Earlier last month, actor and co-creator of Schitts Creek, Daniel Levy, called out the Indian counterpart of Comedy Central on twitter for reposting a clip from the show that edited out a gay kiss.
"The censorship of gay intimacy is making a harmful statement," lashed out the multiple-Emmy winner, writing #loveislove. The tweet was flooded with replies featuring the gay kiss, and people reprimanding the network for exhibiting such prejudice.
The clip, which featured Ted Mullens (Dustin Mulligan) and David Rose (Daniel Levy) lock lips while playing spin the bottle, also saw Stevie Budd (Emily Hampshire) and Alexis Rose (Annie Murphy) share a peck on the lips. While Comedy Central India decided to display the latter, the former was edited out. Levy also stated that this act goes against the power of inclusivity, which is what Schitts Creek is all about.
His anger was hardly misplaced. This is not the first instance where Indian television or channels of pop culture have snubbed homosexuality in order to pander to the heteronormative majority. Indian cinema has a long history of misrepresenting queer characters in their movies and shows. On multiple occasions, directors have capitalised on caricaturing and ridiculing gay characters on screen while cementing the country's existing stereotypes.
Indian streaming platform Hotstar, which was recently acquired by Disney, boasts a wide variety of shows and movies for its Indian audience. However, in a bid to retain their operations and not invoke a ban on their functionality, the platform was known to customise its shows by censoring intimate scenes of gay romance for its audience.
Some fans of Glee who watched the show via Hotstar didn't even know two of the gay characters, Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) and Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss), were dating for over three seasons, as their kisses and sex scenes were omitted.
This erasure of gay intimacy is particularly harmful in a country that's predominantly homophobic and intolerant. It tells out-and-proud and closeted gays alike that they are unwelcome in Indian society, negating their love and sexuality. It creates a sense of 'otherness' that robs them of the normalcy afforded to straight couples.
This is especially dangerous in a country that is centred around heterosexual marriages and child-bearing, where conversion therapy, police brutality and domestic abuse of LGBTQ+ members by their families is very much a reality. It demonises anything that isn’t heterosexual and conceals the existence of gays and lesbians behind gender-suspicion and scandal.
The fact that Comedy Central India had no problem with showcasing the kiss between the two female characters speaks volumes about their intentions by promoting the idea that lesbians exist solely to satiate the voyeurism of heterosexual men.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
While there are bad apples in the basket, there are also some beautifully written and heartfelt renditions of queer love on Indian screens. Hansal Mehta's Aligarh (2015) and Faraz Arif Ansari's Sheer Qorma short film Sisak (2017) are among the few that have breached the mainstream cinema space with their portrayal or homosexual love and intimacy.
In an interview with Filme Shilmy, queer independent filmmaker Ansari said that "we (directors) have to strive harder to make more inclusive stories that bring people gently into the narrative".
Echoing this, Reema Katgi, one of the makers of Amazon Prime Video's Made in Heaven, stated, "There has to be a destigmatization process which has slowly begun, which is a start". The series has been described as a milestone in the depiction of gay characters. While earlier portrayals of queerness robbed homosexuals of their normalcy, Made in Heaven reveled in it.
Commercial box-office hits like Dostana (2008) and Student of the Year (2012) have seldom exhibited accountability for their crass representations of gays. It is important to understand the reach and audience access that these movies have, and the power they wield in shaping the public's consciousness. Therefore, media in the form of television and cinema have a social responsibility towards fostering tolerance and acceptance in the largely divided society.
Homophobia and misogyny feed off of each other, and have similar victims. The strict demarcations of gender have long policed the human body, and patriarchy is at the helm of homophobic aggression. The refusal of homosexual men and women to conform to the heterosexual norms of the society has drawn the ire of patriarchs, states an article published in Open Democracy.
India just decriminalised homosexual relationships in 2018 when it struck down the draconian Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which until then made private, consensual sex between adults of the same gender a punishable and non-bailable offence. Thus, this discriminatory portrayal in the media undoes the hard-won rights of queer Indian people and accelerates their social exclusion. And that's why it needs to stop.
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