From stereotypical caricatures to realistic and believable — the portrayal of LGBTQ characters in mainstream Indian films has undergone a shift. But it’s far from the positive depiction in the independent, short and documentary space, says filmmaker and gay rights activist Sridhar Rangayan. “While mainstream Indian cinema is yet to sink its teeth into nuanced and positive portrayals, independent films, short films and documentaries have held the rainbow banner high,” Rangayan told IANS in an email interview from Mumbai. Citing films like Aligarh, Margarita, With a Straw, Angry Indian Goddesses and Kapoor & Sons, Rangayan said: “These films invested their LGBTQ narratives with dignity. However, these films are far and few. The innuendos and crude jokes continue in films like ‘Grand Masti’, ‘No Entry’ and countless others, including the horrendous caricatures on television shows like Kapil Sharma’s and many more.
“Who are these characters — are they transgenders, transvestites, drag queens — why are men dressed as women and clowning around? What purpose do they serve, I fail to fathom.” Putting up a fight against insensitive portrayals of the LGBTQ community and pushing the idea of acceptance and respect for all, Rangayan has been hosting the Kashish LGBTQ Mumbai Film Festival for eight editions. Its just-concluded edition stood for “Diverse, One” — implying acceptance for a broad spectrum of identities (LGBTQ), ethnicities, abilities and disabilities and body types.
As the festival director, Rangayan said he has noted a rise in the number of Indian LGBTQ films.”The quality of filmmaking has improved exponentially and the diversity of subject matter is really astonishing. “This year’s short films ‘Maacher Jhol’, ‘Sisak’, ‘Devi’, ‘Chudala’, ‘Naked Wheels’ and ‘Tremors’ … Also, the two feature-length Indian films ‘Chronicles of Hari (Harikatha Prasanga)’ and ‘LOEV’ are fine examples of good Indian cinema. That they happen to be LGBTQ-themed is just another aspect of these films.”
Even as digital platforms have opened the flood gates to otherwise inside the closet subjects, hasn’t this widened the scope of such stories? Digital platforms indeed offer a tremendous potential for content that has been marginalised till now. It is free from encumbrances of star systems, box office collections and censorship. The content is also easy to be consumed on mobile phones and laptops. “But this also has a negative impact of pushing the content into the closet, where it is consumed privately. I still advocate for mainstream release where the films are being watched on the big screen amidst people. This removes the shame, guilt, anxiety of watching LGBTQ films openly.”
Rangayan is all for urgent change in the rule book of the country’s film censor board. “Instead of censoring, they should just rate it. It is also very arbitrary and seems to be whimsical. While my first film ‘Gulabi Aaina’, which didn’t have any risqué scenes, was refused a certificate, my documentary ‘Purple Skies’, which has the words lesbian, transgender, homosexuality in almost every scene, got a ‘U’ certificate.”My last film ‘Breaking Free’, which highlights the human rights violation by police and government against LGBTQ community, got an ‘A’ certificate with just one word beeped. That is indeed progressive. But, as I said, it totally depends on the collective personal opinion of the committee, and their perceptions of what the film advocates.
“We definitely have to have a more progressive and liberal rule book for certifying films in India so that independent cultural voices are not suppressed.” With a right wing government in power, is the voice of LGBTQ activists getting heard? “I personally feel that the present government has not implemented any major changes that impinges on LGBTQ rights, either in a positive or negative way. There is status quo, which was also the case with the previous government.
“The point of concern is that when MPs like Shashi Taroor raise the issue of Section 377 in Parliament, it is met with resistance or ridicule. We are still waiting for the Supreme Court to begin hearing on the curative petition, and that has been delayed way too long.”Meanwhile, Rangayan is looking forward to his next film Evening Shadows, which tells of how when a son comes out of the closet, he pushes the mother into the closet as she is unable to share the truth with anyone.