Disclaimer: Though I have listed the films in an ascending order of my liking, please don’t treat this as a hard and fast countdown, because it’s too tough to rank films – most of which have been considered classics in their own right.
When thought of writing this post first came up, it was scary in itself. Keeping aside the inquisitiveness one generates while talking about or making films on a subject like homosexuality, what concerned me more were two points:
a) Will I be a good judge because I would never be able to relate to the films?
b) As I have seen a limited number of films, will the countdown be reliable?
The doubts persist but the conviction to write this arose from the respect that I acquired for these films while watching or discussing them. To share a small anecdote before getting chatty about the movies, let me tell you how I started researching about Queer Films. I was about to co-direct a film called ‘GUSTAAKH’ with a friend. Yes, about to sit on the chair and shout “Action – Cut”: the script was finalised, the cast was more or less in place and guess what, we even had a producer – that too a reputable banner in Kolkata. This was way back in early 2010. In fact, we were about to go on a recce when the producers backed out. Looking back, I only crack up at all that happened, including the heartbreak and disillusionment. What’s even more hilarious is the fact that we didn’t manage to find another producer / financer since then. So, this post is an ode to the dead film that was and the beautiful films we saw as a part of our research :-). Random rambling aside, this blog is a tribute to some of the finest films that dared to deal with a subject we have so conspicuously avoided or made a point of mockery, in our good old Bollyland. As a consequence, and unfortunately so, I couldn’t find one Indian film that could stand in comparison with the others. The closest that we came (or so according to me) is written as a special mention at the end of the post. By the way, Brokeback Mountain is on the list but not at the top. So, if I have your interest in this queer (gone are the days when queer meant just weird) post, please read on and do comment (positive or negative) at the end.
10) Summer Storm
At number 10, but no inferior than the others, lies the German film Sommersturm, called Summer Storm in its English version. As one of the characters in the film says (albeit in subtitles) “If you hide your whole life, you’ll forget who you are”, the film explores the entire phenomenon of sexual discovery, confrontation and acceptance. Best buddies Tobi and Achim are sent to a Summer camp for a rowing competition, but the days that unfold at the idyllically located camp change their lives forever. The Storm that ensues does not only uproot the trees and destroy the tents, but also dishevels the lives of the protagonists. As one of my friends always says, “However you good friend you may be with a girl, you are bound to think of her sexually as well, at least once,” the film traces the entire tribulations of falling for your best friend, knowing that your friend will never love you back. Only this time around, it was not an Anjali standing on the train and waving at Rahul, but a Tobi who not only rejected but disparaged by Achim. A classic style of cinematography, nice use of colours, very European candour of filming and an extremely nuanced performance by Robert Stadlober playing Tobi, make the film an interesting watch. Mind you, I watched the film on YouTube and got hooked to the drama despite the not so great video quality.
To me, the only glitch in the film is the entire track about the gay team from Berlin who take up a lot of footage in the middle of the film.
09) Happy Together
May be someday I will write a post just to elucidate my admiration for Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love”. But this post of mine is about one of the maestro’s earliest films – Happy Together. When you expect people to tread carefully when dealing with a concept like this, Wai takes a dysfunctional couple and presents their relation with such insouciance that you almost feel disturbed by what was supposed to be a love story. In fact, the title “Happy Together” is an irony of sorts. Add to that, he takes the characters out of their native town (Hong Kong) and places them in alien land Argentina – as if to utilise the boldness of the Latin country to justify his film. You can’t praise Wong Kar Wai enough for his sense of colours, cinematography and production design, and Happy Together is no exception to the trend. Short partly in black and white and then in colour, and narrated in a non-linear design, Happy Together almost reinforces the frivolity people often associate with gays, through one of its central characters. But then, Wai creates an antithesis of the same through the protagonist who exudes such warmth that you want him to be happy indeed. Tony Leung, who was brilliant in Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” does another commendable job in the film, handling the rash love making scenes with such ease that it shocks you and make you feel the mutual disdain in the relation. The film however ends on a pretty unexpected note, with Lai (Tony Leung) searching for Chang – a boy he had befriended during one of his jobs in Argentina and returning back to Hong Kong – a place where both of them belonged.
