was important to show the consequences when those secrets unravel. Hence, we decided to paint Krishna Mehra as a spy who lies to her child that she works in the Cabinet Secretariat and lies to herself about who she really is. And to shed light on the consequences, we made the death of her lover the driving force in the story,” he says.
So, Octopus may have double crossed her, which led to Krishna’s snub, but it was that snub that pushed Octopus to the brink and she risked her life to prove her love and loyalty to Krishna. This act of love, motivated by Krishna’s rejection, led to Octopus’ death, making Krishna complicit (as her boss Jeev says, “It’s not me, it’s you who killed her, KM”).
For many in the queer community though the film industry hasn’t changed enough. While there are several instances of shows dealing with queer themes, they are often unrecognisable to queer people as they are written for and by straight people. There is a dearth of queer content that normalises not just the glamorous parts of queerness but also the not-so-glamorous. Faraz Arif Ansari, who has directed acclaimed shorts about same-sex love, such as Sheer Qorma and Sisak, says: “We need honest, authentic representation that comes from lived experiences and not research.”
Also, while there are more investors for such films, these films still tread a tightrope of being authentic and being marketable. “People do want to see queer content but only content that does not disrupt the current social order. Only a certain kind of queerness is promoted—elite, happy and forgettable, nothing that truly challenges the ethos of the heterosexual social order,” adds Ansari. His next film, Bun Tikki, has just been greenlit. “It is going to open up a larger, much-needed conversation on being a parent, on being a child, on being a friend in the times we live in and focus on the dire need of empathy,” he says.
Legalising same-sex marriage could go a long way in building a gentler more inclusive society, but by showing same-sex relationships, the film industry is helping to normalise different kinds of loves and build more empathy.