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/ARTS WEEKLY/FILM: Indian Cinema Examines Lesbian, Gay Themes

Ranjita Biswas

KOLKATTA,India, Jul 12 2005 (IPS) - A city known for film literacy and great directors like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen this eastern metropolis witnessed something unique recently – a film award instituted on the theme of gay rights.

The recently concluded annual Siddhartha Gautam film Festival (20-26 June) part of the ‘Rainbow Pride Week’ commemorating the Gay Rights movement, in the city gave the award to Onir, the director of the hit Hindi language film My Brother Nikhil and the best actor award to Purab Kohli , who plays supportive partner to protagonist Nikhil, who dies of AIDS.

Incidentally, Siddhartha Gautam was from Kolkatta and was one of the first activists to fight for gay rights to be recognised as a part of human rights in India. British colonial laws, still in operation, deem homosexuality a punishable offence.

The Siddhartha Gautam Film Festival, organised by Friends of Siddhartha, has been an annual event in New Delhi since 1993 but in Kolkatta it has a special place as capital of communist-ruled West Bengal state, known for its liberal views.

When movie theatres elsewhere, including in the country’s film capital of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) were vandalised halls for showing films on lesbian themes like Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ , this city showed the film to packed houses.

By instituting the best film award on the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) theme, the festival also brought into focus a growing number of films, features and documentaries, which explore a section of the society about which people in general are not comfortable with.

But awareness is growing. My Brother Nikhil has, in fact, done to Bollywood what Philadelphia did for Hollywood in 1993 where the HIV- positive character played by Tom Hanks generated understanding of the gay community’s place in society.

What has endeared the audience to ‘My Brother Nikhil’ is the way a sister stands by her champion swimmer brother as he goes through the experience of being rejected not only by his friends but also by his own parents once his HIV status is revealed.

The matter-of-fact way in which the subject is dealt with, including Nikhil’s relationship with his partner, and later his parents’ remorse and acceptance shows a lot of understanding by the director.

” I cried buckets as the story unfolded but it also made me understand the nuances of a relationship we try to shut our minds off,” admitted Anuradha Baruah, a homemaker.

And that’s important, says Pawan Dhall from the voluntary group SAATHI (Solidarity and action Against The HIV Infection in India), one of the co-organisers of the festival. ”People empathise more with a problem like this, a problem for the heterogeneous mindset, of course, if presented in a format like films. Human stories always appeal.”

Visual projection of serious societal issues is natural in a country like India which churns out the largest number of film titles in the world each year, most of them from the western city of Mumbai also know as ‘Bollywood’ for its prodigious film industry.

Last year, a film on AIDS awareness ‘Phir Milenge’ (We’ll meet again) directed by actress Revathy Menon elicited comments from Peter Piot, chief of the United Nations joint-programmed against AIDS who had said, “When Bollywood, one of the world’s largest film industries with massive audiences, produces a film about AIDS, everyone has to sit up and take notice.”

Piot thought it was ”extremely significant that Bollywood is joining the struggle against the epidemic and helping to break the silence that surrounds HIV and AIDS.”

The film revolves round an advertising executive who is fired when her employer discovers that she is HIV-positive. She eventually wins a discrimination lawsuit against her employer allowing the examination of stigma, discrimination and ignorance associated with HIV/AIDS in the workplace.

Earlier, some films from Bollywood mainstream did try to weave male homosexual characters into the plot. ‘Tamanna’ (Desire) examines the mental dilemma of a girl adopted by a eunuch who eventually discovers her well-to-do biological parents.

The idea of an alternative family to the conventional heterosexual patriarchal family of the Indian cinema was bold but films were produced which tackled the subject.

Even real-life stories, not fiction, are emerging on the issue. The simple docu-feature in Bengali Piku Bhalo Aachhey (Piku is fine) directed by Tirthankar Guha Thakurta, a medical college student, is a ‘coming out’ film.

Technically it would not measure up but then the director used a handy-cam with help from friends during a semester break, ”But it was important for me to make it. I know what it feels to ‘different’ in our conservative society and the pain thereof. It also helped me to accept my own position in society. I’m at peace,” said Guha Thakurta.

The US-based filmmaker Sonali who was in Kolkatta for the festival and is busy making a documentary on the parents of LGBT aid, ”Many parents feel isolated in such cases and think that they are the only ones who have this problem.”

”Basically, it’s about understanding and acceptance on both sides,” said Sonali who feels that a film on the issue will also dispel the myth that LGBT is prevalent in the West and ”not with us while so many people in the country are LGBT.”

Sonali admits that having parents talk on camera is a problem though they are willing to talk about the subject. Initially she is focusing on India but subsequently she wants to cover South Asia and has chalked out plans to interview parents in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

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