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May/June 2005 | Mumbai: India's Technicolor City

May/June 2005 | Mumbai: India's Technicolor City

Vibrant psychedelia and cinematic camp in Bombay, the window to modern India

Bombay is the city of dreams, goes the commonly tossed line that was probably coined centuries ago by some romantic. The dreams in Bombay have only gotten bigger and more colorful. One of the world's ever-evolving cities, often called the New York of the East, every face here has a different story to tell, and every mind weaves a vibrant dream in true Hindu psychedelic fashion.

In cosmopolitan Mumbai (what Bombay was renamed in 1996, though loyalists prefer the former name) the most elite of the elite and the poorest of the poor often cross paths. The dimmed lights in plush apartments of the Manhattanesque skyline overlook the simmering kitchen fires that provide the light by which children study in the slums. Different realities exist and coexist. Life is full of contrasts and contradictions, of extremes, and yet there's a twinkle in every eye. This city is a city of survivors; you can feel it and you can smell it.

As your flight hits the runway of Mumbai's Sahar International Airport the scent of life is unmistakable even in the wee hours of the morning. You are instantly thrust into the Mumbai trance during the arduous taxi ride from the airport to Colaba, the area of the city most popular with tourists. As your cab floats by the promenade on the seashore opposite the grandiose Taj Mahal Hotel, your eye catches something peculiar: dozens and dozens of men returning your stare, a mischievous glint in their eyes. You are passing by "the walls," the oldest gay cruising area in the city, where nocturnal creatures venture out with darkness on their side. But now modern gay life in Mumbai is finally coming out of the shadows.

The southernmost tip of the island of Bombay, Colaba hosts the two most famous landmarks of the city: the Gateway of India and the grand Taj Mahal Hotel. Colaba causeway is the area most tourists call home. Whatever you want you can get it here and more. Leopold Caf?, the place where every Westerner goes for breakfast, is right in the center of this street. And right outside the caf? you are likely to encounter a friendly, middle-aged, unnamed woman. She's been a permanent fixture here for years and offers foreigners small parts in Bollywood movies for about $44 a day. You may not come out a star, but scores flock to Mumbai just for the chance.



Modeled on big brother Hollywood, as the name suggests, Bollywood is the Indian film industry, the largest in the world (producing nearly 1,000 films a year), headquartered in Mumbai. Films aren't just a part of life for people in India; they are a way of life. The over-the-top, surreal dance numbers in nearly every Bollywood film often make no sense in relation to the story, but no one seems to be complaining. A new wave of filmmakers is making hard-hitting films, sticking to the subject and without any songs, but those still constitute only 10% of films made today. When you're living in abject poverty, who wants more harsh reality? The city needs its Technicolor dreams like a desert needs water, and those dreams get no larger-than-life than in Bollywood. Most of the studios are situated in suburban Mumbai north of the old city. Filmcity is the studio that most tourists visit to get a glimpse of the separate reality of Bollywood. Spread out in a picturesque rain forest, it houses about 20 film sets and many natural locations. There are nearly a dozen studios besides Filmcity; two noteworthy ones are Filmistan and Filmalaya.

Bollywood's pomp and campiness make Mumbai a natural draw for gays. But just how gay-friendly is India? In this era of desis (Indian expatriates living overseas) and globalized outsourcing, the subcontinent is more hip to homosexuality than it would seem at first glance. Local gay groups are fighting against part of the Indian penal code that makes any homosexual act illegal and punishable with life imprisonment. (Luckily it is rarely enforced, but police often threaten with it when looking for bribes). Activists frequently circulate petitions and hold protest marches, while the Naz Foundation has filed a court case seeking repeal of the law. The case was dismissed by the Delhi high court in 2004, but the foundation has vowed to appeal. Previously rare TV debates about homosexuality are even occurring.

The increasing number of gay parties in Mumbai is another indication of progress. Dressed in the latest fashions, the "kings and queens" strut out for the Gaybombay parties that have been going strong for over five years, held on two Saturdays a month. Last year's Gaybombay (or "GB") Valentine's Day party on the barge off the Gateway of India hosted nearly 500. Happening Mumbai nightspots like Mikanos, Razzberry Rhinoceros, and Copacabana have offered their space for GB parties too. Gaybombay also organizes support meetings and gay film festivals. Says Vikram Doctor, an active member of the group: "A lot of people find it difficult coming into a gay space for the first time. We try and facilitate that."

The results are showing: The four-year-old GB film festival is an ongoing monthly event of private screenings, with desis flying in from different continents bringing DVDs of gay films for private screenings to packed houses. Equally popular was Larzish, India's first public gay and lesbian film festival, held in 2003, complete with panel discussions, organized by the lesbian group Humjinsi and the Indian Centre for Human Rights and Law.



But like many developing countries, India is far from securing any form of gay rights, legally or socially. Although you may see men walking down the streets holding hands, as in many countries such a display does not indicate homosexuality. Hindu scriptures term homosexuality an act against the religion, and families routinely kick out their gay and lesbian offspring. Even for all the openness of the GB parties, rainbow flags are no longer hoisted because of potential police trouble.

