It happened on a particularly balmy July afternoon, six years ago, in New Delhi. Even as summer was just wearing off from India’s capital city, for the enthusiastic group of LGBT activists who had gathered in front of the State High Court, the day marked the beginning of a new spring. The court had struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized consensual sexual acts of adults in private. Such a section, the court said, violated the constitutional right of “life, liberty and equality” promised to every citizen of the country. There were triumphant hugs, tears shed, and some noise made. Finally, the law of the country had recognized the existence of the LGBT community.
It is hard for a straight person to try to understand or accurately describe what it is to be queer in a country where homosexuality is illegal. The levels of shame, guilt, and fear associated with it are naturally more elevated than in more liberal countries. Here bullying turns into torture—by the police, by your peers, by society. Gay citizens become easy victims of extortion and fraud because their jobs, relationships, and sometimes even their lives hinge upon the assumption that they are straight. “Coming out” is a big deal then; one who does stands the chance of being disowned by parents and siblings. In a country like India, where religion rules, the fact that most religious scholars propagate the belief that homosexuality is a sin of the highest order only adds to the existing social stigma.
Thus, the 2009 verdict gave the community a new lease on life. Their social life took a dramatic turn, with many coming out of the closet and wearing their LGBT identities on their sleeves with pride. The idea was to bring the community and its existence into mainstream public conscience. Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, which kicked off the very next year, was part of this effort. “When we started Kashish, we had two main objectives,” says Festival Director and LGBT filmmaker Sridhar Rangayan. “One was to create a safe space for the LGBTQ community to come together to watch LGBTQ films on the big screen with no shame, guilt or anxiety, and to encourage the mainstream audience to watch films that offered them a global perspective of LGBTQ lives.”
Over its six years of existence, Kashish has achieved this and much more. It has grown into south Asia’s biggest queer film festival, was voted as one of the top five LGBT festivals in the world, and is today India’s only LGBT film festival to be given official permission to be held in a mainstream cinema hall. However, halfway through its journey, the festival met with its biggest roadblock yet. The Supreme Court of India overturned the State Court’s verdict, recriminalizing homosexuality in 2013. The new verdict came as a huge blow to the community and many were again forced back to square one. But these rainbow warriors are not prone to backing off: they have proved that, come what may, they will not give up fighting for their rights.
Today, the going is still tough for the LGBT community in India. Less than two months ago, a newspaper advertisement from India made news around the world. Gay activist Harish Iyer’s mother had decided that it was time her son got hitched and, as is norm in the country, she wanted to put out an ad seeking proposals from prospective “grooms.” Three major national newspapers rejected it because homosexuality is a crime in India. Before that it was Thahir Mohammed Sayyed and his family from Kerala who had to bear the brunt of the country’s self-appointed moral police. Sayyed went into hiding and ultimately fled the country as he and his family were threatened for his choice of representing India in the Mr. Gay World pageant. This is the cultural climate that makes Kashish so urgent.
The festival plays a key role in India’s rainbow movement, and has turned into one of the most anticipated pride events in the country. In a country where LGBT characters hardly ever make an appearance on the big screen or are used only as devices for comic relief or derision, the festival was a novelty at first. It did not attract many straight viewers in the initial years. But this year at Kashish’s main venue, Liberty Cinemas,one of Mumbai’s oldest art deco theatres, you could see a clear change in perspectives just by observing festival delegates. The LGBT community was in a mood for celebration and they arrived dressedin their quirky best for each of the five days. There was an air of tolerance and they weren’t afraid to flaunt their true selves. More than half the crowd still belonged to the community, but there was a healthy balance of about 30 percent straight viewers as well.
Among them were an old Punjabi couple, the Singhs (name withheld on request), who diligently attended every screening. Between films, Mr. Singh, who wore the traditional turban, was seen poring into the festival booklet contemplating which films to watch, while his wife would refill their stock of tea and sandwich. At times they would childishly squabble over their choices, with his wife wanting to watch a film in one of the other two venues, while Mr. Singh would patiently try to make her understand that they wouldn’t be able to get there on time. When I chatted them up, the couple earnestly told me that they were trying to get a grasp over “this whole gay thing,” because their son, who is working in Australia now, had come out to them recently and had requested them to attend this festival. They were ready to accept their child as he was, but were clueless about what being gay actually meant for his future and their family.
One of the films Mrs. Singh pointed out to me was a Chinese narrative short calledComing Home. It deals with the story of a young man who reunites with his family during the holiday season after they come to terms with his sexuality. “My son is also like that Chinese boy. Good at everything—studies, sports, music, dance. I felt the pain he went through all the years he kept it from us when I saw that film. But we knew nothing about it, so my poor child couldn’t even confide in us,” she told me. Although her husband casually utters the word “gay” in conversation, Mrs. Singh was still getting the hang of it and prefers to call it “this thing.” At just seven minutes, the film is a touching account of mothers appealing to fellow parents to not fall prey to social conventions and let their children be themselves.
