Dunno Y…Na Jaane Kyun (2010) is currently making waves across India, swiftly rippling out toward the international markets. Sanjay Sharma’s new film boldly confronts the constraints of Bollywood—an industry known for its conspicuous absence of public displays of affection. Yet the controversy is not only over Sharma’s inclusion of heated and apparently explicit sexual content in his film. The two protagonists at the center of the sex scenes also happen to both be male. The film bursts into the collective cultural conscious a little over a year after the repeal of Section 377, a statute that proclaims sodomy, and, in turn, male homosexuality, illegal. The film attempts to represent a once underground community, one that is just barely breaking out of the closet. Although I have yet to read a positive review of the film, bringing such themes out of the closet and onto the Bollywood screen is a significant breakthrough. Like Deepa Mehta’s controversial film, Fire (1996), which portrayed the sexual relationship between two women, Dunno Y is trying to trouble Indian cultural barriers to the acceptance of homosexuality. Although both films received mainstream recognition, Fire is distributed by Zeitgeist Films, an American independent film distributor, while Dunno Y soars into pop culture via Bollywood.
Dunno Y has received a similar reception to that of Fire, which, upon its release in India, had stirred homophobic protests, with some theaters refusing to screen the film. In a BBC story about Dunno Y, actor Kapil Sharma discusses the death threats sent to him by angry, homophobic Indians. He explains that the threats derive from those “who say that this homosexuality is not part of India. It’s something from West. And it can spoil the entire population.” John Dayal from the All Indian Christian Council agrees, asserting that all the major Indian religions—Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians—are united in their opposition to “the celebration of homosexuality.” While Dayal speaks for the major religions in that they believe homosexuals deserve “some human rights,” he asserts that none of them believe that “it’s a good thing, that it’s a natural thing, or it’s something that it should be propagated.” In response, Sharma argues, “I feel that homosexuality has always been part of every culture.” In turn, gay activist Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil believes that the film is a breakthrough in the way in which it paints a more realistic image of what it’s like to be gay in India. He hopes that the film will, in turn, encourage more honest representations of Indian homosexuality. Nevertheless, there is still an assumption that the West propagates homosexuality through an increasingly globalized media network. Yet ironically, it was the British government that originally instituted the sodomy laws in India. Historical memory is apparently short-term.
The Indian Penal Code, drafted in 1860, dates back to the colonial project. British rule propagated Western sexual ideology, effectively shaping Indian cultural mores to mirror that of Victorian England. By 1947, India had gained independence from Britain. Twenty years later, England and Wales overturned their own sodomy laws, leaving India with a lasting legacy of discrimination. Forty years later, Indian officials still spout the same British bequest of sexual repression. Yet this time, top Indian officials purport that Western ideology is corrupting the innocent youth of India, with its ideas of sexual freedom infiltrating a now globalized world. In a 2007 article entitled Sex education curriculum angers Indian conservatives, chief minister of Karnataka, H.D. Kumaraswamy, states: “Sex education may be necessary in Western countries, but not in India, which has rich culture. It will have adverse effect on young minds, if implemented.” In 2010, conservative Indians are saying the same about Dunno Y, effectively blaming the West for embracing homosexuality. Ironically, those who purport to stand for Indian cultural authenticity are, in fact, regurgitating a colonial legacy.
Meanwhile, gay men of India remain buried deep in the closet. A high-risk group for HIV and AIDS, Indian sexual health clinics and community centers target the MSM (men who have sex with men) population. Married men come to the centers to meet other men, to build community, and to find safe places for their closeted identities. During an internship in Mumbai in the summer of 2007, I visited one of the MSM clinics, contributing to a safer sex workshop, and happily dancing and celebrating at their annual drag show. I have not gone back to India since the overturn of Section 377 in 2009, but I would be surprised if the atmosphere had changed overnight. Now that Section 377 has been repealed, it will take some time for the cultural stigma to catch-up to the recent legal breakthroughs.
Finally having emerged from the repressive law of its colonial past, India is on its way toward greater acceptance of sexuality. Yet either way—whether in the West or the East—we all still have a long way to go in our acceptance of homosexuality. Neither group seems to have fully recognized the importance of talking about sexuality so as to promote safe and healthy relationships. For now, actors Kapil Sharma and Yuvraaj Parasher will have to deal with the consequences of playing gay men in Bollywood. While Sharma receives death threats, Parasher’s family has disowned him. Parasher’s father publicly stated: “I feel what he has done is against the culture and tradition of our country and it challenges the purity of the relationship between a man and a woman…People will make fun of us and we won't be able to live peacefully ever again. … We are a respected family and I'm appalled that he is playing a gay man's role. We're finished. All the dreams and hopes we had built around him are over.” Yet Parasher has paved the way for more open and honest representations and, in turn, discussions about homosexuality in Indian pop culture. Unfortunately, the film is not yet playing in a theatre near me. Although I hear that the writing and direction is questionable, and that the film is apparently a little less than captivating, it is the message that counts. I’ll gladly show my support, once I get the opportunity to buy a ticket!