“Dostana“: Cheesy but fun fake gay film.
“Milk“: Well-made but slightly flat real gay film.
I recently received in the mail a copy of Passport magazine. Although the website calls it “The Insider’s Guide to Gay Travel,” on my actual magazine the tagline reads: “The Hetero-Friendly Gay Travel Magazine.”
What does that even mean? Leave aside the utter lack of poetry and the clearly ineffective marketing strategy (please raise your hand if, straight or gay, those words would make you buy this magazine!) … here, in a 30-point white sans-serif nutshell, is the central dilemma of mainstream gay messaging:
It wants to be gay. Oh yes it does. But not too gay! It still wants to be loved. So even as it asserts its gayness, it must apologize for being gay. Pride and shame, hand in hand.
Which brings me to our movies o’ the moment.
MOVIE #1: “Dostana“
This is being billed as the first gay Bollywood movie. There have been some truly queer independent Indian films (“Fire,” “My Brother Nikhil“), but this is the only one to come out of the big-bucks, mega-stars industry that pumps out hundreds of movies a year.
So the first obvious question is, Is “Dostana” really a gay movie? The answer: Only if you thought “Three’s Company” was a gay show. In “Dostana,” two hunky guys pretend to be gay lovers so they can move into an apartment owned by a gorgeous single woman. Of course they both fall in love with her, and drama and silliness ensue.
Like most of the three-hour comedic musical melodramas produced by Bollywood, Dostana is way too long by half. Pre-intermission is much better than post-intermission, so feel free to leave after your popcorn or samosa break if you want. Over the second half of the movie, the plot gets increasingly ridiculous as the not-gay boys compete and scheme to get their girl. For a queer viewer, the most interesting point of suspense becomes, Are the two men going to kiss or not? I won’t give it away, but if you want to leave at halftime (or not go at all), you can watch a grainy bootlegged YouTube video of the climactic will-they-or-won’t-they moment here.
There are two actual gay characters, both very swishy, a magazine editor and (amusingly) a U.S. immigration officer. Their portrayals, as well as the straight characters trying to act gay, are highly stereotypical and not for the easily offended.
At the same time, though, “Dostana” is obviously a film that had gay authorship and involvement in the creation. There are inside jokes and references to other Bollywood films and queer culture, and several precious, catty, subversive comments that could have only been inserted by gay (closeted? out? who knows) insiders.
“Dostana” has several things going for it. It’s fun and entertaining, especially the first half. It shows ordinary straight Indians having positive reactions to and relationships with ordinary “gay” and gay Indians, which is a step forward. And the music is really good.
I think “Dostana” will leave a legacy. For starters, it will solidify the sexy John Abraham’s position as a gay icon. More substantively, it should open the doors for other Bollywood films to have increasingly normalized and authentic gay characters in secondary roles, and perhaps eventually in main roles. It shows that a gay theme is not a box-office killer.
And most immediately, it’s given us a theme song. “Maa Da Laadla Begad Gaya,” which I’ll very roughly translate as “Mama’s Boy is Ruined,” rhapsodizes about the son becoming the bride and the mother shedding tears. Though the lyrics are tongue-in-cheek tragic, the tune is classic catchy Bollywood pop. I expect to hear it at every desi queer party from now till the next millennium.
The song I liked the most was called “My Desi Girl,” and it’s about how Indian women are the most gorgeous ever. It’s so over the top that it’s kind of ridiculous, and it’s obviously a retrograde assertion of heterosexuality so that the movie won’t come off as too gay… but it still made me feel kinda happy. (By the way, I can’t vouch for the safety of downloading songs from these links, though I’ve risked it and so far suffered no obvious adverse consequences.)
MOVIE #2: “Milk“
I was really excited to see this film, made by Gus Van Sant (whose “My Own Private Idaho” was one of the most beautiful boy movies ever) and starring Sean Penn, who is G’s man-crush.
First the good: Penn does an amazing job inhabiting a completely different body and mannerisms than his own, without swishing. The acting is really great, and the film makes interesting use of archival footage in an attempt to make history come alive. It was great to see it at the Castro and then walk outside and be dazzled by being in the middle of such an important story. I loved learning how thousands of ordinary queers, by organizing and coming out and asserting themselves, defeated the anti-gay Briggs Initiative in one of the first populist electoral victories for gay Americans. And I cried at the candlelight vigil at the end, lovingly re-created with hundreds of extras from our community, some of whom I recognized.
The film also powerfully shows the schism that still exists today between the assimilationist and radical wings of the U.S. gay movement. The argument between the “establishment gays” like the editor of the Advocate and the grassroots street activists that Milk organized is still going on, and was most evident in the recent No on Proposition 8 campaign, much of whose campaign literature studiously avoid the words “gay and lesbian.”
So this movie is the opposite of “Dostana” in a lot of ways: it’s faithful to real gay people, politically progressive, and … not really very entertaining.
The main problem is that there’s very little suspense. Basically two things happen in the movie: In the first half, Harvey Milk gets elected to the San Francisco board of supervisors. In the second half, he gets killed. Since it’s history, almost everyone knows both those facts walking in the door. The job of the filmmaker, then, is to create suspense in character development and subplots.
That doesn’t happen, partly because “Milk” is so hagiographical that none of the characters can get very complicated or, really, develop. Dan White, the killer, is wack from his very first scene to his last. Harvey Milk is good, sweet, hard-working, and politically right-on from beginning to end. The only person who has any kind of conversion experience is Cleve Jones, who goes from street hustler to the campaign’s main man, but even that is more a testament to Milk’s compassion in adopting the strays of the community than an attempt at actually showing a character’s emotional trajectory. It’s as if the filmmaker couldn’t risk, in a mainstream release about a gay hero, to portray that hero or his allies as anything less than perfect.
Instead, the real transformation in the film is in the gay movement itself, which provides some excitement, though in a more intellectual than emotional way. Still, this portrayal made me glad to have seen “Milk,” as well as eager to watch the 1994 documentary that covers the same territory, “The Times of Harvey Milk.”
Watching both “Milk” and “Dostana,” I was reminded of what I once heard the director Frank Oz say about his 1997 movie “In & Out“: “It was about being subversive while being safe. … A studio’s not going to give you $40 million for a movie about a gay teacher without being entertaining to a whole lot of people.”
At the time I saw “In & Out,” several years ago, I was really offended by it and by Oz’s “safe but subversive” claim in the post-film talk. The movie didn’t seem subversive at all to me; it was merely safe, and stereotypical. The main character of “In & Out” is a swishy teacher whom everyone thinks is gay because of how he walks, but he says he isn’t. Tom Selleck has a cameo role and … well, it’s just really bad.
But this weekend, watching “Dostana,” I sort of understood how someone of a certain generation in a mainstream movie studio at a certain political moment might truly believe that that was the only feature he could make.
And watching “Milk,” I understood how, before the current marriage movement, large numbers of Americans (think Anita Bryant and the Briggs Initiative) found the issue of gay teachers so threatening that perhaps a silly comedy was a reasonably subversive way to approach it.
Still, even Oz expressed mixed feelings about his final product: “I wanted it safe, but maybe not that safe.”
And that might be why, in general, I like truly subversive and risk-taking indie movies way, way more than the mainstream versions, with their fiscally motivated, built-in, hetero-friendly, safety features.