This is a difficult piece to write. On a personal level, I happen to like Karan Johar. He talks with a degree of candour that is quite rare in the Hindi film industry. He attempts to bring homosexuality into the mainstream; his intentions I can vouch for. I have had numerous heart to heart chats with him, and I see his passion towards the ‘cause’. Also, when Aligarh, our film on the harangued gay professor Srinivas Siras of Aligarh Muslim University, came out, Karan used his enviable media muscle to promote the film. For this, I will always have affection for him.
But having said that, his recent ‘admissions’ in an excerpt from his biography have left me appalled. I did send an apology to him in advance for the things I am about to say and he was gracious enough to encourage me to express myself. I will of course reveal nothing of the private chats we have had and only address his public stance on the subject.
Karan is being hailed for ‘almost’ coming out. Social media is rife with a deluge of congratulatory messages and credible commentators are calling him ‘brave’. Karan might be many things, but where it comes to his sexuality, brave he certainly is not.
I don’t think Karan owes anybody a ‘coming out’. In fact nobody should have to come out as gay or lesbian, unless they are comfortable with it. Yes, I believe that a human being greatly benefits from being truthful, and that is reflected in his/her work, but that’s not the point here. The point is ‘choice’. If Karan chooses to keep his private life private, that is entirely his prerogative.
But the irony here is that Karan himself never spares a moment to draw attention to his alternative sexual leanings. I haven’t seen a single episode of his chat show where he hasn’t used self-deprecating humour and often tacky innuendo to describe his sexuality. He has extensively blogged about his struggles with his sexuality and at a recent awards function, even offered his ‘behind’ to a handsome young host. Karan has opened up his sexuality for discussion so often that he has come to be known as a popular gay icon.
Sadly Karan’s public image reeks of the very same gay stereotyping that Bollywood infamously propagates – the frustrated sexual predator, the comic relief, the closeted ‘butt of all jokes’. Yes, I cringe every time I see him make a joke of his sexual leanings, but it affects me worse when my aunts and uncles reference Karan when talking homosexuality. When I publicly came out after Aligarh, my partner’s mother, who had accepted our relationship some 10 years ago, was frightened for us. “They will target you,” she had warned. “Why cant you be like Karan Johar? He maybe gay in his bedroom, but he never says it publicly.” I argued that I wanted to live with dignity, with equal rights, but she would hear none of it. “I don’t go around proclaiming my heterosexuality,” she had said, “why should Karan shout about his homosexuality from the rooftops?”
I sat her down to explain what I had explained a million times to well-meaning but naive straight friends. “Because you had a wedding with 500 guests and your heterosexuality got their blessings. Because you had a child and have the right to adopt. Every event/function your husband takes you to, you are awarded the same respect as he is. When one of you dies, the other can perform your last rights and inherit property. You don’t need to self identify as heterosexual. You have rights! Gay and lesbian people on the other hand, do not.”
But then, this too is not the point of this piece. Karan can choose to lampoon himself and his sexuality as much as he likes. He can choose to withhold three words or three letters from whosoever he likes. We are after all a democracy. What then has Karan done so wrong, compelling me to risk my career in a nepotistic film industry and call out?
Yes, he made Dostana where two straight men played ‘pretend gay’ with such disgust that they never found a moment of truth, tenderness or respect. Yes he made a segment of Bombay Talkies where he presented yet another closeted gay man with violent leanings and directed Student Of The Year with an older closeted gay dean lusting after a handsome teacher. But he also produced Kapoor & Sons, where a handsome Fawad Khan played a subtle, sensitive gay man. Well, he never said he’s gay, in fact no one in the film ever uttered the word, but it was understood. Because in India we hint and believe ‘samjhdar ko ishara kaafi hain’ (the intelligent can pick up hints). Well, Karan has every right to take his money and make whatever film he likes. After all, it is his choice whether to make a Rs 100 crore popular film or a film that earns Rs 10 crores for stating uncomfortable truths.
But it is what Karan said in the recent excerpt of his book that needs to be called out with urgency. His one statement, that has NOTHING to do with his choice to stay closeted, can be extremely damaging for the gay rights movement in India.
This is what Karan said: “Everybody knows what my sexual orientation is. I don’t need to scream it out. And if I need to spell it out, I won’t only because I live in a country where I could possibly be jailed for saying this.”
Firstly, dear Karan, you are the one screaming it out. Regularly calling attention to your sexuality. You are the one accepting the role of the gay poster boy and then saying ‘I don’t owe you an explanation’. Secondly, and most importantly, you need to realise the implications of your statement “And if I need to spell it out, I won’t only because I live in a country where I could possibly be jailed for saying this.”
Do you realise what message you are giving to LGBTQ folk who struggle with their sexuality? After years of progressive work by brave individuals who came out and encouraged others to live with dignity; after courageous gay themed films broke the glass ceiling of the mainstream; after groups like Humsafar, Naaz, Lawyers Collective, Gaysi and Kashish worked relentlessly to bring the LGBTQ movement to respectability, you come up and make this regressive, and I’m sorry to say, cowardly statement.
Karan, do you even realise the power that you command? Besides being a talented filmmaker, you also come from a well-connected film family. You have had childhood access to the biggest stars of the country. Your ‘camp’ has tremendous influence over the idol worshipping junta of India. Do you realise that your statement will push so many people who struggle with their identity back into stuffy closets?
This is a misleading and untrue statement: You cannot get arrested for saying you are gay. You cannot even get arrested for being gay. The law (Article 377) can only be invoked against you if you are first caught in the act, and then after they have laboratory evidence of you taking it or giving it up the bum! But I don’t think you have ever had a problem talking about anal sex. Maybe if you wanted to hold back something for fear of arrest, it’d be that. Just for the record, I don’t know of a single urban, gay man or woman arrested for having penetrative sex. Especially not someone as privileged as you.
Of course, your recent statements will find great support among media folk. Many are happy to make an influential friend in you, many, among the privileged, are happy to stay in the their closets themselves. They will cheer for you as you maintain the status quo, allowing them to continue living their lies. The straight world will never understand the real impact of your words; they will cajole you to remain who you are, a second class citizen. Someone who will watch them and their wives live out their love stories, make babies and share their joy with the world. Do they care Karan, if you go back to a lonely closet at night?
This is why people like us need to come out. To claim our lives back. To refuse the status of a second-class citizen. Of course, I am afraid too, but not of the law. I am afraid of the system. Of being labelled. Of being stereotyped. Will your films make big money if the public know who you are? Will your friends be your friends if you live out your truth publicly? Will your closeted gay friends become threatened now that you are out? Will the media only ask you for quotes relating to homosexuality in the future? (Yes, that’s started happening with me, but I don’t indulge mostly). These are the real fears. This is what we are really fighting.
About being trolled, abused, threatened – well, every public figure gets trolled on social media. They’ll troll you for something or the other. Right now, they can get to you about your sexuality, because you have a secret. You are hiding something they can all see. The day I uttered the ‘three magic words’ – I am gay – I stopped being afraid. The abuse lost its bite, the law stopped looking like a threat and most of all, I stopped fearing people getting to my parents. Because bhige hue ko baarish se kya darna (the drenched aren’t afraid of the rain). Though, I’m sure if you had to say that line, you’d say ‘bhi-GAY hue ko baarish se kya darna’. Because, well, you can’t really say gay where it counts, so it ends up appearing everywhere else.
One last thing, perhaps the most important point of this piece. Remember Karan, why the Supreme Court upheld the regressive Article 377? Why it refused to give us our rights in the devastating 2013 judgement? Because the Supreme Court believed that gay people were a ‘minuscule minority’! They struck down years of effort by the few that fought for us, stating that there were no significant numbers of LGBTQ people warranting equal rights.
Now, if everybody had this attitude, of ‘choosing’ to remain in the closet, hoping someone else will fight their battle, nobody would leave their closets to fight for change! The battleground would be empty.
Fair enough, you lack the courage to give up your privileges, but you could at least do your bit by not instilling a false sense of panic among gay people. Remember, it is no crime to be gay in India. It is only a crime for straight and gay people alike to indulge in any kind of non-procreative sex. That outlaws almost the whole country. How many will they arrest?
Apurva Asrani is the script writer and editor of Aligarh.