(To read this story online on the Festivalists site, click here.)
I am straight. And, in my country, that puts me in a strange position of privilege. Of glaring at my laptop screen when some right-wing leader announces that homosexuals are going to burn in hell! Or clenching my fists when I hear that India’s Supreme Court has criminalized homosexuality. It does not take much to rally after a cause nowadays, does it? Just a few clicks of your mouse, a like here, a share there, a few angry words here and there. I am liberal, I am empathetic, and I care about gay rights! My Facebook timeline stands testimony to this. Or does it?
I went into the cinema hall as a film critic with the intention of “covering” the 6th Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. In less than 20 minutes of the first screening I sat through, I was sobbing. When a 14-year-old boy looked straight at the camera and said, “Oh, I am a diva!”, while recalling an account of being bullied and beaten up at high school for his effeminacy, the pain beneath his smile was palpable. It pierced through my flesh, right to my bones. I felt naked, I felt responsible, I felt helpless. I felt useless for having been nothing more than an armchair activist, clicking on something and forgetting about it in the next second. Here were normal people, who were being subjected to such cruelty, just because they were in love. And, despite all the negativity around, they were putting up those brave smiles, not losing hope, and ignoring the maddening crowd that denies their very existence.
Many of the 180 films from 44 different countries that were screened at the festival were painful to sit through. Not because they were all sad, dark, gloomy stories of the struggles of the LGBT community. They struck me harder because they were mostly happy stories. They looked at the brighter side of it all. Some were real-life stories, some fictional, but all filled with good humor. When they laughed at their miseries, I felt guilty. Of not having tried to know more. Of not having taken to the streets with them for pride walks. Of not having stopped and spoken to the transgender whom I used to bump into at the traffic signal every single day. Of not having cared more.
To host such a festival in a country like India, where Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (the one that criminalizes homosexuality) hangs constantly above people’s heads like a constant reminder, is in itself a victory. To have hosted it for 6 years continuously, with the permission of the ministry, is nothing short of an achievement! The festival was launched in 2009, when a State High Court struck down Section 377, in order to provide a space for the LGBT community to showcase their stories and have access to stories of others like them, from around the world. It is a festival run by the community, for the community, and of the community. It is one of those few times in India that you would get to watch an LGBT film on a big screen, or if you are a filmmaker, be sure that your film will be seen by at least a few in a real theatre.
A lot has happened in these six years, India re-criminalized homosexuality, and many are still taunted, arrested, and tortured for being who they are. But, Kashish continues to go on, and is perhaps one of the few social gatherings where the LGBT community can openly be themselves. It is the only LGBT festival allowed to be held at a mainstream venue. Among the crowd gathered at one of Mumbai’s oldest art deco theatres, Liberty Cinema, the festival’s main venue, almost 70% belonged to the community. The mood was always upbeat and happy. Gay couples walked around holding hands without the shame or anxiety that is imposed on them by society. There was such a reassuring air of acceptance and tolerance around. This community was all about inclusivity. Love was truly in the air. There were many men who came dressed in beautiful Indian sarees and tiny skirts. They knew they were safe, there was no one judging them.
As far as the programming was concerned, there were films that stood out because of their technical finesse. A few foreign titles which were truly engaging were David Thorpe’s documentary DO I SOUND GAY? (2014) and the French film on a gay couple and their surrogacy journey TWO MEN AND A CRADLE / DEUX HOMMES ET UN COUFFIN (2014) by Florence Helleux and Smaïn Belhadj from the Documentary Features Competition, Desiree Akhavan’s humorous feature APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR (2014) from the Narrative Features Competition, Malachi Leopold’s moving documentary on his uncle’s 35-year-old relationship ALEX & ALI (2014) from theCenterpiece Films programme, the exquisitely shot Swedish short 09:55-11:05, INGRID EKMAN BERGSGATAN 4B (2014) by Cristine Berglund and Sophie Vukovic as well as the delightfully funny 4-minute Spanish short THE LAST SHOWING / ULTIMO PASE (2014) by Jose Antonio Cortes from the International Narrative Short Films Competition, and the beautiful Irish short on religion and homosexuality NOVENA (2014) by Anna Rodgers from the International Documentary Short Films Competition.
