Many years ago, on a trip to India, I found a DVD in a corrugated cardboard box at my old home. It had been moldering away in the dust. My brother didn’t want it, possibly because it had a lurid cover. I grabbed it and dropped it in my carry-on luggage.

Back in the Upper Midwest, I watched it in my apartment, hemmed in by a blanket of snow, the height of a fire hydrant. If I’d played it in an outdoor, drive-in theater, it’d likely have thawed out the white stuff. It was a melodrama as hot as plasma.

One Of Those Girls

Two women share a nice beach house. They’re friends, but over time, one develops feelings for the other. One day, the other meets a handsome stranger and she falls in love with him. When she learns that the person whom she’s known to be her best bud is, in fact, one of those girls, she breaks her friendship with her. Little is she aware that by then, she’s become her roomie’s object of obsession. The movie ends in blood and thunder when the heterosexual love birds push her out a window.

The movie had one loud message: Lesbians are carnal, obsessive, murderous monsters. Run for the hills when you see one. Also: Carry a magnum can of pepper spray in your tote in the event a butch has an ax on her.

Thankfully, there’s now far more awareness about same-sex love among Bollywood’s directors and producers. They’ve started representing gays and lesbians as normal humans and the notion of two women (or men) sleeping together isn’t jeered at or pilloried.

Section 377

On September 6, 2018, India’s top court struck down a 157-year-old colonial-era law that made homosexual acts a criminal offence, punishable by a 10-year prison sentence. The judgment opened with a quote from Goethe: “I am what I am, so take me as I am.” It effectively allows gay sex between consenting adults in private.

The landmark ruling was a huge victory for the country’s rainbow brigade. But then again, there’s a difference between what’s enshrined in the law and how you’re treated by your neighbor or your landlord or your co-worker or your relatives for being who you are.  

The poster for “Coming Out With the Help of a Time Machine.” (Photo courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival)

“Coming out” isn’t easy in India. Most narratives of men and women, who’ve shared their experiences of having declared their sexual orientation to their families, don’t end on a happy note.

Time Travels

“Coming Out With the Help of a Time Machine” is one of seven queer-flavored movies that are premiering at Tribeca this year. Directed by Naman Gupta, it has a novel take on that process. Its poster has “time machine” printed in bold yellow lettering. If, like me, you’re a fan of science-fiction, then you’d know that a “time machine” is that wondrous piece of hardware or a transport that enables you to journey backward and forward in time, the past or the future.

There’s no temporal ride in this one—yet. In an interview, Gupta, who’s into quantum mechanics and astronomy said that he’s working on making it into a TV series, which could have time travel. For the project, “we are consulting an M.I.T. engineer and a quantum physicist to [weave in] as much science as possible,” he said.

Coming Out Over Coffee

In the movie, there’s a timepiece, though, a watch with a red clock face, with “RESET” emblazoned on it. It’s on the table of a diner—a diner, where a young man (played by Karan Soni) has asked his parents to meet him. He’d like to tell them something that he can’t over the phone. It’s a delicate matter.  

He orders a pot of black coffee as he waits for them to arrive. His mom (played by Sangeeta Agrawal) is over the moon that he’s met someone. His old man, a retired cabbie (played by Raghuram Shetty), is more curious. Most of the questions they ask their son are what would be on the minds of average Indian parents.

RESET

Each time (pun intended), he doesn’t like the direction in which the conversation is headed, he hits “reset,” just like the famous Staples “EASY” button, hoping for an alternate outcome. None are great.

When they hear him announce a “he”—not “she”—they’re crushed. The dad, dumbfounded by the revelation, wonders as to how his boy can be gay. After all, he’d never worn “skinny jeans.” The mom explodes and calls the family physician even before she can utter Jack Robinson. They gave him their all to send him to M.I.T. and how dare he blow his everything for another … man? It’s tantamount to heresy.

Gupta has brought to the fore not merely the homophobia that plagues our culture, but also captured a racial prejudice prevalent among the less educated Indian immigrants: Being gay is bad; but dating or marrying a black male or female is just as bad.