The much-awaited biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, opened in Pakistan a few weeks ago to nearly empty cinema halls.
Celebrating the life of Freddie Mercury, the frontman of Queen, the film stars Rami Malek of Mr. Robot fame, and chronicles Mercury’s beginnings with his bandmates Roger Taylor, Brian May and John Deacon to their legendary performance at the Live Aid concert in 1985.
Though factually inaccurate and inconsistent at times, the film mostly succeeds at what it sets out to do: paying homage to one of rock music’s most memorable voices… and queer icons.
For Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara to Gujarati Indian Parsis, was a queer man who died of AIDS, and the film does not shy away from this fact.
Mercury’s sexuality, if not the central focus of the film, isn’t omitted either, and the film contains multiple scenes of Mercury with different men.
And yet, here I was, sitting in a dark, nearly empty cinema hall in Lahore watching this film with two other middle-aged men, days after the city was closed down by Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan protesters, wondering at the sheer implausibility of it all.
Even though certain scenes were cut from the film, there wasn’t much else the censors could do to tone down Mercury’s queerness.
Halfway into the film as Another One Bites the Dust starts playing, the film shows Mercury gliding in and out of different gay clubs, and one of the men in the hall with me raised his fist in the air as a montage played of the gay club scene of 70s London.
Elsewhere, in one of Mercury’s parties, two men make out in the background, and despite the scene being visually clear, it wasn’t cut from the film. The camera languorously moves away from the two men but makes sure we see them, and we do.
These scenes and many like them are all kept in, which makes watching Bohemian Rhapsody in Lahore an anomaly, an oversight, and as feet stomped in cinema halls to We Will Rock You to celebrate the life of a queer icon in a city that few days back was loud with another kind of din, I am reminded of the queer potential of the city’s imagined, invisible spaces, its dark, empty cinema halls, its alleyways, its silences.
In the dark, empty space of the theatre, we breathe and move and shift without fear, our faces blue in the light of the screen.
When the credits roll and Mercury himself appears on the screen, singing Don’t Stop Me Now, the two men in the cinema remain seated, transfixed, but eventually one of them looks back and finds me wiping my face still wet with tears.
He turns away, quickly gets up, and we pass each other in opposite directions in silence.
While our collective cultural sensibility might still be coming to terms with Pakistan’s trans community, the LGBT community in Pakistan doesn’t really exist, or so we continue to believe.
To say we are here might be asking for a death sentence, and so we find other ways of being and belonging, in spaces and lapses and silences, in empty cinema halls, in queer celluloid visions of excess and joy.
Spectatorship and cinephilia can be configured as radical practices of expressing disobedience through affect, or for something much simpler as finding community.
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody in Lahore, I am also reminded of the potential in the queer cinephile gaze in owning and recreating texts from the debris of mainstream heterocentrist culture.
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I think of the khwaja sira respondents in Shahnaz Khan’s study who love Sultan Rahi films, becoming unintended audiences who find representation or objects of queer desire in cishet machoism, in the very culture which excludes them.
To turn culture queer becomes a way through which I create archives of my identity, a way through which I imagine a past where I existed.
Cinema as a cultural imaginarium lets me do that — not only as a spatial configuration does it let me hide and be and belong, it helps me imagine and believe in my own legitimacy.
Whether it is watching Bohemian Rhapsody in an empty theatre, or turning Maula Jatt into an object of queer desire, or watching pornographic cut-pieces hidden in Pashto films, the queers and deviants of Pakistan grow and thrive and come out in the light of the lit screen, imagining pasts, envisioning futures.
Mercury as a queer rockstar of South Asian origins who made sporting anthems makes as little sense as Muslim queers singing along with him in 2018 in Lahore.
If watching Bohemian Rhapsody in Lahore is an anomaly, so are the queers of Pakistan who really don’t exist outside the city’s invisible spaces.
For the city hides us, it hides our geographies of desire, it hides our loitering as I would travel distances across Lahore for my repeated viewings of the film, it hides the paths we take to find joy and community.
The city also meets me with violence, but every now and then, I manage to slip through, unseen, without fear, “to the seat with the clearest view”, and stomp my feet and clap to a foreign rhythm as my eyes adjust in the darkness to the growing number of silhouettes around me, all stomping and clapping in unison.
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