Queer Characters are Absent in Bollywood Films

Examining the lack of queer representation in Bollywood


Courtesy of IMdb

A scene from Aligarh (2015)

Anika Sharma

In late 2019, my mother took me to a small independent Indian theater where we saw the 2019 Bollywood film, “Bala”. It was about a man who was insecure about being bald. Most of the film escapes my memory, but I do remember thinking throughout the film, “Aren’t there other stories that could be told?”

Bollywood is known for big dance sequences, bright colorful set pieces and songs. Even in thrillers, there’s usually a featured song. Bollywood is also known for its romance movies but despite all the dancing and romance, you won’t see any mention of queer characters outside a few jokes. Even when their stories are portrayed they are full of pain and are often punished in ways their straight counterparts aren’t. 

The lack of queer characters in Bollywood isn’t surprising. It’s difficult to find queer Asian media but it’s especially difficult in Bollywood. But, it’s a symptom of a bigger problem that Bollywood often either leaves them out or portrays them with damaging stereotypes. 

India’s same-sex marriage situation is complicated. It’s not illegal to perform a gay marriage but it holds no legal standing. Public opinion is equally as mixed as there doesn’t seem to be a definitive majority opinion. However, younger Indians are generally more accepting than their older counterparts. But, many important decisions are still pending including marriage, joint adoption, openly serving in the military and conversion therapy despite the fact being gay has never been classified as a mental illness in the Indian Psycahtric society. 

Scene from Fire (1996) Fire // Photo courtesy of The Indian Express

There’s clearly a lot to take issue with and looking at all the problems and Bollywood may take a backseat. However, America had some queer characters portrayed positively in media long before the LGBTQ+ community was given the right to marry or was even wildly accepted. Although America has a long way to go in terms of acceptance, public opinion has changed rapidly. Many LGBTQ+ people credit this to public figures and characters in TV and movies to the dramatic change.

It’s not difficult to see how possibly putting more well written LGBTQ+ characters in a Bollywood film could put people on the right track to acceptance. Bollywood is a major industry and studios are aware that many Indians may not want to see a mainstream film with a queer character.

In fact, we may live to see India legalize same-sex marriage before we starting seeing more Bollywood films that star a queer main character. At this point, many LGBTQ+ activists aren’t looking for widespread acceptance. Their first priority is to gain their basic rights of marriage, job security etc.

It’s very important and disheartening that LGBTQ+ people have had to fight so hard for the bare minimum. Acceptance is made up of more than having rights; it’s made up of being seen as human and Bollywood has a chance to do that.

India naturally has a large LGBTQ+ population since it has one of the largest populations on earth. In Bollywood they are often treated as punchlines or people to be disgusted by and see themselves represented as humans in media would have a positive effect on them if nothing else. It’s about time their stories got told with all the dancing, music, and energy that does them justice.