The Sex Talk: A queer film at a theatre next to you

Starting from the ’90s, LGBT film festivals have offered visual evidence of queer lives in India


A still from Sundar, a short Marathi film that was screened at Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival
A still from Sundar, a short Marathi film that was screened at Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival

Last week, the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival was held across three venues, and like its previous iterations, it screened many Indian and international films on queer issues, such as gender identity, anxiety of parental acceptance, social opprobrium, sexual encounters and caste discrimination. Of the 20-odd Indian films that were screened at the festival (which showcased 180 films from 44 countries), 12 were short films.

A Tamil and a Marathi film jointly won the best narrative short film award at the festival. A Full Stop that Searches for its End (Tamil, 10 minute), directed by Vivek Vishwanathan and Sundar (Marathi and Hindi, 27 minute), directed by Rahul Kanawade, were part of a package called Indian Masala Mix-II, which showcased premieres that “boast of the talent of Indian student filmmakers, first-time filmmakers, and experienced filmmakers,” according to the short description offered in the festival’s brochure.

This was the sixth edition of the five-day long festival, which forms part of a continuum of LGBT(lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender)-themed film festivals held in India.

The first recorded international film festival was held in New Delhi’s Max Mueller Bhavan in 1993. It was organized by a group that called itself Friends of Siddharth, drawing its name from the charismatic activist Siddharth Gautam, whose seminal 1991 write-up, Less than Gay: A Citizen’s Report, first articulated the gay community’s protest against Section 377. Gautam, who was one of the founding members of the Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan, which initiated a legal battle against the law that criminalized homosexuality, died in 1992 at the age of 28. His friends and family, however, were keen that his activism remain alive. Anuja Gupta, Gautam’s sister, was one of the members of the group. She recalls how the -long film festival, that was held every year over the following decade, was interspersed with discussions and debates. “The festival provided a space for gays and lesbians to come together, and voice their concerns,” said Gupta.

It started out in a small way, she said. Her sister Sujata, who lives in the United States, would bring down VHS tapes of gay-themed films – one of the first they showed was on Harvey Milk, an openly-gay American politician. “There were hardly any Indian films to showcase,” she said. “As the word started spreading, people would bring films too, when they came down to India. A small group of us would view these films, and select, although initially, there weren’t too many to select from. The idea was to show gay and lesbian images on the screen, which was unusual.”

Around the time that the Friends of Siddharth festival wound up in New Delhi, Kolkata-headquartered HIV/AIDS prevention organization SAATHII began to organize the Siddharth Gautam Film Festival, which went on till 2012. The 2000s was a heady time for film festivals and LGBT activism. In Mumbai, artists Tejal Shah and Natasha Mendonca co-organized Larzish, an international film festival of sexuality and gender plurality in 2003. The festival was shortlived, but high on impact. In 2004, it screened 90 films over four days, and held discussions on topics such as ‘Marriage, Family and Community’, ‘Appearance and Identity’, and even had a session on famed artist Bhupen Khakkar, who had passed away the previous year.

In 2007, Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based forum for lesbian, bisexual woman and transman rights started Dialogues, an international LGBT film and video festival. Last year, the festival showcased 39 films from 22 countries, including Sri Lanka, Canada, Argentina and Germany.

In Mumbai, the year that Kashish took off, another film festival was held in the auditorium of the National College in Bandra. Queer Nazariya International LGBTI Film Festival was curated by film writer Smriti Nevatia and Sophie Parisse. It was the year after the Delhi high court judgment, which decriminalized homosexuality, and the mood was definitely upbeat. But that didn’t mean that the curators had an easy time of it. Nevatia recalls having to couch the request for venue in a language that didn’t give away too much of the content of the films. Before the festival, the curators also held screenings in several Mumbai’s colleges, which led to what Nevatia called “fabulous discussions.”

Last year, Guwahati held its first queer film festival, which was organized by Assam-based Xukia, one of the newest collectives of queer rights activists to emerge in the Northeast. The festival showcased 10 films, and two documentary collections, and was organized in collaboration with Sappho for Equality, Pratyay Gender Trust, Goethe Institut Kolkata, and SAHRA India.

Chennai and Bangalore too have their own film festivals – Reel Desires, Chennai’s international queer film festival will be held in the last week of July (this is the 11th year of a film festival on gender and sexuality to be held in the Southern city), while the seventh edition of the Bangalore Queer Film Festival was held over two days in February.

What is interesting to note is how despite the restrictive legal atmosphere on same- sex relations, film festivals on queer themes have taken root and thrived in metros. However, Indian filmmakers on LGBT-related issues still face formidable challenges. At this year’s Kashish film festival, a panel discussion with emerging filmmakers raised the important matter of funds – ‘there aren’t any’ said Manoj Thorat, whose short narrative, Delusion (Bhram) dealt with the important intersection of caste and sexuality marginalization. Rohan Kanawade, whose Sundar was one of the two films to win the best Indian short narrative film, agrees. A recipient of a cash prize worth Rs 20,000 (which will be shared between the two film-makers), he said, “No producer was willing to put down for this film, once they heard of its subject.” Kanawade ended up making the film – about a young man who longs to dance at the dandiya festivities taking place in his locality - with a tight budget of Rs 1.5 lakh that was crowd-funded.

“Festivals are the only route for short filmmakers, especially on queer subjects, to show their works. If I had thought of the money, then I would not have made my film.”

(The Sex Talk is a fortnightly blog on gender, sexuality and blind spots)

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