08) My Beautiful Laundrette
At number 08 is the delightfully brave tale of an Asian community settled in London. When Omar (Gordon Warnecke) – a British chap of Pakistani origin finds an opportunity to acquire his uncle’s laundry business, he grabs it with open arms and collaborates with old friend cum lover Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis) to run the show. What the film does successfully is discuss two very sensitive themes – inter-racial love and homosexuality, without getting pedantic about either of them. Dating back to 1985, this film starring Sayeed Jaffrey and Roshan Seth in prominent rules is possibly the oldest on my list and stands apart in its optimistic end, not falling into the trappings of morose realism, which could have been more convenient, given the time it was made. One of the high points of the film is a scene where two love making scenes are juxtaposed in the same frame, the first one between Sayeed Jaffrey and his mistress with the second one between Omar and Johnny. Watch it for an unusual take on the Asian community and the innovative screenplay, which fetched an Oscar nomination for the film’s writer Hanif Kureishi.
07) Brokeback Mountain
May not be the world, but a huge chunk of India surely woke up to queer films through Brokeback Mountain. To an extent that when one of my co-director’s friends heard the script of “GUSTAAKH”, he replied (in the typical Bengali intellectualism) that it reminded him of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Now, I am a guy who accepts criticism but the analogy irked me enough to tell him on the face, “that’s because Brokeback is the only gay film you have seen and you can’t relate the theme to something else”. Coz comparing the two is like saying CASABLANCA and LAKSHYA are same because both have a war in backdrop. The inquisitiveness increased when the film bagged an Oscar for Ang Lee as the best director. Chronicling the clandestine relationship between two cowboys over a span of almost 2 decades, Brokeback is a poetic tale of romance between Heath Ledger’s Ennis and Jake Gylenhaal’s Jack Twist. Despite a simple storyline (compared to others in the category) of two bisexual men longing for each despite their respective family lives, what sets Brokeback apart is its narration. Rodrigo Prieto captures the locales with so much love that the visuals linger in your mind way after the film is over. And what brilliant aid to his camera was rendered by Gustavo Santaolalla’s melody, which won the composer and the film another Academy Award. I am sure most of the people reading this blog would have seen the Brokeback and hence, they would concur with my plaudits for the technical finesse of the film. Only wish: the film had a better script. Though it has an extremely good-looking cast of Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway along with the male actors, the story doesn’t stir as much as most on the list.
06) The Love of Siam
Let’s have a look at the trailer first before talking any further.
When the first look and the trailer of the film were released, no one had inkling that the film’s protagonists would share an atypical relation. Reports say that the director did so purposefully, lest the audience is dissuaded from watching his film. It was marketed as a coming of age film about youngsters, essentially school goers. In fact, when I watched the film, I didn’t have any clue about the subject either. I watched it upon the suggestion of a friend, presuming it to be Thailand’s counterpart for a something like “Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar”. But amidst the interplay of relations, the film etches a beautiful tale of friendship that blossoms to love. However, what strengthens the movie further is the entire backdrop amidst which the film develops. Besides the central characters Tong and Mew, the script gives equal weightage to the supporting characters and makes you relate to the family ties, despite being perfectly commercial in its treatment. Though the film is oft criticised for being quite long by South East Asian standards and for being too sweet at times, neither of the factors takes away any merit from it. Very neatly shot, the film maintains the likeability it set out to achieve. And I am sure even someone who hates watching gay films wouldn’t mind watching The Love of Siam (original title: Rak haeng Siam), primarily because of the subtlety. The first thought that struck me after watching Siam was “Why can’t we make such films in India?” – for it has songs, family bonding, friendships and romance – all the ingredients mandatory in Bollywood, yet brining in a novelty that makes it stand apart. Hopefully, we’ll have one soon. Amen!
