There are a lot of taboos prevalent in Indian society. Thou shalt not talk about it is the unwritten rule for these topics. But cinema being a powerful medium has helped a lot in making lot of taboo topics mainstream. Before Vicky Donor, the idea of sperm donation was largely unknown and was not talked about freely by those who knew. But the launch vehicle of Ayushmann Khurrana changed it all. Earlier this year, the Akshay Kumar-starrer Pad Man also played a huge role in encouraging people to talk about menstruation. Ayushmann’s last year’s sleeper hit Shubh Mangal Saavdhan also played a small role in eradicating shame associated with performance anxiety and erectile dysfunction.
An unusual film in this category has to be Dostana, which completes ten years today. It’s not like it was the first film to talk about gay relationships. Earlier, films like Fire, Girlfriend, My Brother Nikhil etc. too tackled this issue but these were all adult films and not mainstream. Reema Kagti’s road trip flick Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd briefly talked about it but the impact wasn’t made. Dostana however was a game-changer in this regard. It was produced by Karan Johar, who five before this flick, had a homosexual track in his blockbuster flick Kal Ho Naa Ho. Here, an unassuming maid Kantaben, played by Sulbha Arya, gets a shock of her life when she begins to suspect that Aman, played by Shah Rukh Khan and Rohit, played by Saif Ali Khan, are having an affair. Her scenes brought the house down and were one of the big reasons why this film became so popular. Incidentally, a misunderstanding over someone being gay has been done in many films like Masti, Kuch Naa Kaho, Awara Paagal Deewana etc. But there was something interesting and correct in Kal Ho Naa Ho which made it such a hit among moviegoers.
However, Kantaben’s track was a minor one. In Dostana, the homosexuality bit was the central theme of the film. However, the lead protagonists were not gays and only pretending to be one. Sam (Abhishek Bachchan) and Kunal (John Abraham) chance upon an apartment in Miami and want to rent it out but it’s available only for women. This is when they pretend to be a couple. Trouble arises when they fall for the landlord, the petite and sizzling Neha (Priyanka Chopra) and try to form a divide between her and her boss Abhimanyu (Bobby Deol), who has the hots for her.
Dostana was loved for its humour content and marvellous performances by John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan. I remember watching the film on the first day and it was a full house. Audiences went crazy on seeing the antics of these actors especially as they continued with their drama. But the funniest moment of the film has to be was Sam’s mother (Kirron Kher) catches her son doing a ‘gay dance’. However, the film takes a sweet turn when she accepts the fact that her son is a gay, giving away the bangles that she had saved for her daughter-in-law.
Despite the laughs and entertainment, Dostana however was met with mixed reactions. While some hailed the film for challenging the homophobia in the country, many felt it showed an insensitive portrayal of homosexuals. One critic said that the film would take the attitude of Indians a decade back! Perhaps what many didn’t realize then that a topic repressed for years finally got an outlet. Despite its naughtiness, Dostana was perceived as a family entertainer. A lot of people saw the film together with their kids and parents and came out all smiles and without any discomfort. And now ten years later, the impact can clearly be seen.
Prominent LGBTQ rights activist Harrish Iyer agrees as he says, “Dostana broke the taboo. It was a landmark film as it mainstreamed the issue. It brought the conversation to the dining table. Dostana almost became a word for gays. People would say ‘Yeh log dono Dostana karte hai’ instead of saying ‘Yeh dono gay hai’!” He futher adds, “Karan Johar has done a lot of service to the homosexual community by bringing the conversation out from the closet into the open”
Karan Johar in his autobiography ‘An Unsuitable Boy’ had responded to the allegations. He says, “People say that I make fun of and stereotype homosexuals. But I say no, I’ve brought homosexuality to dining table discussions. I’ve received over a thousand emails and letters from gay boys and girls thanking me for making Dostana because they said, now at least people what the concept is.”
Karan also reminds of his camaraderie with Maniesh Paul on the dance reality show ‘Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa’. He states, “I’ve even flirted with anchor Maniesh Paul…I’m flirting with a man, right? How come it’s become so believable and acceptable? Families say, ‘Hamein aapki aur Maneish ki nok-jhok bahut pasand hai!’ Doesn’t the moral police of the country realize that the only way you can penetrate a thought in this country is with humour? When you lace it with seriousness and make it like fighting a cause, it achieves nothing. You take a step back.”
Karan Johar didn’t stop at making Dostana and flirting with Maniesh Paul. He once again showed a homosexual character in lighter vein in his 2012 directorial Student Of The Year. Here, Dean Yogendra Vashishth, played by Rishi Kapoor, is a homosexual principal who is crazy over the coach of the school, played by Ronit Roy. KJo then surprised everyone as six months later; he made a sensitive short film out of it in the anthology Bombay Talkies. But being niche, this Rani Mukerji-Randeep Hooda-Saqib Saleem starrer didn’t get the viewership that it deserved. Then two years ago, he caught everyone by surprise by adding a gay angle in Kapoor & Sons. But here, there was no room for humour and audiences loved the homosexual portrayal of Fawad Khan in this very well made flick. And not just KJo, other filmmakers too now began to talk about it more and more and the result were films like Aligarh, Angry Indian Goddesses, Dedh Ishqiya, Loev, Unfreedom etc.
Dostana is remembered today also for its songs which was modern and peppy. And how can we forget, there was Priyanka Chopra too who was at her hottest best. The visuals of her strutting the Miami Beach in a golden bikini or shaking a leg in that appealing saree in ‘Desi Girl’ are unforgettable! However, that it made homosexual a very normal aspect of society is what it’ll be remembered for the most. As Harrish Iyer rightly sums it up, “I had also come out to my sister after watching Dostana. She was 14 at that time. I told her, ‘Lakshmi, you know, I am gay’. She looked at me for 2 seconds and asked, ‘Are you gay like John or are you gay like Abhishek’?!”