Tarun Mansukhani‘s Dostana is one of the first big budget, non-arthouse — yes, Bollywood —Hindi films to deal with LGBT issues as a central subject. Not only that, the musical comedy of gay errors features Bollywood A-listers Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham in the principal roles.
Though I’ve seen Dostana before, when a chance came up to see it on the big screen during the I-View Film Festival, put forth by Engendered, I immediately bought a ticket. Ideally, I would have liked to have attended the entire festival, but I just couldn’t afford it at this time. That said, shelling out the pittance of $18 for a 9:30 AM showing of Dostana and the brief Q&A with Mansukhani, Abraham and Boman Irani afterwards proved to be well worth it.
One thing I frequently laud Brandon Beemer (Owen, B&B) for is that he’s comfortable enough with his physique to do just about anything, wear just about anything, and let the camera catch it all. It’s savvy. Abraham has a similar sensibility about his body, which makes since sense both men have modeled. And Dostana kicks off shamelessly indulging in Abraham’s sex appeal. There are a few points where it’s literally a shot of his torso taking up the entire screen. He comes out of the water, dripping like that infamous Daniel Craig scene in Casino Royale, and the risque number, urging everyone to “bounce, baby, bounce” revels in eroticism —and homoeroticism. From the motorcycles, to the pink car that Sameer (Abhishek Bachchan) drives and the scarves the character accessorizes with, even before one word of dialogue is uttered, the film tells the viewer that Something Gay This Way Comes.
Of course, everything after the item number is slightly less heightened, though the ease with sex and sexuality does continue…evidenced by how both Abraham’s character, Kunal, and Sameer are both shown waking up with women…and Kunal wanders out to an apartment balcony wearing nothing but a very tight pair of hip-hugger briefs. From there, the comic set-up ensues: These men, who’ve met at random, wind up pretending to be gay in order to score a really sweet apartment —only to realize their new roommate is a very smokin’ hot girl.
What transpires is funny, occasionally cringe-inducing, emotional, heartfelt…and very watchable. And reading it subtextually proved fascinating. Because on one level, the way Sameer and Kunal instinctively camp it up for people they need to “convince” of their sexuality is borderline offensive. But on another, it’s a fascinating look at gender roles and expectations, and how masculinity is perceived. For most of the film, Sam and Kunal are pretending to be gay without putting onany kind of act. But then, when they do step into the stereotypes — high-pitched voices, limp wrists — there’s a point where Sam gives Kunal a pep talk of “think like a woman, act like a man.” There’s an interesting lack of self-awareness there, with them thinking that they have to sashay for the benefit of strangers, but can live with Neha 24/7 and generally be themselves except for one lie.
And both subtextually and textually, this film has a positive message about the power of friendship and how that’s the most important relationship of all. The first few times I saw the film, I was reminded of how the depth of basic Indian male friendship is such the perfect springboard for a gay story. Even films like Sholay or, going back farther, to Raj Kapoor’s Sangam, showcase male friendships as being intensely personal and emotional. And, indeed, here, Sam and Kunal’s bond is almost more intimate when they’re not actively lying. And there’s a beautiful moment that leaves the viewer wondering whether or not they actually felt something deeper for one another. During the Q&A session, I couldn’t help but ask Mansukhani if that was intentional. He noted that he’d deliberately left things open to interpretation, but then smiled, asking me, “What do you think?”
Since Mansukhani also noted that the sequel to Dostana is currently being written, I said something to the effect of Dostana 2 being what my opinion hinged on: Would he perhaps give into the temptation to hook Sam and Kunal up with girls by the end of that film? And he quickly assured that no, there will be no hooking up with girls, “only boys hooking up with boys.” It’s a boys’ story, he affirmed. Now, I’m not fangirlish enough to assume that he meant Sam and Kunal will be hooking up with each other. But just that the relationship they’ve built will continue in its current vein.
And that’s such a great step for mainstream Indian cinema: Get ’em laughing, and then get ’em thinking. It’s not Brokeback Mountain (and thank God, because that movie is gut-wrenching); it’s not high art. But Dostana, by telling the story of two not-quite-gay guys and a girl and the depth of their love for each other, has allowed millions of people around the world to start befriending an idea: That it’s perfectly okay to be gay.
And here are some clips:
First, the opening number, Shut Up and Bounce, featuring John Abraham, Abhishek Bachchan, and Shilpa Shetty.
Sameer tells the ridiculously campy story of how he and Kunal met in Venice. It’s excruciating, in that there’s mincing and limp wrists and giggling and all of those stereotypical tropes, but it’s A)funny anyway and B)an interesting commentary on Sameer’s perspective of what “other people think gay is,” as he’s telling it for Aunty and Neha’s benefit.
Sameer’s mother accepts Kunal, in a hilarious homage to the acceptance scene in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham.