A Gay Film Festival in India Strikes a Chord

Mumbai — Building for the Art Deco Liberty Cinema in south Mumbai began in 1947, the year India won Independence from the British. It remains a symbol of freedom.

On Wednesday evening, in a bar upstairs, women in salwar kameez and men in kurtas mingled, mopping brows in the Mumbai humidity between air kisses. A transgender filmmaker in a shiny black halterneck dress chatted about her latest short film, as a handful of Western diplomats in suits worked the crowd.

It was the opening night party for the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, the biggest gay film festival in India. Now in its fifth year, the festival, with around 1,700 attending, according to organizers, ran through Sunday and featured 154 films — including shorts and documentaries — from 31 countries at the Liberty Cinema as well as the nearby Alliance Française de Bombay. This year’s slogan: “Dare to Dream.”

“This is the time when queer is no longer queer anymore, and there is no shame in being L.G.B.T.,” the festival director Sridhar Rangayan said in his opening speech.

In an India that remains in many ways deeply traditional, even as its economic might grows, the festival took on heightened significance this year. The nascent gay rights movement scored a huge legal victory five years ago when the Delhi High Court overturned a colonial-era ban on gay sex, only to see that ban reinstated by the Indian Supreme Court last December.

Now activists worry that the election of the new Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) government, a Hindu nationalist party that is more economically dynamic but more socially conservative than the ousted India National Congress party, may deal another setback to the movement.

“The bigger picture for queer India,” said Shobhna S. Kumar, the owner of Queer Ink, a publisher and online book retailer, “is it’s in limbo at the moment.”

The B.J.P. has in the past supported the ban on gay sex, though activists note that the new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has been largely silent on the matter.

In India, family ties remain tight and societal expectations rigid, and many gay Indians marry and have children while keeping their sexual identity secret. The country’s gay movement emerged in the mid-1990s from the groups that provide services to those with H.I.V. and AIDS. They argued that while the law prohibiting “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” — restored in December — was rarely applied, its existence impeded their work, making even those who distributed condoms potential accessories to a crime.

The next challenge, gay activists say, is to lobby parliament to repeal the law. “Freedom has to be fought for. The vigilance has to be eternal,” said Ashok Row Kavi, one of the first gay men to come out publicly in India, in 1986, and chairman of the Humsafar Trust, which provides H.I.V. and AIDS health services. “You never know who will stamp on your rights.”

With the ban back in force, it meant that this year, the film festival, while legal — organizers have a permit from India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting — showed on-screen relationships that involve illegal acts. The festival sponsors included IBM and the Indian conglomerate Godrej, and mainstream publications such as The Hindustan Times, The Mumbai Mirror and The Hindu promoted the event in their pages.

Among the 28 Indian films screened this year at Kashish — which means “allure” in Urdu — were Mr. Rangayan’s “Purple Skies,” a documentary about the challenges of being lesbian, bisexual and transgender in India; as well as K.R. Devmani’s “Meghdhanushya,” or “Color of Life,”about a boy growing up gay in a conservative Gujarati family. Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, a gay prince from Gujarat who came out a few years ago, provided a commentary at the beginning and end of “Meghdhanushya.”

“Cinema is a very important tool for communication,” the prince said in a telephone interview. “A lot of people who act in films are our role models. We get inspiration from them.”

Other movies from the subcontinent included Visakesa Chandrasekaram’s “Frangipani,” about two men and a woman in a secret love triangle in their remote village in Sri Lanka. A special showcase of Indian shorts included Pradipta Ray’s “Eidi,” or “The Gift,” about a closeted gay man who returns to his hometown to reunite with a close friend, a transgender activist, leading him to confront his demons.

Ms. Ray, whose day job is teaching animation at a local university, where she is known to students as “The Transgender Professor,” said the biggest challenge was getting funding. She made “Eidi” for $5,000 from her savings. The actors worked for free.

Organizers said they held the event in a mainstream cinema to try to attract a mainstream audience and shatter stereotypes of gay people.

“We wanted to break the misconception by showing films about L.G.B.T. people all around the world. They have the same hopes, aspirations,” Mr. Rangayan said in an interview. “Only their problems are different because the government or society or the law makes things difficult for them.”

India is a nation of moviegoers, with a robust movie industry centered in Bollywood in Mumbai and legions of fans across the world. But gay characters rarely appear in Bollywood films. When they have, gayness appears as a stereotype or is used for plot.

For example, in the 2008 Bollywood hit “Dostana,” two straight men pretend to be a couple to snag an apartment rental, then end up falling for a third roommate, a woman. Comedy ensues.

“People now say ‘You’re like Dostana.’ It has removed that dirtiness,” Mr. Rangayan said. Still, he wonders, to be associated with a punchline, “what does it do? Is it a good thing?”

Recently, a Bollywood actor and former Miss India, Celina Jaitly, was appointed a spokeswoman for the United Nations’ “Free & Equal” campaign for gay rights. As part of the campaign, Ms. Jaitly starred in a music video, titled “The Welcome,” showing a family preparing for the homecoming of a beloved son. He shows up with a male partner, the family’s shock eventually gives way to smiles and — in true Bollywood style — more singing and dancing.

Ms. Jaitly said she could no longer bear to see her gay friends live under a kind of “apartheid.”

For Sagar Natekar, 19, a psychology student in Mumbai, last week’s screening of “Out in the Dark” a film by the Israeli filmmaker Michael Mayer, was the first time he saw a gay-themed movie on a big screen.

It was about a love affair between a Palestinian student and an Israeli lawyer, and for Mr. Natekar, a tale of survival in extreme surroundings.

It showed, he said, “the importance of love.”

by Chen May Yee
Source – The New York Times