Why do you think members of the LGBTQIA+ community are still striving for acceptance in the 21st century? Shouldn’t this problem have been solved already?
It starts with the acceptance that people have in general in our society. People still don’t accept people’s sexuality as it is. There are social norms and constructs under which we have lived. When I did Badhaai Do, I understood so much. For me, it’s normal because I have friends from the LGBTQIA+ community. Who you choose to love is a personal choice. It cannot define who you are. There’s a lot of differentiation based on someone’s sexuality and that’s where the problem lies. Any form of art depicts society as it is. We need more people to champion the cause. We should celebrate more people in the community and create an equal world in all its forms.
What is the mindset of the film industry towards creating LGBTQIA+ stories?
The change has begun. The commercial side is that the creators think that audiences won’t be comfortable watching these stories. But you won’t know the audience until enough of these stories are told. Badhaai Do, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, Modern Love Mumbai recently told these stories. So, from Deepa Mehta’s Fire to Badhaai Do, we have come a long way. Love is love. The more we normalize it, the more people will accept it. People have to realize that it may not be your reality, but it’s someone else’s reality and you have to respect that.
The frequency of such stories may not be very high, but I am optimistic because I have been part of queer history. You have same-sex love stories that are accepted, appreciated, and watched by the general public. Change must occur not only in the Indian but global mindset. In the West, there is a certain normality because they have been given these accounts for a long time. This process has just started in India.
Do you think there are still a lot of people, even from an inclusive industry like the media, who are afraid to come out?
It’s the sad truth. They are humiliated, discriminated against and mocked. People use the most condescending words about you. It is a lonely and difficult journey. It takes a lot of courage. I hope people in the LGBTQIA+ community see the stories that are being made and notice that there is representation and that some people in the community have become famous and created a name and a place for themselves. Cinema is a powerful tool and as a society it is our duty to create a safe environment for all.
What kind of challenges do you face when making films about the community?
When you make a film about a marginalized community, it involves a lot of responsibility. A lot of research is needed to make a film. You need to make sure there are a lot of people in the community involved in building that story. Because you can’t have a third-person perspective on what life is like for a queer person. And that is what Badhaai champions do. We had an advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community. He sat down with us on the script. Our director and scriptwriters researched for two years. We had friends and family members who belonged to the community. So there was a lot of conversation. We wanted to do this in the most sensitive way possible. In the end, these are the characters we create and someone’s experiences may be different from theirs. So you just have to make sure no one gets hurt. You do your best to give as fair a representation as possible. I am proud and happy that we made this film. The directors didn’t make the film to make a statement. They tried to normalize it as much as possible. Through the journeys of these characters, they attempted to normalize love outside of conventional norms.
What kind of reactions and feedback did you get after the release of Badhaai Do?
It was overwhelming. We received a lot of love from the community. I remember going to the theater and there were people, four of my friends came to hug us and thanked us saying it was the first time they saw their story on the big screen. Our social media accounts were filled with posts. Even now we are tagged on so many posts. The movie is really famous. We were just showing the lives of two people. We did not sensationalize. We weren’t trying to create noise to get people to notice us. We weren’t brave; we were just telling a story. I feel lucky to have been part of history. I think that definitely started a conversation.
Memorable interactions or experiences you can share?
I was shooting in Lucknow. And it was on the weekend that Badhaai Do came out. I went to see the film at the cinema with my whole team. A woman came to hug me and said, “I’ve accepted my gay son. But this is the first time I realize how difficult it must have been for him.
A video had gone viral when the film was released. There was this boy watching the movie in a theater and there was another group making fun of the characters and this boy stood up and said I’m gay, what are you going to do about it? That’s the kind of reaction the film received.
When do you think the situation around acceptance and full inclusiveness will change? Do you think that cinema can play a big role in this change?
Absolutely. This is just the beginning. It’s a very long way to go. I was part of a cinema that made a major change like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. I hope that happens with more queer stories. Cinema is a great platform for sharing knowledge. People need to understand that a person is born that way, you can’t change how they feel about someone. Why should anyone live a life without love? And loving someone starts with loving yourself. The normal word must change.
Earlier in movies, homosexuals or obese people were simply used as comic relief. But then Dum Laga Ke Haisha happened and it changed the conversation. In Badhaai Do, we didn’t use my character’s or Rajkummar’s sexuality for humor. The situations that were created were fun but there was nothing funny about who we were. The narrative must change. A homosexual cannot be presented as a threat to a heterosexual in a film.
You and your Dum Laga Ke Haisha co-star Ayushmann Khurrana have chosen “cinema for change”. How do you make these choices?
After doing Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, I realized how powerful cinema could be. What we want to do above all is to entertain the public. But through entertainment, we want them to see life differently. Art, whether film or painting, should advance society. My next films are also thought-provoking. This is my service to society. Today, people want to see what the actors mean. We have millions of followers. And if we don’t use our power to do something for society, it’s a failure on our side. Although it’s a conscious choice, I don’t make films to make a point, I choose stories that touch me. Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Badhaai Do or Saand Ki Aankh are films about celebrating people, which we don’t usually celebrate. I’m happy that these films came to me and I want to continue making them because I feel it’s my calling.
Hansal Mehta’s film Modern Love Mumbai about a gay man was not allowed to be shown in some Middle Eastern countries. Why do you think these problems persist?
I am not in a position to speak of a particular country. I have the impression that it is a general state of mind. When we think of our country; where we are today, we weren’t there five years ago. Progress is slow but we need to see how we normalize the conversation. Coming out of the closet is easier said than done. The lack of acceptance begins with the family itself.
Our director Harshvardhan Kulkarni said that when we started preparing for Badhaai Do, we had a long discussion about the climax, with the father telling Rajkummar’s boyfriend to sit next to him. Harshvardhan felt the closet didn’t stop at family. Once you step out in front of the family, the closet only gets bigger with neighbors and loved ones. The closet disappears when people don’t look at you differently because of your sexuality. That’s the point Badhaai Do makes and it was so impactful. I don’t mean to sound condescending, but it’s a tough journey and I respect their courage.
For example, when Ellen Degeneres came out as gay, she was completely ostracized. She had no opportunity. But look at it today. She is married to her partner and happily in love. And I’m sure she encouraged a lot of people to have a similar life.
When it comes to official documents and forms, the category gender or sex always refers to male, female and then others. Why can’t other genres be more specific?
At least there is some acceptance that there are genders and sexes other than male and female. It took a long time for people to be respectful to that. It’s small but it’s a step ahead. You can’t judge a trans man or woman for what they identify as. It’s good to see dating apps offering options for people to choose what they identify with. Cinema and OTT have played an important role in the acceptance of society. When Fire came out, it was outrageous. At least that’s not the case now. We have come a long way.
What is the next step in your career?
Arjun Kapoor and I packed Lady Killer. I also completed Bhakshak and Bheed. Raksha Bandhan and Govinda Aala Re are also expected to be released soon.
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