Of the 180 films screened at the festival, there were many that drew parallels to the situation the community faces in our country. While watching films from or about the Middle East, one could sense a collective sigh of relief in the theater as if acknowledging the fact that some lives were tougher and more miserable than ours. The short documentary Towards a Pink Spring, about the LGBT community in Tunisia, is a perfect example. Members of that community cannot escape the dark clutches of their conservative society for fear of being killed. While the world celebrates the Arab Spring, these men and women, who are forced to stay back in the dark, are stark symbols of the irony of a revolution that is not inclusive. They are all awaiting a Pink Spring, which will finally set them free.
Yoav Brill’s beautifully executed Israeli animated short Hora resorts to humor to look at a seemingly trivial, yet deep sociological and cultural conflict. It’s a geographical and cultural exploration of gay men holding hands in public. In voiceover, Brill explains how in his hometown, Tel Aviv, it is seen as taboo and investigates the same gesture across different nations and cultures. When he finally exclaims that he felt the most free to hold hands with his partner in India, a laugh erupted from the audience. Surprised, a few of them later told me that they were curious to know which part of India Brill had visited.
According to American film journalist and film festival programmer Lyle Pearson, who has been regularly attending the festival since 2012, this year’s lineup has been the best to date. The documentaries—insightful and sensitive portrayals of the plight of LGBT communities around the world—were the main attraction. David Thorpe’s Do I Sound Gay?, which took home the top honor at the festival, was one of the must-see films. Thorpe takes us through his enjoyable quest to unearth the origins of his own “gay voice,” thereby exploring the larger cultural stereotypes surrounding the idea. The film is a personal, yet deeply political, sociological, and anthropological look into something we take for granted.
Two films that did full justice to the spirit of Kashish were Ashish Sawhney’s short docForbidden Love and the documentary feature Two Men and a Cradle, codirected by Florence Helleux and Smain Belhadj. As a film festival, Kashish revolves around the philosophy that the forbidden can be easily acceptable to society if one is ready to look at it with an open mind. It is also about having a dream and not giving up until it’s achieved. Helleux and Belhadj tell such a tale in their film, which focuses on a French gay couple who stubbornly held on to their dream of becoming parents. Nothing was going to make them back off—neither the fact that the only available surrogate lived on another continent nor the disapproval of their parents. Meanwhile, Sawhney invoked the literal meaning of the word Kashish, which in Urdu means “attraction,” in his eight-minute meta short, about two lovers, Urmi, a transgender activist, and Rohit, a bisexual man, who met at the film festival. These two real-life stories express a great deal about the courage and conviction one needs to live on one’s own terms, especially while making choices that society deems “forbidden.”
According to Rangayan, the guiding principle for programming this year’s Kashish was to pick films that “told a compelling story with technical finesse. ”The titles that finally made it to the lineup weren’t, however, all sob stories seeking viewers’ sympathy, but were instead mostly uplifting stories about courageous individuals trying to make a place for themselves in the world and tales of survivors toppling stereotypes and rising above conventions imposed on them by society. Happiness and joy was the underlying theme for many of the narrative features, too, which included a few fabulous “coming-of-age” films instead of the usual “coming out” fare. Some titles that deserve a special mention in this regard are Desiree Akhavan’s debut Appropriate Behavior, Jonnie Leahy’s Skin Deep,and Eric Schaeffer’s Boy Meets Girl.
While celebrating youth, the seniors were definitely not forgotten. There were many beautiful, touching accounts of love in the autumn years. Starting with the opening night selection, Ira Sachs’s Manhattan-based drama Love Is Strange, to Malachi Leopold’s heartbreaking documentary Alex & Ali, which follows his uncle’s three-decade long relationship; Thom Fitzgerald’s hilarious feature Cloudburst; the evocative Swedish short titled 09:55-11:55 Ingrid Ekman Bergsgatan 4B, about an aging, lonely ballet dancer; and Eli Glazer’s endearing short End of Season Sale, about two old men on the lookout for Viagra pills, these films lent a certain dignity to mature love, and talked about issues of loneliness, companionship, and acceptance in a refreshingly new light.
This year the theme of Kashish was to “reach out, touch hearts.” The fact that the festival was held at all this year is proof enough that it has been successful in changing attitudes and increasing the solidarity of the LGBT community in the country. Short for funds, Kashish was made possible by 72 backers who contributed Rs 2,75,000 (approximately $4200) to its crowd-funding campaign on the funding platform Wishberry. For the Indian rainbow coterie, Kashish is more than just a film festival and it’s important to keep it going. As the members of the community crooned and twirled to the tunes of the LGBT choir Rainbow Voices at the festival’s closing ceremony, their eyes gleamed with pride and determination. Kashish had helped them embrace their identities, and it had encouraged them to tell their own stories. The struggle for LGBT rights in India continues, but, thanks to this festival, with renewed vigor.