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Queering the Narrative: The Evolution of LGBTQ+ Themes in Hindi Cinema

A turned on projector on a small wooden table at angle. The room is smoky and dim.

I never gave narratives and viewpoints much thought until I came upon a case study of Nikkhil Advani’s film Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), because of its underlying gay subtext. Films have long been a vital component of our culture, enthralling viewers with their wide range of subjects and storylines. Over time, India’s film industry has changed to mirror the country’s dynamic cultural shifts. Our films have covered an extensive range of subjects from epic tales, to those rooted in independence struggles, and now, to more contemporary issues. The portrayal of LGBTQ+ issues in Indian society has been a notable development.

Gayatri Gopinath, a prominent queer theorist, initiated her analysis of the depiction of homosexuality in Bollywood films by highlighting a notable gap in scholarly attention that prevailed despite studies meticulously examining aspects of production, narrative, and genre in Indian popular cinema. Gopinath is particularly concerned with the potential destabilisation triggered by queer readings of Bollywood films, immediately linking these interpretations to “queer audiences” and “diasporic audiences,” including “queer diasporic audiences.” According to Gopinath, these audiences serve as the catalysts for such queer readings and all the potential “interpretative interventions and appropriations” they entail. While deferring the question of whether there exists an “ordinary” in Bollywood, Gopinath raised the query of whether the formation of a queer subjectivity relies on a queer diaspora and, concurrently, if Bollywood films can actively participate in the process of “queering.” (as cited in Gehlawat, 2010)

Typically, when delving into discussions about Bollywood, articles tend to kick off by presenting various numerical figures associated with the industry – ranging from the sheer volume of films produced annually to the staggering numbers of daily viewers. However, for the purpose of this article, it’s more strategic to approach the topic from a different angle. Instead of diving straight into statistics, it’s pertinent to first analyse and acknowledge Bollywood’s status as a dominant force both within the nation and on the global stage. It’s crucial to recognize that while Bollywood holds significant sway in the cinematic realm, it doesn’t encompass the entirety of Indian cinema. Film studies often have a tendency to pigeonhole Third World cinemas into nationalistic frameworks, hence my decision to utilise the term “Bollywood” to refer to this industry. By doing so, I aim to highlight its identity as a popular Hindi cinema rather than a monolithic representation of Indian cinema. This distinction is essential as it allows us to avoid falling into the trap of a narrow, nationalistic discourse. Over the years, Bollywood has evolved to reflect a more diverse range of narratives, including those representing the LGBTQ+ community. This article explores the journey of LGBTQ+ representation in Hindi cinema, from its early beginnings to its contemporary manifestations, drawing upon the contributions of various theorists to understand its significance and impact.

Historically, LGBTQ+ representation in Hindi cinema has been characterised by stereotypes and caricatures that reflect societal prejudices and misconceptions surrounding non-heteronormative identities. LGBTQ+ characters were frequently relegated to roles that served as comic relief or antagonists, thereby reinforcing negative stereotypes and contributing to the marginalization of the LGBTQ+ community within the cinematic landscape.

Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, two prominent theorists in gender and sexuality studies, offer valuable insights into the ways that cinematic portrayals reinforce heteronormative power structures and perpetuate the Othering of LGBTQ+ individuals. Butler’s concept of performativity suggests that gender and sexuality are not inherent traits but rather socially constructed through repeated performances of norms and behaviours. In the context of Hindi cinema, LGBTQ+ characters are often depicted according to stereotypical traits and behaviours that align with conventional gender and sexual norms, reinforcing the dominance of heteronormativity.

Foucault’s analysis of power dynamics and knowledge production further illuminates how these portrayals contribute to the marginalisation of LGBTQ+ individuals. By depicting LGBTQ+ characters as deviations from the norm or as threats to social order, Hindi cinema perpetuates the idea that heterosexuality is the default and superior sexual orientation. This reinforces societal prejudices and misconceptions about LGBTQ+ individuals, leading to their Othering and marginalisation within broader cultural narratives.

In recent decades, there has been a gradual shift towards more empathetic and nuanced representations of LGBTQ+ characters in Hindi cinema. Filmmakers like Deepa Mehta, with her groundbreaking film Fire (1996), and Onir with My Brother…Nikhil (2005), challenged societal norms by portraying LGBTQ+ characters with depth and humanity. These films sparked conversations about LGBTQ+ rights and paved the way for more inclusive narratives.

The intersectionality of LGBTQ+ identities with other social categories such as class, caste, and religion has been explored in films like Aligarh (2015) and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019). Theories like Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, first articulated in 1989, help us understand how these films highlight the complexities of LGBTQ+ experiences and the intersecting forms of oppression faced by individuals belonging to marginalised communities.

In Aligarh, the protagonist, Dr. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, is a professor who faces discrimination and ostracization due to his sexual orientation. The film also explores how Siras’ marginalised status as a gay man intersects with his position as a lower-class individual within the academic hierarchy. His sexuality exacerbates the discrimination he faces, highlighting the compounded forms of oppression experienced by LGBTQ+ individuals from marginalised socioeconomic backgrounds.

Similarly, in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, the intersectionality of LGBTQ+ identity with other social categories is explored through the lens of gender, class, and religion. The film follows the story of Sweety Chaudhary, a young woman who grapples with her lesbian identity within the confines of a conservative Punjabi family. Sweety’s struggle is not only shaped by her sexual orientation but also by societal expectations related to gender roles, familial honour, and cultural norms.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s (1990) concept of the ‘epistemology of the closet’ offers valuable insights into this transformation. It underscores the pervasive influence of heteronormativity and the concealment of non-normative desires and identities within societal structures. Films like Kapoor & Sons (2016) and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020) stand as exemplars of this paradigm shift, openly portraying queer characters and relationships in defiance of the closet’s constraints. By subverting traditional gender and sexual norms, these films challenge audiences to confront their preconceived notions and embrace the complexities of human desire and connection beyond heteronormative frameworks. As Hindi cinema continues to evolve, the journey towards queer inclusion and representation serves as a testament to the power of storytelling in reshaping cultural narratives and fostering greater acceptance and understanding.

Despite the progress made, Hindi cinema still faces challenges in accurately representing the diversity of LGBTQ+ experiences. Critiques have been raised regarding the tendency to prioritise cisgender, upper-class narratives while neglecting the voices of transgender people and those who do not belong to dominant castes.

The evolution of LGBTQ+ representation in Hindi cinema reflects broader societal shifts towards greater acceptance and inclusion. From early stereotypes to more empathetic portrayals, filmmakers have played a crucial role in challenging norms and fostering dialogue around LGBTQ+ issues. By drawing upon the insights of theorists, we can gain a deeper understanding of the significance of these cinematic representations and their impact on shaping attitudes and perceptions towards the LGBTQ+ community in India. As Hindi cinema continues to evolve, it has the potential to further amplify diverse voices and narratives, contributing to a more inclusive and equitable society.


Gehlawat, A. (2010). Reframing Bollywood: Theories of Popular Hindi Cinema. SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd.

Sedgwick, E. K. (1990). Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press.

Cover Image: Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash