I recently had the privilege of watching Harshavardhan Kulkarni’s Badhaai Do (2022), a comedy about a gay man and a lesbian who decide to enter a marriage of convenience to satisfy their families. Being the first Bollywood film I have watched of my own volition after several years, Badhaai Do was a pleasant surprise. The film offered a nuanced portrayal of gay romance and the societal pressures young Indians face to marry, have children, and please their parents.
My adolescent years turned me away from Bollywood; I felt that the industry prioritized and idealized normative narratives of love and goodness and perpetuated harmful stereotypes against minorities. Badhhai Do is an example of a Bollywood film that shows how much has changed over the past decade, despite continuing challenges to diverse, queer representation within the industry.
Complex Characters, Not Caricatures
In Badhaai Do, Kulkarni introduces protagonists, Shardul (Rajkummar Rao) and Suman (Bhumi Pednekar), as two complex characters with fleshed-out personalities, unlike portrayals of homosexuality before it.
Depictions of homosexuality in aughties films like Dostana (2008) rely on othering gay characters to propel the plot. For example, Murli M. (Boman Irani), presents as comically effeminate and displays aggressively sexual behavior towards Abhishek Bachan’s character, Sam, who is pretending to be gay. Irani’s caricatured portrayal of gayness mirrors that of other queer-coded characters of the time, such as Puppy Bhai in Golmaal 3 (2010). To prepare for this encounter, Sam tells John Abraham’s character, Kunal, that he must, “Think like a woman.” This simultaneously homophobic and misogynistic statement reveals the movie’s one-dimensional view of homosexuality. Bollywood portrayals of queerness in the early aughts also leaned upon the assumption that gay men were out to “turn” straight men. For example, in Student of the Year (2012), Dean Yoginder Vashist (Rishi Kapoor) is constantly flirting with the university soccer coach, a straight, married man. These seemingly banal caricatures serve to other gay people and label homosexuality as a deviant behavior.
Shardul and Suman, on the other hand, are given nuanced portrayals and complex personalities. To build realistic characters, the writers consulted the queer community and drew from their experiences. Shardul, a police officer who radiates himbo energy, is dedicated to advancing his career in the force. Suman is a savvy P.E. coach who longs to experience motherhood. Each has their own motivations and desires outside their sexuality. The film is entertaining and comedic without stooping to homophobic stereotypes of queerness like its predecessors.
Moreover, each protagonist receives a thorough character arc. Counter to popular stereotypes of gay men, Shardul presents himself as a body builder type with misogynist attitudes towards women. His toxic masculinity is tied to his fear of being outed as a gay man in a society that punishes deviation from heteronormative behavior; he can barely utter the word “gay” in public during the first act. However, by the end of the film, Shardul comes out to his family of his own volition and even celebrates his identity during a local Pride parade. Suman, too, receives a satisfying character arc. At the beginning of the film, she is resigned to the fact that she must endure an unhappy marriage with a straight man to achieve her dream of motherhood. Instead, she finds a female partner that is willing to prioritize her needs and raise an adopted child with her. Kulkarni proves that queer stories can be painted with a lighthearted and nuanced brush.
Portrayals of Dating and Love
Normalizing dating and live-in relationships became more common in Bollywood during the aughts, in films like Salam Namaste (2005) and Bachna ae Haseeno (2008). However, these films feature cis, straight relationships. Representation of queer relationships and dating was rarely center stage, and the representation that did exist was littered with tropes. For example, while Student of the Year did include a flashback of Dean Vashist with a former partner, the relationship is portrayed as comical, even repulsive. Similarly, when Murli M. makes sexually suggestive advances towards Sam in Dostana, the audience is not encouraged to root for the relationship.
Conversely, the protagonists of Badhaai Do receive the rom-com treatment, without the problematic rom-com tropes. Shardul and Suman experience adorable meet-cutes with their partners rather than immediately throwing overt sexual passes at them. Instead of aiming to disgust, the meet-cutes endear the audience to the protagonists. The audience experiences the butterflies of a crush alongside Shardul and Suman. The film takes a similar approach to their dates with their partners. They show how the couples gradually develop intimacy and, in Suman’s case, live together. These scenes normalize healthy queer romances and allow queer people to see their own love stories on screen.
The Challenges to Queer Existence in India
For decades, Indian society has demonized queer relationships and people. In addition to being characterized as banal and effeminate in Bollywood films, queer identities are also depicted as deviant and degenerate. Trans people are often portrayed as the villains of Bollywood horror films, including Sadak (1991), where the main antagonist is a trans woman who is an evil pimp, and Sangharsh (1999), in which a trans woman sets out to murder children. More recent incarnations of this trope include Rajjo (2013) and Laxmii (2020). These films convey the message that trans people are mentally unstable and even inherently immoral; they reflect Indian society’s normative views of gender and sexual orientation.
In 2018, the Indian Supreme Court struck down Section 377, which criminalized same-sex intercourse. The period following this decision saw more films centering queer identities and relationships, including Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Esa Lagha (2019), Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020), and Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021). Despite this legal victory, the queer community continues to face hate crimes and police violence. Furthermore, the Indian legal system has yet to enshrine queer people’s right to marriage and adoption. And though same-sex intercourse is no longer banned, Indian society’s perception of queer relationships has not entirely changed. LGBTQ+ Indians still struggle to reconcile their identities with their families, coworkers, and faiths.
Badhaai Do offers a grounded portrayal of these challenges, despite its lighthearted approach. Shardul lives in constant fear that he will be outed to his coworkers at the police force, who often persecute openly gay individuals. Similarly, Suman faces the dangers of existing as a gay person when she tries dating apps. Her match catphishes her, revealing himself to be a man. He proceeds to stalk her, threatening that he will reveal her sexual orientation to the police if she reports him. In addition to facing physical dangers, the protagonists deal with the social fallout of coming out. When they come out to their families during the third act, the reactions to their true identities is heartbreaking, but realistic. Suman’s mother and brother are disgusted by her, and the revelation that Suman is a lesbian elicits similar comments from Shardul’s family. Recalling Suman’s last stay with the family, his aunts say “I changed my clothes so many times in front of her… I feel repulsed by it.” When Shardul comes out, his eldest aunt, the matriarch of his family, seems to sever her relationship with him. These vignettes provide a moving portrayal of the isolation and fear of existing as a queer person in India.
While Kulkarni accurately shows the physical risks and social consequences of queer existence in India, the ending of Badhaai Do offers the viewer immense hope. The last scene depicts Shardul and Suman partaking in an adoption ritual for their new child, with their friends and family present. A year has passed since the two came out. Most of their family members seem supportive of their lifestyles and non-traditional partnerships, though some are notably absent. Both protagonists’ partners sit next to them to take part in the ritual to welcome the child into their queer family. I shed tears at multiple moments throughout this film, but this final scene left me ugly-crying; my heart felt full.
Though the film’s writers consulted queer Indians to present more realistic stories, the main cast is cis and straight, as are the writers and director. I see Badhaai Do as a net positive for queer representation, but Bollywood must make more commitments to include queer artists off-camera and within the casts of mainstream films.
This pride month, I encourage you to celebrate queer, South Asian love by watching Badhaai Do (available on Netflix), and welcome you to suggest any other queer South Asian films or media in the comments.