Karan Johar did "not say the three words" so many of us were waiting to hear from him with bated breath. But he did say a lot else in the excerpt from his forthcoming biography, An Unsuitable Boy, from which one could glean enough information about his sexual orientation.
Those accusing him of not 'coming out' openly have a right to be indignant. True, he missed an opportunity to set an example before millions of people in the closet by his refusal to spell out his sexuality in so many words. One brief statement from Johar may have inspired hope, courage and fortitude in those who look up to him as fans and admirers.
More importantly, by clearing up the air of stifling innuendoes and double entendres that seem to have become a part of his public persona, Johar could have sent out a strong message: that it's not okay to use ambiguity of speech to normalise alternative sexual identities.
Instead he chose a twisted route to get across what he wanted to say. He quibbled, appeared misinformed about the exact implications of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalises gay sex not being gay, and decided to give up a chance to be "iconic".
As Apurva Asrani, script writer and editor of Aligarh, pointed out in a perceptive article, "the irony... is that Karan himself never spares a moment to draw attention to his alternative sexual leanings... [he] has opened up his sexuality for discussion so often that he has come to be known as a popular gay icon."
But Johar was quite clear about his priorities. "I don't want to be iconic anywhere. I want to live my life," he said. Whether you like it or not, it is as valid a way of being in the world as wearing your identity politics on your sleeves. If some perceive him as fit to be a hero, he simply doesn't care to be one. To accuse him of not pandering to the image the public wants to foist on him really amounts to bullying.
Sexual dissidence, like any behaviour that challenges the status quo, can be a great leveller. Wealth and education may make it easier for some to embrace alternative sexual identities or to be accepted by their social milieu. But it is just as likely that privilege may make little or no difference to the process of coming out as queer. The latter is true for people living in countries like India, where homophobia is entrenched in the socio-cultural fabric, as well as elsewhere. Liberal laws don't necessarily guarantee liberal mindsets.
With a robust network of activists, NGOs, helplines and resource groups spread across Indian towns and cities, the experience of coming out may not be as intimidating as it used to be, say even a decade ago, especially for the urban, educated, elite. But its psychological impact can be still draining and isolating, especially with the threat of a regressive law hanging over one's head that can result in blackmail, coercion harassment and hatred, online and offline.
Most people coming out for the first time find it hard to second-guess the reaction of their parents and closest friends, let alone take them for granted. The fear of being rejected, shamed and humiliated is so intense that it forces many to succumb to the pressures of marriage and family, and to hide for a lifetime behind a veneer of bisexuality.
Such being the reality of coming out in India, any prescriptive view of the right way of doing so is not only unhelpful but also uncalled for. None of this is to deny that there are some among us who have the courage of conviction to come out boldly, early in life, at great risk to their mental and physical well-being, each of whom must be lauded and celebrated, but not at the expense of dragging another person through the coals for failing to display similar courage or for being unable to overcome their fragility and vulnerabilities.
Even without saying those three words, Johar has said enough about his life and politics — most of all about the society and the laws of the country that shapes him.
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