Apart from this diverse mix of films from countries abroad, 21 Indian films were screened here, in every possible genre, starting with pure comedies to family dramas, love stories, and hard-hitting documentaries. QISSA: THE TALE OF A LONELY GHOST (2013), a well-travelled film by Anup Singh, was the Centrepiece Narrative Feature. Part real and part magical, it tells the story of a father who decides to raise his fourth daughter as a man. Set in 1947, at the time of the Partition between India and Pakistan, the film touches upon the intricacies of gender identity and has both political and social undertones to it. On the other extreme of the spectrum was Shantanu Ganesh Rode’s Marathi film TRIUMPH OF LIFE / JAYJAYKAR (2013) from the Indian Panorama. A heartwarming comedy, the film is in a way a coming-of-age story of a group of hijras (eunuchs). Having seen them being ill-treated, poked fun at, or taunted in broad daylight, the film’s sensitivity was a welcome change. For once, unlike seen in mainstream Indian films that use them as comic relief, here we were laughing with them and getting a peek into their dreams and aspirations. The movie was a crowd favorite, with loud laughter filling the hall, making it almost impossible to catch up with the dialogues. The Indian Narrative Shorts Competition offered an interesting mix, too, with one of the most touching contender being A FULL STOP THAT SEARCHES FOR ITS END / MUDIVAI THAEDUM MUTTRIPULLI (2014) by Vivek Vishwanathan. The film delves into the memory of an old man, who realizes and accepts the sexuality of his childhood friend. Although most of these shorts had their hearts at the right place, they came across as technically much inferior to their foreign counterparts. This is also reflective of the struggles of LGBT filmmakers in India, where such subjects are explored without access to proper equipment, funds, or social acceptance.
Festival director and filmmaker Sridhar Rangayan pointed out to me that the quality of Indian films has come a long way since the inception of Kashish. The films that are screened at the festival are also curated into a DVD of Indian LGBT films, which are distributed in the country, he informs me. They are also being made available online with a pay-per-view option at the festival’s website. Kashish also tries to offer guidance in kind to the young filmmakers with insightful panel discussions and masterclasses. The efforts of raising the quality of the Indian titles being screened here is the need of the hour and an ongoing project, says Rangayan.
In the documentary section, Indian films balanced themselves out with stories of both terror and acceptance. While the documentary shorts were mostly happy tales of LGBT people finally finding their voices, the documentary features brought out the dark side of the struggle. However, Rangayan’s own film BREAKING FREE (2015), which documented how Section 377 has been used to torture and isolate the LGBT community, clashed with Nancy Nicol’s documentary featureNO EASY WALK TO FREEDOM (2014), which pretty much followed the same story. Both grim, extremely painful documentaries hammered in the harsh realities that the community has to face while standing up for equal rights. As with narrative features, Indian documentaries, too, paled in comparison to the films from other parts of the world that employed innovative ways to make their stories a cut above the rest. This, again, could be a direct result of the social and cultural restrictions that are imposed on Indian LGBT filmmakers, but some of the local productions seemed like they were stuck in an almost forgotten era, complete with melodramatic music and cringe-worthy editing. Clearly, they have a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the world. I am not complaining, just hoping that Kashish will pave the way for creating a platform that helps these artists grow creatively.
All said, it was an Indian short that truly encompassed the spirit of the festival, showing what this event meant to the community. Ashish Sawhny’s FORBIDDEN LOVE, which had its world premeire at Kashish, is the story of Urmi, a transgender activist. A part of the hijra community in Mumbai, Urmi works with an NGO that fights for LGBT rights and has also been an active member of the film festival team. The 8-minute film is the story of how she found love in a bisexual man at one of the earlier editions of Kashish. Their love story is so tender, unique, and real. It is about coming a full circle, of having someone to call their own, of the dream of leading a normal life. The word “kashish” means “attraction” in Urdu, and their relationship seemed as if it were poetic justice. Kashish is, thus, not just a film festival. While for those like me, the LGBT cinema is a medium to step into a world of constant fear, shame, frustration and get in touch with the ground reality, for the community, or “the family” as they call it, it is a space that sets them free and lets them be.