05) Boys Don’t Cry
He walks like Brandon, he talks like Brandon, he charms like Brandon; only he isn’t Brandon but is Teena, a she. Another biopic from Hollywood, who have made a career out of alien films and ‘inspired’ by true-event stories, Boys Don’t Cry is a film that leaves your gut and stomach wrenched at the end of its 120 minutes running time. It was long ago and I was around 14-15, when I had first seen the film on TV. I had no idea who Hillary Swank was neither was I aware of the term transgender. All I knew was you are either Man, Woman or Hijra. But I remember getting severely confused and depressed at the end of the film. I asked my brother and co-viewer (9 years elder to me) – what was wrong with her and why did they kill her? Can’t recall what he said, but now when I see the film, I feel more wretched – primarily out of the thought that we must be having numerous such cases in India every year. Except for the fact that the film is depressive, Boys Don’t Cry has everything going for it – right from the story to Hillary Swank’s outstanding performance, which pretty deservedly got her the Oscar. However, Chloe Sevigny as Lana (Brandon/ Teena’s love interest and girlfriend) matched Swank step to step and what an amazing chemistry they exuded. I respect Hollywood for making these biopics that get their protagonists to play multifarious character, but Swank took Brandon to some level together. Take my word, even if you are not the most ardent supporter of gay rights, the emotional crisis and vulnerability Swank brings to this character is bound to tug at your heart.
The struggles of America’s prominent gay rights activist and first openly homosexual politician Harvey Milk make an interesting story for celluloid. Gus Van Sant (whose “Good Will Hunting” is a film I adore) had made another films on gays called “My Own Private Idaho” starring Keanu Reeves; but that was rather boring. However, with MILK, he struck gold. Besides the entire plot tracing the 40 something Harvey’s ascent to politics after more than couple failed attempts, what stands out most strongly for MILK is the ensemble cast and brilliant performance by each and everyone. Sean Penn sank his teeth into the character, getting the nuances so aptly that you can’t think of anyone else but him as the man with a single minded objective – to get a political foothold for his community and himself. His Oscar victory was not to much surprise, though Mickey Rourke was a pretty tough contender for “The Wrestler”. Josh Brolin as the conservative wing leader is brilliant and so is Emile Hirsch as the activist Cleve Jones. Surprisingly, one of my super-favourite films “Into the Wild” stars Emile Hirsch and was directed by Sean Penn. However, if two people stand out in the film, they are James Franco (Spiderman series and 127 Hours) and Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien and The Dirty Dancing II) as the much more masculine and stoic Scott Smith and the psychotic Jack Lira, respectively. They both play Milk’s love interest and play their roles to utter perfection.
The only problem with a film as beautiful as MILK is its proclivity to fall into an almost documentary mode, sans which it could have been much crisper and more interesting.
As IMDB says, “C.R.A.Z.Y. is a family drama unlike any other.” The title derives from the first letter in the names of the five brothers: Christian, Raymond, Antoine, Zachary and Yvan, and also refers to their father’s abiding love of Patsy Cline’s song “Crazy”, which itself is used as a recurring motif in the film. Set in Quebec, this French film deals with the live of a boy (Zach) amidst his 4 brothers, protective mom and a conservative father. I have this soft corner for dysfunctional relationship films (Revolutionary Road and Into the Wild being two of my favourites in this genre), and CRAZY plays to the genre with harmonious precision. The film is almost like a paintbook, with each page bearing a different picture of Zach’s life, with a protagonist voiceover reminding you of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie film styles. CARZY boasts of amazing performances from each member of the cast, especially Michael Cote as the Gervais (the father) and Danielle Proulx (the mother), who present the orthodox and heavily masculine dad who wants to rub machismo on his son and the religious but considerate mom who accepts everything about her “blessed” son Zach. At the same time, the film maintains a strong sense of humour, which is intelligent and tongue-in-cheek. Look out for the scene where Gervais finds out a 5-6 year old Zach wearing his mom’s nightgown and ornaments and tending to younger brother Yvan. However, the USP of CARZY lies in the fact that it’s deeply personal. It’s one person’s voice and his feelings, which makes the film not just anecdotal but also surreal at times. Plus, unlike most gay protagonists, Zach is an extremely complex human being – on one hand he wants to appease his father and live a heterosexual life, but on the other hand he is someone who can provoke his nemesis an elder brother enough to get the latter out of the home. So, he might play the victim but he isn’t the most vulnerable guy either. And the best part is, don’t we all behave that way?
02) Bad Education
I have to admit, even before I start writing my note, that of all the 10 films on my list, I found “Bad Education” the toughest one to write about. Pedro Almodovar is one of the most accomplished and acclaimed directors of Spain. His scripts are unique, his characterisations are special and his colour scheming are picturesque. Almodovar’s genius in “Bad Education” (Original title: La mala educación) lies is his ability to start the scene on a tepid note, getting the audience hooked to the proceedings, and then bring forth a sudden revelation that would change the game altogether, yet not making the audience feel manipulated. In “Bad Education,” he takes this device to breathless, upper-atmospheric levels, for with each twist, the film takes on a new genre. From what started off as a tender story of two schoolmates becomes a post-modernist tale of relationships, and then evolving into film noir, almost effortlessly. The film talks about sexual abuse on two kids, and how they grow up in two different places, keeping the memory of the events alive in their memories. Bad Education is irreverent – it treats love, sexuality, nudity and sex with such candour that it shocks you at places, yet never crossing the line of aesthetics. Possibly, Pedro realised that the narrative and shock elements he wanted could only be achieved from an impassive view and that’s why he set the story as a film within a film; where with each reel friendship turns to ignorance, romance moulds to farce and even the most cringe-worthy scenes become comic and enjoyable. Seriously, a script like this could have gone either way. If it meandered from the ludicrous and maintained its class, it is because of the director’s skill and his lead character. While Javier Camara and Fele Martinez render able support, the film rides solely on the shoulders of none other than Gael Garcia Bernel. I have been his fan ever since I saw “The Motorcycle Diaries” – one of my MOST FAVOURITE films. Here he plays three characters – Angel, Juan and Zahara, and he renders such ingenuity to each character, that you can’t imagine the film without him. Zahara is a special character written by Pedro and the way Gael plays it, shows as if it was written with him in mind. If you aren’t an actor as dignified as Gael, you just can’t pull this one off!
01) A Love to Hide
I don’t know how many of you would have heard of it or seen it, but those who have would agree with me that it’s a brilliant film. Set during World War II, A Love to Hide (Original title: Un amour à taire) is a French movie made for TV, dealing with the torture meted out by Gestapo on Jews and gays. In one of the concluding reels, the protagonist is seen lobotomised, and it just wrenches that drop of tear through your eyes. Not just the period setting and the novelty factor of the story, the film’s biggest strength is its script – which not only etches strong characters but gives sufficient fodder to each one and rears a painful tale of love, revenge and righteousness. The film follows a very Shakespearean tragedy format, showing one small mistake by a character can lead to a catastrophe in many people’s lives. And the writer does what’s a must in such a film: create the protagonist in such a way that you can’t help but feel protective and sorry for him. Jean (Jeremy Renier) is shown such a morally upright guy, that when tragedy befalls him upon a mistake by his own brother Jacques, every scene post that tugs at your heart for you don’t a person as genuine and affable as him to undergo anything undeserving of him. There is violence, which is an obvious aspect, but the same never goes out to be crass or gory, maintaining the cruelty with viewability. It’s a rather short note for the number one, but I don’t want to write much, for I may not be able to justify the magnificence of a film like this. If I have to say anything, I will only say ‘Watch It’; you wouldn’t have seen many films that pave an emotional journey as much as this film does.
Epilogue: Special Mention:
As I wrote earlier, I do not consider any Indian film even remotely close to the films mentioned above. However, of the handful that we made recently, the one I found the finest was Sanjoy Nag’s “Memories in March”. A bereaved mother’s agony on finding her lone child’s closeted sexuality, through the interaction with his lover – MIM is a nice film, but what I don’t like is Rituporno Ghosh as the actor. As well as he might perform, his extreme effeminate nature destroys the essence. For me, if a man falls for someone like Rituporno, he is breeding the image of a woman somewhere in his heart, which in turn kills the “natural” instinct behind homosexuality.