Vikram Doctor, ET Bureau
Film festivals and sex have a dubious reputation. There have been too many cases in the past when serious film enthusiasts have found themselves being swamped by viewers whose enthusiasm seemed to lie more in the uncensored nature of the films on view at festivals. So it’s heartening to know that sex and films can interact in a more positive way - when the issue is not just sex, but sexuality and the diversities that exist there.
Film festivals showcasing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender-themed films are becoming popular events for the queer community in
. In February this year, over three days, the Bangalore Queer Film Festival showcased 46 features, short and documentary films, including A Single Man, Tom Ford’s Oscar-nominated film. This weekend in Mumbai, Queer Nazariya kicks off with a range of queer films, including eight Indian ones, and a special showcase of films from India . And at the end of this month another Mumbai-based festival, Kashish - the Mumbai International Queer Film Festival - will be screening 110 films from 25 countries in two locations, one downtown, one suburban, with the aim of reaching out to as large an audience as possible. South Africa
These are not the first queer film festivals to be held in
. Some years ago, in Mumbai a festival called Larzish ran for two years. For several years now a festival named after the pioneering gay activist Siddhartha Gautam has been having a one-day festival, and queer rights groups across the country like Nigaah, the Humsafar Trust, Gaybombay and many more have regularly organised events based on the screening of queer films. India
Films are an effective way for engaging with a community. People who are still in the process of coming out about their sexuality and still nervous about engaging with other gays and lesbians, can find film screenings a useful way to take part in a queer event, without putting an unnerving spotlight on themselves.
Vinay Chandran, one of the organisers of the
fest notes: “There are so many issues facing this community and it can be hard dealing with all of them, and sometimes activists themselves have problems with the issue of how to articulate them. But at a film festival you can show films on all these subjects and it helps people get familiar with them and start talking.” Bangalore
Film festivals also allow the screening of films from outside
Hollywood releases that distributors mostly get in. There’s been a recent upsurge in queer films being made in Asia, particularly from countries like Taiwan, Thailand and Philippines, and these are often of more relevance to Indian audiences since many of the subjects, like dealing with families, tend to be the same. But there’s little dissemination of these in , which is where film festivals can play a role. India
“At Queer Nazariya we clearly wanted to show films that reflected more than the Western influence which is why we got the South African selection,” says Smriti Nevatia, a scriptwriter and one of the organisers. This sort of engagement is not just among gays and lesbians, but also with society at large.
Many events for the queer community are meant for queer people alone - understandable when so many people are still nervous about revealing their identity, but it does result in the exclusion and change for education of other people. Film festivals, while technically usually private events, by their nature do allow a wider interaction.
Nevatia explains that in the run-up to the festival they did curtain raisers at colleges across the city, usually going through campus film societies, and showing a selection of films and using them to talk about queer issues. Students of Subhash Ghai’s Whistling Woods showed much keenness in attending Nazariya’s sessions.
“At these sessions, we can get very mixed reactions, including some negative ones,” she says. “But these are often countered from people with that class, and what’s important is that you are getting these discussions going.”
One reason there’s been particular interest in such discussions is, of course, the decision of the Delhi High Court last year decriminalising consensual homosexuality. All the film festival organisers say that this did not directly affect their plans, which were often long brewing, but it probably did have an indirect effect, especially in the interest being generated by the festivals. “The verdict has become a catalyst for many queer activities across
India,” says Sridhar Rangayan, one of ’s first openly gay filmmakers, and one of the organisers of Kashish. “The increasing focus on queer issues in the media has not only brought in a greater comfort level among queer persons, but also about queers in mainstream society. So what better place than a film festival to bring them all together?” India
In the past, film screenings were often informal, using films sourced from friends travelling abroad, without obtaining formal permission from the filmmakers. With all these three festivals, the organisers were careful to get full permissions, even though this made it a much more lengthy exercise. “We started last September and it really took a lot of effort, finding interesting films, tracking down directors, getting permissions and requesting DVDs,” says Chandran.
A particular coup for the
Bangalore fest was getting permission for A Single Man, in the news because of the Oscars and likely to get a commercial release in . PVR, the distributors, clearly felt there was some value in giving the film publicity at such a targeted event. “There is an understanding at both ends that like LGBT, film festivals will soon be a market for filmmakers and distributors and audiences to see queer films,” says Vivek Anand, another one of the Kashish organisers. Rangayan adds tantalisingly, “We have lined up a sneak preview, with its stars in attendance, of a very important Indian film that will be released later this year.” India
Big film festivals like
Cannes or are, of course, also monetarily important for filmmakers, since they will have a chance to sell their film, can compete for substantial prize money and can usually expect a screening fee. Much smaller community film festivals like these still can’t offer anything like that (although Queer Nazariya has managed to raise funds for a token fee), so one can wonder why filmmakers send their films, often at their own cost. As a filmmaker himself, Rangayan admits that it can be a tough decision whether to send the film, but he settles for a mix of sometimes going with it for reach, and other times for money. Berlin
It helps that, as Chandran notes, most queer filmmakers are also activists, and have had the experience of organising similar events, and realise the need to support fledgling events. “As the festival grows over the years we do intend to pay filmmakers a token screening fee,” says Rangayan. “Or at least reward them with other possibilities - like hosting them at the festival and interacting with the audience.” In the end filmmakers do want their work seen, and as Nevatia notes, a film festival can be seen as analogous to a library, a way to get visibility that could ultimately help both you personally, and the cause you’re interested in.
Perhaps the toughest issue for organisers is that always lurking issue of sex. Queer activists have always had to fight against attempts at marginalisation, often on grounds of ‘morality’, so they are particularly allergic to the need to censor. Yet most acknowledge the need for a practical accommodation with the need to self-censor particularly explicit material and also, set standards for basic quality. Rangayan says that Kashish applied for the usual blanket permission given for festivals by the I&B ministry, but he admits that this puts some responsibility on organisers: “Though it means self censorship of sort, it is necessary for us at this stage of the queer movement to be a little cautious.”
Still, Rangayan stresses that the overall aim of the film festivals is visibility and asking people to engage, if not necessarily approve. He remembers something a professor in a college said when one of his own films was being shown. “He told his students, ‘You will see some images on screen that could make you uncomfortable, because you have not seen them before. You have two options - you may close your eyes and walk out, or you may stay and watch it and question what is it in the film that makes you uncomfortable?’ 90% of the students stayed back and we had an hour-long lively discussion.” It is that appeal to being seen, and that response, that the organisers of Indian queer film festivals are seeking.