These boys mix it up, sort of, in India’s first gay indie
Writer-director Kaizad Gustad’s Bombay Boys (1998) is, of course, not the first Indian film to deal “seriously” with the politics of homosexuality. (I stress “seriously” because Bollywood has long been crowded with a backwards parade of swishy queens, sequined sissies, and other unenlightened, “comic relief” stereotypes). Riyad Wadia’s experimental short BomGay (1996) is far more angry, explicit and polemical than Bombay Boys, and Deepa Mehta’s feminist Fire (1997) has received much more international exposure (or, if you prefer, international commodification). But while Wadia’s film was a little-seen yet sensationally reported underground phenomenon, and Mehta’s Canadian-lensed art film was designed at least as much for the prestigious international fest scene as it was for Indians back home, Gustad’s Bombay Boys may be India’s first gay indie film aimed at popular, domestic commercial audiences.1
Three overseas, English-speaking Indians arrive separately in Bombay to discover their personally respective but nationally common roots. Naveen Andrews (Kama Sutra) is the Indo-American Krishna, a Western-schooled actor seeking his fortune in Bollywood; Rahul Bose (Split Wide Open) is the Indo-Australian Ricardo, searching for his long-lost brother; and Alexander Gifford is the sexually repressed Indo-British Xerxes, searching India, presumably, for his gay self-identity (can it be a mere coincidence that the gay one is British?). Their journeys intertwine and overlap, and during sequences in which they go their separate but parallel ways, director Gustad employs jarring cross-cutting to remind us of their journeys’ thematic parallelisms. Though this overambitious technique is obvious, and the self-conscious edits often evince little rhyme or rhythm, the effect is occasionally beguiling, and perhaps not too far removed from D. W. Griffith’s primitive back-and-forth in Intolerance. Expository scenes in which classical violinist Xerxes joins the comically inept rock group The Bombay Boys, Krishna bluffs his way through a miserably choreographed Bollywood dance audition, and Ricardo sniffs out the trail of his brother are shredded together in a style so haphazard it is unclear whether it is intentionally experimental or naively yet charmingly crude.
Oddly, in this whirligig film purporting to breathless energy and unpredictable emotion, it is the straight dramatic moments that come off best. For example, the scene in which heroic Ricardo repeatedly and masochistically climbs the staircase to Dolly’s bedroom, inside which she is committing suicide and outside which her heartless bodyguards again and again knock Ricardo dutifully down the stairs, is uncommonly moving and for a moment cuts through the film’s schizophrenia. It is, ironically, a scene worthy of Bollywood melodrama at its finest – if we accept melodrama as a legitimate genre and not with the stigmatic value judgment it has in the West – and discloses the fact that Bombay Boys actually has more in common with the Bollywood films it parodies than it cares to admit. Furthermore, there are even a few musical numbers (although the music is inspired not by Indian pop but by Western rock and rap), and the film’s high-gloss cinematography exploits the same heavy filters and overexposed lighting effects with which contemporary Bollywood is synonymous.
Only after Xerxes has been arrested can Pesi say, “At least we know your preferences.” Xerxes really hasn’t discovered his sexuality by himself, but rather his sexuality has been “discovered” for him by the law. Though sexually curious, he can only be sure that he is gay when the law tells him he shouldn’t be. But while this theme may be valid, I am not sure why Xerxes had to go all the way to India to find this out, particularly since Indian anti-sodomy statutes are patterned after nineteenth-century British ones. Furthermore, I don’t see what this has to do with Xerxes’ journey of transnational identity, the film’s ostensible theme; it seems disingenuous, if not simply wrong, to suggest that one can discover one’s “true” sexuality by an exploration of transnational identity when there are little or no qualitative differences between the sexual identities one travels across. Indeed, because the film’s construction of urban Indian gayness is totally Western anyway – club scenes and the closet and so forth – why doesn’t Xerxes just stay in Britain? While the film purports to explore cultural exchange and provide a more even-handed view of East-West relations than are typically found in nationalist, xenophobic mainstream Indian films, it turns out that Xerxes’ self-discovery has little to do with India per se. While blissfully ignorant Ricardo, who wasn’t around when his brother needed him, comes to understand the value of the familial culture he left behind, and method actor Krishna suffers the unique indignities of Bollywood, Xerxes’ gay identity crisis is not really or necessarily defined by a specifically Indian culture. He could be thrown in jail for buggery almost anywhere, and nowhere in the film is there a substantial enough discussion of particularly Indian homophobia to convince us that only in India could he ever realize he is gay. In fact, far more politically pointed than the film’s gay content are a few throwaway scenes on race relations, in which the boys become disheartened when xenophobic landlords refuse them, or when they read in a classified ad that prospective tenants for an apartment should have a “wheatish complexion.”
Indeed, it becomes more apparent that Bombay Boys‘ primary goal is to critique Bollywood film conventions when the climax of the film puts aside the issues of Xerxes’ gayness and Ricardo’s tragically dead brother in favor of bringing all three boys together to decide whether or not they will rescue Dolly from the mafia don’s villainous grip. Kidnapped by a Mastana desperate to finish his film, the three boys don ridiculous cowboy getups and under duress shoot the climax of Mumbai Banditos, while helpless Dolly watches on the sidelines. When the cameras have stopped rolling, the pistol-brandishing Mastana informs the boys that their duties have been completed and they are free to go – but will they back down, or will they finally fulfill their cinematic obligation as film heroes and rescue the damsel? Much to our surprise, they run away, galloping on their cinema horses happily and shamelessly into the cowardly sunset, forgoing poor Dolly to demonstrate that this will not be a typical Bollywood ending. But while this self-impressed ending is subversive narratively, the film’s overall themes remain too whimsical and disorganized to threaten any but the most fundamentalist of viewers. Gustad, in challenging Bollywood norms, has created more of a pastiche than a polemic, a film whose disparate moods and cobbled themes may actually improve upon repeated viewings, but whose chronic lack of focus makes it nearly impossible to assess as an intentional work of art.
- Bombay Boys was originally filmed in English, and has been dubbed into at least 4 Indian tongues for domestic screenings. The English-subtitled DVD incarnation of the film, released by Eros Entertainment, has been dubbed into Hindi. [↩]
- Gustad had previously published a book of short stories, entitled Of No Fixed Address. [↩]