“Kunal, you better marry someone Indian.”
I can hear the words of my Mumbai-born parents echoing in my ears over and over again. I’m not sure how serious this wish of theirs is, because I know they wouldn’t mind if I were to date someone not of Indian descent, but I can say with certainty that they have a checklist in mind when it comes to my marriage. For example, in addition to being Indian, there’s an implicit understanding that my future spouse be female. So I’ve always wondered: how would my parents respond if I identified as a member of the LGBTQ community?
I’ve never had a conversation about gay rights or sexuality with my mom or dad. The silence clouding this subject in our home, I believe, comes from my parents’ upbringing in a culture that highly values the tradition of arranged marriages.
The system of arranged marriages in India fosters a culture of heteronormativity that has proven difficult to uproot as the country becomes more modernized. On December 11, 2013, the Supreme Court of India overturned the 2009 ruling to decriminalize homosexuality. Being gay is now illegal in the second most populated nation in the world.
There’s no denying that a part of Indian culture today suppresses homosexuality. Rejects it, even. Living in the United States, however, gives us the opportunity as Indian Americans to show Indians the direction in which a more progressive nation is heading.
My parents became American citizens a few years ago, and I see their difficulty in facing topics like gay rights as a struggle between two identities: the traditional Indian and the newfound American. So how can the silence towards LGBTQ issues that I find happening in my own home be put to an end?
What about Bollywood?
It might seem odd to begin with a form of media so deeply a part of Indian culture, but the best place to start is at the source of the issue. Not to mention that Bollywood has a widespread global reach, inspiring German Bollywood dance ensembles and even amateur Bollywood singers in Morocco, according to a BBC World Report.
I remember watching Bollywood films often, with my family, as a kid. The movies could usually be distilled to a simple plot: boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love; boy and girl get married (with interwoven upbeat, coy love songs accompanied by colorful dances). The only problem with Bollywood is that the romantic duo is always a man and woman. These films uphold the heteronormativity present in the culture of arranged marriages.
However, Bollywood movies almost always contain love marriages, rarely presenting the strict rigidity of the arranged marriage world. So if these films already show love marriages, why can’t they show gay love marriages? This simple switch of a character would still produce a happy, easygoing narrative that normalizes homosexuality in Indian culture.
On April 30, 2014, the United Nations released a video doing just that. Supporting marriage equality and LGBT rights in India, the short music video depicted a marriage between two Indian men. The point of most tension in the video occurred when the family’s elderly grandmother-figure saw the two men standing hand-in-hand at the end of the wedding aisle. She froze in shock, until the lyrics of the song said, “It’s a new look. It’s a new attitude,” after which the grandmother gave the happy couple her blessing.
On a more local level, Northwestern University’s Bollywood dance team, Anubhav, recently performed in the National Bollywood America competition with a routine that centers around a gay love story. After coming out to his mother, who tells him that she “loves him for who he is,” the male lead embraces his partner in a breathtaking finale. In an interview describing the motivation for the theme, team captain Yuri Doolan says, “We have this responsibility to portray that kind of love as just as legitimate of a love story as a typical love story.”
This is what we need to do, as Indian Americans, to break the silence within our families, within our communities. An ocean away from the politics of India, we are in a place where we can express our beliefs. We all have a responsibility to show India the values we hold as Indian Americans, and if our target audience across the world can relate to the medium we use to showcase our stance on this issue, our message of both cultural and LGBTQ pride will be heard.
Kunal Kamath is a rising sophomore at Columbia University in New York majoring in Computer Science. He is also a member of Columbia Bhangra, a competitive dance team, and interested in the issues of LGBTQ equality in the Indian American community as well as in his hometown of Atlanta, GA.