Even the most gora-est goras have seen, or at the very least heard of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, or Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. Such is Karan Johar’s impact, the “K-Jo” brand of films that often seep into the diasporic consciousness, amalgamating a longing for return to the homeland with a misplaced pride in being the good immigrant – behaving well abroad, sending money home, and a love for parents above all else. Johar’s films nearly always harness star power, his films studded with Bollywood icons such as Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, or Amitabh Bachchan. His work boasts massive budgets, fantastic production value (with the exception of some terrible CGI animals), dramatic panoramas of foreign cities, and almost always drip with cheese and melodramatic dialogue. Johar’s brand seems almost certainly the zenith of commercial cinema; however, this spotlight will focus on the man’s capability to bring about a conversation regarding the portrayal of queer characters in Bollywood.
Johar is famously reluctant about labelling his sexuality whilst not denying any rumours about it, stating “I live in a country where I could possibly be jailed for saying this”. Why would he not be reclusive, in a country that flip-flops on de-criminalizing and re-criminalizing homosexuality based on archaic colonial laws? There are, of course, Indian films dealing with queer characters and issues: Fire depicted a lesbian relationship between two sisters-in-law, whilst Aligarh related the true story of a university professor exiled for his sexuality. Yet these were not mainstream “Bollywood” films, and rather considered ‘indie’ productions.
‘Indeed, in quite a few Johar films, the dosti (friendship) between male characters tend to carry an element of homoeroticism’
Johar has managed to use the ‘K-Jo’ brand to bring queer cinema to the forefront of Bollywood, when it was often relegated to ‘art’ films, blurring the line between ‘mass and class’ in portraying minority experiences. His Dostana, where two men pretend to be gay in order to rent an apartment, has the usual campiness and exaggerated straight-men-pretending-to-be-gay tropes. However, the film also has several gay characters (other than our two heroes), a mother accepting her (not really) gay son, and how the subtext of the film plays with the possibility of the two leads possibly having had feelings for each other during their charade. Indeed, in quite a few Johar films, the dosti (friendship) between male characters tend to carry an element of homoeroticism.
He also directed segments in the anthology film Bombay Talkies and its sequel, Lust Stories. His segment in Talkies related the story of a woman in an unhappy relationship with a closeted man, exploring the difficulties in coming to terms with one’s own sexuality. His part in Lust dealt with the nationally taboo topics of unrestrained female sexuality and even depicted the female orgasm on screen. In Kapoor and Sons, the “perfect son” comes out to his parents as gay. Johar also toys with the male body in his films, with the camera often focusing on the man even as he looks at or interacts with the female love interest.
It is not to say, however, that Johar’s gay characters in his more opulent films are not incredibly stereotypical and often rely on campiness to evidence their sexuality. Yet this is generally the case in Indian cinema – queer characters are either put through endless trials and tragedy (see: Aligarh, My Brother Nikhil), or are flamboyant stereotypes (see: English Vinglish). Johar’s queer characters, whilst problematic, manage to segue into the melodramatic and ostentatious depictions of all the other characters in his films, managing to give them a space in mainstream Bollywood whilst also starting a discourse on how the queer experience should be portrayed.