Asia-Pacific, G20, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, LGBTQ

Queer Film Fest Breaks India’s Social Glass Ceiling

Sujoy Dhar

MUMBAI, May 27 2011 (IPS) - More than a decade ago, when India’s first lesbian-themed film – ‘Fire’ by Deepa Mehta – was released, it was booed and met with protest and vandalism, forcing many fear-stricken theatre owners to take the film off their screens.

Kashish festival ambassador Celina Jaitley (right) and Shyam Benegal, the festival patron. Credit:

Kashish festival ambassador Celina Jaitley (right) and Shyam Benegal, the festival patron. Credit:

Thirteen years on and nearly two years after decriminalisation of homosexuality by a high court in India, a queer film festival in Mumbai is drawing audiences fearlessly from both within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and outside it.

KASHISH 2011 is the second edition of India’s largest queer film festival that showcases LGBT films, and it is passing without a murmur of protest from any moral brigade.

Cinema buffs are queuing up to watch 124 films from 23 countries on offer May 25-29. KASHISH is screening in a mainstream multiplex this year, with the full approval of India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

Growing social acceptance of homosexuality in India is evident in the recent film festivals and releases of gay-themed films that draw a mainstream audience.

When two gay-themed films debuted in Kolkata recently by openly gay Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, the audience was overwhelmingly heterosexual.

But pride of choice also goes hand in hand with lingering prejudice over homosexuality in India, say the organisers of the Mumbai festival who have mixed feelings on the issue.

“Last year when we organised the festival, it was a great success. We also found after a proper survey that at least 28 percent of the audience in the festival was from outside the LGBT community, from the mainstream,” filmmaker and festival director Sridhar Rangayan told IPS.

“The participation of people at large shows a change in social attitudes – gays are not seen as ‘criminals’ anymore. The image of a gay man or woman is changing,” Rangayan says.

The time is ripe to create spaces for homosexuals and their behaviour in mainstream society, not only and not always through an amorous relationship, said director-turned-actor Ghosh.

“I think the reading of Article 377 of Indian Penal Code [a vestige of India’s outdated British era laws which criminalise gay sex] by the Delhi High Court in 2009 contributed to the changing perception. Our festival is a spin-off of that favourable judicial verdict decriminalising gay sex,” Rangayan says.

There is no total acceptance yet, but it is surely changing. “A pure Bollywood movie like Dostana [a movie featuring two of the most famous male Bollywood stars playing gay roles, which also ends with their bonding] helped a lot in the changing perception,” according to Rangayan.

The filmmaker, however, regrets that some filmmakers who have made movies incorporating gay themes have shied away from screening them at the KASHISH for what appears to be their reluctance to have their films labelled as gay films.

“This is another kind of prejudice,” Rangayan says.

“All minorities in this country need representation and sexual minorities are one of them. KASHISH is a move in the right direction to create awareness through the medium of films,” says Shyam Benegal, one of the most respected Indian filmmakers, who is also a patron of the festival. “It is a step forward in the gay movement.”

According to Ashok Row Kavi, one of the veterans of the gay rights movement here who also founded India’s first gay magazine ‘Bombay Dost’, the participation of filmmakers like Shyam Benegal lends the festival a mainstream flavour.

“The issue is now getting mainstreamed. Homosexuality is so much part of the social landscape now,” says Kavi. “But stigma still is a question. Though the situation has changed for the better, it has to be seen how and when the stigma of being homosexual fades away.”

According to Rangayan, the festival will help change public perceptions since it offers cinema as a means to understand what being queer means today. “The festival will foster better understanding of queer thoughts, desires and expressions.”

Last year the festival drew a crowd of 1200 people. The organisers expect that number to swell to 2500 this year.

“The festival this year is bigger, bolder and queerer,” says Rangayan. “We have a bigger theatre with twice the seating capacity, we have more films and better films, we have international filmmakers coming to the festival and we have lots of allied activities.”

“Market forces are at play here too. Society has become more individualistic and co-existence and tolerance is also a result of that, and not necessarily a change of mindset towards gay people,” says S. Parasuraman, director of Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

“Globalisation has made polarisation among various groups strong. So they can co-exist. It is also an ‘I don’t care about you’ attitude as people are more concerned about opulence and other material things than other social groups.”

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