THE FREDDIE MERCURY biopic Bohemian Rhapsody releases next week in India. It has garnered negative reviews for being formulaic and sanitised, considering the colourful and transgressive figure that Freddie Mercury was. But the film, released earlier abroad, has already gone on to become a big hit. It has had a troubled origin, from its director Bryan Singer being fired to the first-choice lead, Sacha Baron Cohen, departing acrimoniously—but not without turning in the knife saying the film was more about the success of the band Queen than that of the extraordinary life of its frontman. The movie is now about to be shown in India, where his parents were born and where he first began to explore his musical talent.
It wasn’t just that Mercury’s voice was so distinct, that big vocal range, which some say owed its peculiarity to his pronounced overbite (he had four extra incisors at the back of his mouth), or that the range of the band’s music was so stylistically diverse, from out-and-out hard rock to elements of disco, pop and even opera. Mercury was an unusual figure in rock and roll history. He appeared at the peak of rock music, when there was no Asian rock musician, none of his stature at least, and very few openly gay musicians. Mercury was both, and right there at the top. A rock legend more excessive, more outrageous and more theatrical than anyone. He emerged on the scene in the 1970s and stayed on till he died because of AIDS-related complications in 1991.
Mercury began life as Farrokh Bulsara, the son of a Parsi couple from what was then Bombay Presidency. He was born in Zanzibar, where his father worked as a high-court cashier. When he was around eight, in 1954, he was sent to Panchgani, a hill station close to Mumbai, to study at St Peter’s School. He was there till 1962, and after apparently failing his Class 10 exams, studied briefly at St Mary’s in Mumbai. It was at St Peter’s that he earned the nickname ‘Bucky’ and later ‘Freddie’. He learnt the piano at St Peter’s and also formed a music band, The Hectics. Some say he had a crush on a girl named Gita in a neighbouring girls’ school then, others say it was already obvious he was gay. According to some teachers, he had the peculiar habit of calling others ‘darling’. In 1963, Mercury returned to Zanzibar, and later went to England.
While he never made a public statement about being gay, he put his sexuality at the centre of his music. He hid in plain sight. His music hinted at it. His sense of style was not just over-the-top, it often defied gender assumptions. Sometimes he appeared in nothing but tight shorts, sometimes dressed as a ballet dancer. He wore feathers, leotards and leather. He was in drag get-up for the music video of I Want to Break Free. He seemed to revel in all this. A YouTube video of Mercury’s 1985 birthday party at a bar in Munich shows everyone in drag and almost certainly high. Mercury struts around in harlequin pants and a jacket but without a shirt. A 1981 Rolling Stone article describes another birthday party, where he swung naked from a chandelier. On tour in Japan, Mercury appeared on a show with bananas atop his head. “The Carmen Miranda (the samba dancer and actress who was known for wearing fruit hats in her films) of rock & roll,” chuckled Mercury in the article, “But what can I say? I’m a flamboyant personality. I like going out and having a good time.” Asked about Mercury’s image, the band’s bassist John Deacon said, “Some of us (in the band) hate it… But that’s him and you can’t stop him.”
Mercury was many things. He was excessive, outrageous, theatrical, perhaps even debauched. He had an air of doom. But he was also a proud man and a true original.