MUMBAI: New Bollywood film “Bombay Talkies” is billed as a milestone not only for marking 100 years of Indian cinema - it is also one of the country's few mainstream movies ever to have shown a gay kiss.
The centenary film, which had a special screening at Cannes, comprises four self-contained short stories by leading directors looking at the impact of Indian cinema on people's lives.
The short film from director Karan Johar features a kiss between a young man and his best friend's husband as part of an exploration of sexual identity and marital discord.
While such scenes in the past may have elicited catcalls in India's populist single-screen theatres, this time the kiss has been winning applause from audiences, according to gay rights advocate Nitin Karani.
“That's a positive reaction, which may indicate that society is more ready than film producers when it comes to gay stories,” he said.
And with one of the characters in the kiss played by 'sex symbol' actor Randeep Hooda, the film “shatters stereotypes faster”, Karani believes.
In another of the short stories, director Zoya Akhtar shows a young boy exploring his feminine side by emulating and dressing up as Katrina Kaif, his Bollywood heroine.
“Bombay Talkies was an important film for Karan and Zoya as it was projected as a movie celebrating 100 years of cinema,” said Karani. “
So for them to take up issues of sexuality and gender was commendable.”The tales in “Bombay Talkies” have sparked debate over such issues in Bollywood, where homosexuality has long been kept in the closet -- or portrayed in stereotypical roles.
“Mainstream Hindi cinema has portrayed gay characters as feminine, over the top, obsessed with sex, and to be laughed at,” said director Onir, who only uses his first name.
“When they are not stereotyped like this, they are shown as boyfriend stealers or home-breakers,” he said, pointing out than even “Bombay Talkies”shows “the gay boy hitting on his best friend's husband”.
Onir's 2005 film “My Brother... Nikhil” won acclaim for portraying the story of a gay relationship and the issue of HIV with both maturity and sensitivity - traits that remain confined largely to the independent and documentary fields.
But alternative films are gaining ground with wider audiences: last week saw the fourth Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film festival, the first such event to be held in a mainstream Indian theatre.
Organisers picked 132 films from 40 countries, including 18 from India, on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) themes, from about 300 entries.
Numbers for this year are not yet collated but last year saw about 1,000 festival-goers attending, a third of whom were not LGBT themselves, said festival director Sridhar Rangayan.
Despite the growing success of the festival, Rangayan - whose own films on gay topics include “Gulabi Aaina” (The Pink Mirror, 2006) - said homosexual themes remain underexplored even after 100 years of Indian cinema.
“If films are being made, but not seen, then they are still in the closet.
Kashish tries to spotlight these films and issues but we are only able to reach a small audience.”Homosexuality remains a generally taboo topic in India despite a 2009 court order decriminalising gay sex - a decision that met with strong opposition.
A few mainstream films have broached the subject with success, such as 2007's “Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd”, a comedy drama about six couples on a honeymoon bus tour, including two newlywed men attracted to each other.
But Deepa Mehta's 1996 film “Fire”, which looked at a lesbian relationship between two sisters-in-law, had to be pulled out of cinemas after protests from far-right Hindu groups.
Vajir Singh, editor of trade magazine Box Office India, believes that a conservative society such as India will take time to warm up to such themes.
“These themes do not have the support of big actors or big names enacting the parts. It's usually newcomers or lesser known actors,” he said.
“If a brand-name filmmaker or actor were to make a gay love story, people would watch it. But you need a brand.”While a Bollywood superstar is yet to step up to the role, filmmakers such as Reema Kagti, who directed “Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd”, are upbeat about the industry's evolution as it enters another century.
“Hindi cinema is not as divorced from reality as it was, say, in the 80s. There is far greater awareness of sexuality and sexual choices,” she said.