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The case of Dostana

If you’re looking for evidence of Bollywood coming of age, then please direct your glance somewhere far far away from Karan Johar. He has never claimed to be anything more than an entertainer, and that is exactly what he is. One wonders what it means when posters of a film say, ‘Karan Johar presents Dostana. Directed by Tarun Mansukhani.’ Is he merely a producer, or has he somehow stamped the film with the hoo haa Dharma Productions is famous for?

As is well publicised, Dostana, starring Abhishek Bachchan, John Abraham and Priyanka Chopra, is the story of two men in Miami looking for a flat. They find one, and it is perfect because it has two rooms to spare, but it is not meant for them. The landlady tells them only girls (baby-log) can occupy the flat as the third flattie will be her single niece. The two hatch the imperfect plan andpretend to be gay to win the lady’s trust and a roof over their heads. They have to continue the pretence in front of the niece, who happens to be the stunning Priyanka, and then in front of some more people, and then some more and it goes on. Needless to say, they fall in love with her and life is all the more complicated.

Just because Bollywood has managed to say the word ‘gay’ out loud without being shut down, would be a massive change if the film wasn’t the way it is. It walks a fine line between severe homophobia and an ability to get over it and look beyond. In spite of statements by Karan Johar himself, the film indeed does indulge in stereotyping at one level. For instance, the scene where Abhishek tells the two women their ‘love story’, the visual is of exaggerated effeminacy. There is however Boman Irani who plays M, the editor of Verve. Once I was over the stupendous job Irani did, I realised, here is an actual gay character, who might be a tad too colourful for the Indian male palette, but is also a grand success. He is the editor of Verve, and he leaves the job to become Editor in Chief of Diva. He isn’t a perfect person, definitely not a saint, but he is also not a closet case, fighting society and sitting ready to die of AIDS, which is the only place homosexual characters have had in Bollywood so far.

This film isn’t meant for the upliftment of the unfortunately suppressed and discriminated gay community in our country, in no publicity campaign has it claimed to be so. It does resort to some tried and tested jokes against gay people, and I am sorry to report that they work like magic with the audience, but I am determined to believe that it also looks forward in some very small ways, perhaps even unintentionally. First, because apart from the usual gay jokes, there is an underlying sense of humour in the film, which would worked for it even without its gay-angle. Second, and most significantly, the end of the film. There is a kind of ambiguity it leaves us with, which, given the masculin ideal of Bollywood, is radical. The thought, that even buffed up, sensitive, ‘normal’ people can be gay. We may not know it, and even they may not know it.

Dostana has a lot of elements associated in our minds with the undefined entity called ‘western culture’ – be it the roommate arrangement, the clothes, the career choices, the relationship choices, and of course the girl drinking beer in the middle of the day – and audiences seemed to have warmed up to it. The question in my mind is, will the film, with its mass appeal and a conscious decision to not preach, work as the ultimate ‘lesson’ and coming of age technique for Bollywood and consequently for its audience?

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