While representation of the LGBTQ2S+ community in mainstream media has progressed over recent years, it still has a long way to go, especially in communities where the subject remains, by and large, taboo.
A Toronto-based dance company is hoping to break down that stigma within the South Asian community with a new take on some Bollywood classics — showcasing LGBTQ2S+ relationships against the backdrop of popular film songs.
Naach For Fun creator Suzanne Aranha says the concept came to her when a friend, also a person of colour, confided in her about coming out to her mother.
“In our community, it’s very tough to have those conversations with our parents, our friends, our families, without being ostracized, without feeling like my relationship is going to change with this other person,” explains Aranha. “It got me thinking as to why we are the way we are.”
Bollywood’s social impact
Aranha says part of the reason she believes the community is not entirely open and accepting of LGBTQ2S+ people is because of the media content that is popular and widely consumed within it, which has a massive impact on what is considered socially acceptable.
“If our content was more inclusive, if the portrayal of the LGBTQ2S+ community was more positive, then these conversations would not only be easier, they would be more seamless and the understanding between people would be a lot better,” she says.
Founder of Taaj Entertainment Adnan Shamsuzzoha collaborated with Aranha on the project and says Bollywood is one of the biggest cultural juggernauts in the South Asian community. While it is slowly becoming more progressive, queer representation is still largely lacking.
“In an industry that churns out 600 or 700 movies a year, if you can only name maybe 10 in the last decade that represent [the LGBTQ2S+ community] … the scales are so skewed to the point where it’s almost invisible,” he says.
Aranha adds that most film storylines usually focus on the “boy meets girl” narrative and queer characters are often portrayed in a negative or comical light.
Shamsuzzoha says that singular narrative in Bollywood films often shapes the way relationships are viewed in the South Asian community.
“There are so many times where queer people have been approached and asked, ‘so who’s the boy and who’s the girl in your relationship,’ because that heteronormative structure is all they know. So that’s the tools that they have in order to be able to bridge an understanding to queer relationships,” he explains.
“But now we’re trying to offer a different viewpoint to give them more tools, to be able to have more language, to understand and bridge that barrier between the two.”
Flipping the script
Bollywood Reimagined deliberately subverts that traditional silver screen narrative.
“[In the project] we have incorporated representation and people from the Toronto LGBTQ2s+ community. So that way, we not only represent them, but we represent a part of their story, a part of their narrative” that is absent from mainstream Bollywood films, says Aranha.
So far, they’ve recreated four blockbuster Bollywood songs and posted them on Instagram and YouTube featuring gay, lesbian, trans and bisexual members from the community along with allies who helped with production. They made sure to pick songs that were gender-neutral, where the lyrics could be interpreted for all genders.
“One of the songs that we picked was Suraj Hua Maddham, which is a super iconic song with [Bollywood superstars] Shahrukh Khan and Kajol,” explains Aranha. “But then we thought, instead of Shahrukh Khan who is this cis-het king, what if we take a trans man and portray that?”
The group is currently working on its next set of four videos to be released toward the fall. They will include themes of allyship in the South Asian community. Along with iconic Bollywood songs, it will also feature an original piece revolving around the trans journey in the community.
Personal and community impact
Aranha says the project has received an overwhelming amount of positive feedback from around the world and has been shared not only in Canada, but the U.K., New Zealand, the U.S. and India.
Shamsuzzoha feels the project is not only of great personal significance to him, but also to South Asian LGBTQ2S+ youth who do not see themselves in mainstream pop culture.
“This is the kind of project and the kind of videos that me, as someone growing up as a South Asian LGBTQ2S+ member, would have wanted to see,” he says.
“For me it feels almost cathartic. This feels like a gift that I am trying to give the next generation. Rather than them having to feel what I felt — which was alone and isolated — I want them to see that there’s just so much more out there than what they are seeing right now.”
Shamsuzzoha adds that they wanted to ensure that the videos would not only be empowering for those watching, but also those who participated in creating them.
“One of my proudest moments was where someone in the cast wasn’t very comfortable with themselves before the shoot. And after they had gone through the process actually reached out to both me and Sue [and said] ‘doing this, it helped me accept who I am and I’m ready to have the world see me for who I am’,” says Shamsuzzoha.
“That is the reason why we do this — if even one person walks away from this being happy and being able to love themselves, that’s the ripple effect we want to have in the world.”
Aranha says the process of directing and the producing the videos had the same effect on her.
“When I started the project, I was so nervous because it’s not only that I didn’t embrace my queer identity yet, but I didn’t even know how I was going to direct people — how am I going to tell two girls ‘hold hands, look at her romantically’,” she explains.
“Directing people to … be romantic and show love … just saying things like that just made a difference and it made everything a reality,” Aranha says, adding that it reinforced for her that love is love and “this is actually very normal.”
The experience ultimately became personally empowering and liberating for Aranha and she hopes that is what people will take away from the project.
“I hope if someone watches this it’ll just give them the power to love themselves, regardless of who they love,” she says.