Even if reality is not perfectly rosy, there are always the dreamy visions of Bollywood. The Indian film industry has traditionally turned a blind eye to gay issues (even heterosexual kissing is a rarity on the screen). In 1996 Deepa Mehta's film about lesbianism, Fire, opened to vandalized cinemas, and the trashy 2004 film Girlfriend caused protests by conservative and lesbian groups alike. But recently a number of big, well-received film projects had either a prominent gay character or a queer subplot. 2002's Mango Souffle by filmmaker Mahesh Dattani dealt with a gay man's struggle to come to terms with his sexuality and included Indian cinema's first gay male kissing scene, albeit underwater. And one film that made Bollywood sit up and take notice was blockbuster Kal Ho Naa Ho, in which metrosexual superstar Shahrukh Khan and his partner in crime, leading actor Saif Ali Khan, unabashedly played characters with strong homosexual undercurrents.

The population's mind-set is slowly evolving as Mumbai edges into modern global culture. A freer, more open "Bomgay" may not be a distant dream after all.

Bollywood and Bomgay

No one ever accused filmmaker Riyad Wadia of not taking life on his own terms. In a society of crushing tradition he was an openly gay Indian man who dressed in skintight sparkling Lycra and went to bed at dawn, like a star in the Bollywood musicals he loved. He was a Wadia, one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in India (though he was not personally wealthy), and he knew everyone in the Bollywood movie magazines. He moved effortlessly through Mumbai (where he was born in 1967), from the mansions on Malabar Hill to the gutters of Colaba. His films were shown at Cannes, Sundance, and Tokyo. None of it ever fazed him; he figured, "Well, of course."

In 1996 Bollywood director Kaizad Gustad introduced Riyad to gay novelist and poet R. Raj Rao, whose work is suffused with Mumbai's heated, lush ethos. The film Riyad wound up making from Rao's stories was the groundbreaking Bomgay; the city was his set.The film was shot in the majestic restrooms of Victoria Terminal, where gay Indian men cruise. They shot the squatters who defecate on the railway tracks up to Andheri. Few in this city of sparkling musicals had dared to film this kind of reality or film anything with a queer bent.

Bomgay rocked India. The film's words shocked people: "In the old days / The touch of some men polluted / Today is it yours / Viruses and all," as did the images of a brutal gay bashing in a train station restroom and a fantasy orgy in a library.

Says journalist Vikram Doctor: "Everything Riyad did was done with style and splash, and that is exactly what the gay movement in India needed. Thanks to him, gay issues took their place on those society-people page 3s of newspapers."

Riyad was eager to spread the gospel of Bollywood around the world. In September 2003, when I was staying at his family apartment on Worli Sea Face, looking out over the Indian Ocean, he showed me a large photo spread he had organized for Cond? Nast Traveler with pictures of all his star friends--Vivek Oberoi, Shilpa Shetty. I had no idea he was sick (his family, seeking privacy, has not disclosed the cause of his death, which came on November 30, 2003). They held a big memorial, and all the page 3 people came to honor him. He would have loved it. At the time of his death Riyad was finalizing a script for a Bollywood musical. I had no doubt it would have been as splashy and over-the-top as his vibrant life. --Chandler Burr

ESSENTIALS

Accommodations

(Dial 011-91-22 before all phone numbers) Expensive: ITC Grand Maratha Hotel & Towers (Sahar, Mumbai; 2830-3030; $150-$600) is a large modern hotel but built in the colonial style north of the airport, away from the main city, with excellent service and amenities for international travelers. The Taj Mahal Hotel (Apollo Bunder, Mumbai; 5665-3366; $175-$1,550) is a five-star luxury hotel in Colaba facing the Gateway of India monument, with a lovely sea view and some of the best restaurants in Mumbai. Inexpensive: The old-world Bentleys Hotel (17 Oliver Road, Colaba; 2288-2890 or 2284-1474; $15-$45) is an amazingly cheap, well-maintained Victorian building with clean rooms and a friendly staff, ideally situated in the old part of town.

Restaurants

Leopold Caf? (Colaba Causeway, Colaba; 2202-0131 or 2287-3362) caters mostly to a Western clientele, serving a good blend of tailor-made medium-spicy Indian dishes, English breakfast, and Continental. Delhi Darbar (Holland House, opposite Regal Cinema, Colaba; 2202-0235 or 2202-5656) is a great place to dive into traditional Moghlai and Indian dishes, cooked with rich ingredients and spices. Warning: Can be a mouth scorcher!

Nightlife

Voodoo Pub (next to Radio Club, Colaba; 2284-1959) is the oldest gay bar in India, with slightly sleazy gay nights on Saturdays. It's a rather dingy setup with a mezzanine floor and a dark back room, but with a strong dose of Indian music, popular with foreigners and locals alike. The details of the next Gaybombay party are available on the group's Web site, through group e-mails, and by word of mouth. To find out what the ladies are up to, contact the Mumbai lesbian group Humjinsi (2371-6690).


The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at update@outtraveler.com if you have any new information.
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