Big Screen Movies

LGBTQI cinema in India: a slow emergence

Still from ‘Made in Heaven’.  

There has perhaps never been a better time for queers in global cinema. Moving beyond narratives of visibility or affirmation, the lines between upliftment and victimhood have been delectably blurred, and LGBTQI characters can now take their rightful place in the cinematic world.

In Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman (2017), a transgender woman (Daniela Vega) mourning her partner’s untimely death grapples with his relatives’ insensitivity; but it is her utter desolation, and magnificent stoicism, that gives the film its deeply emotional arc. Vega’s casting is a rare instance of a substantial trans part not played by a cis actor.

Similarly, the amorous ‘female triangle’ in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018) is given luxurious and unapologetic freedom, much like the central romance in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013). Gay cruising in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2013) is looked at without moral judgement, a far cry from Cruising, the 1980 crime thriller starring Al Pacino, whose exploitative gaze on an S&M subculture riled activists.

Still from The Favourite.

Still from The Favourite.  

The sex positivity and refreshing non-heteronormativity in films like Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s Theo and Hugo (2016) — which begins with a graphic 20-minute nightclub orgy — doesn’t come packaged with the apprehension that the mainstream might ‘misunderstand’.

Straight anxieties

The romance in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017) is not air-brushed to accommodate straight anxieties, with Timothée Chalamet’s Elio cast as an unaffected new-age lover boy even in a film set in the 1980s. And Matthew Warchus’s Pride (2014), a heart-warming account of a mid-1980s London pride parade in which mining associations from Wales marched in solidarity, shows how the path to inclusivity brings with it unexpected allies.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of New York’s Stonewall uprising, the ‘riots’ that sparked the modern gay movement. While signposts are shared, queer histories differ from country to country, and the timelines of revolution very rarely overlap. In India, we are less than a year into our second glorious ‘decriminalisation’; in Brunei, the death penalty was recently announced for gay sex; in Iceland, on the other hand, gay marriage has been legal since 2010.

This is why queer cinema can never be truly monolithic. It is a continuum, but stuck in a time loop paradox. Which is why a web series like Made in Heaven (2019) can feel path-breaking and hopelessly dated at the same time. Having a gay man as the leading protagonist aside, the world of the privileged closet with its assembly line of lusty Lotharios is strangely reductive, and its queer politics of deception and self-loathing at least a decade old.

Over 10 years, the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival (held earlier this month) has become a citadel to a collective cultural experience that celebrates marginalised voices.

More than cinematic excellence, the festival focuses on inclusiveness and diversity. The quality of queer films has significantly improved over the years, unearthing the hidden subaltern in fringe efforts that have heart if not craft.

Delicate dalliances

This year’s crop included Rohin Raveendran Nair’s The Booth featuring Amruta Subhash’s limpid-eyed security guard whose dalliance with a young girl takes place outside the gaze of CCTV cameras. In Rohan Kanawade’s delicate Marathi film U Ushacha, cotton-picker Kiran Khoje falls in love with her female language tutor.

Still from ‘U Ushacha’.

Still from ‘U Ushacha’.  

In the profusion of international films showcased, we see the entire gamut of queer experience unfold — from hesitant self-acceptance to tentative coming-out to elusive romance.

One of the showstoppers at Kashish this year was Tanuja Chandra’s A Monsoon Date, a short film written by Gazal Dhaliwal (drawing from her life) and featuring Konkona Sen Sharma in the role of a trans woman.

It’s perhaps telling of how global queer conversations flow at different paces that the casting of cis women like Sen Sharma and Kubbra Sait in trans parts doesn’t yet raise eyebrows here, as it did when Priyanka Chopra was cast to play Mary Kom. Last year, Scarlett Johansson dropped out of Rub&Tug in the uproar over her casting as a trans man in the film, criticised as another form of ‘whitewashing’.

Still From A Monsoon Date.

Still From A Monsoon Date.  

The trade-off seems to be that Rub&Tug might never get made because of the absence of a high-profile name attached to it. This discourse isn’t particularly pertinent in India at the moment — very few queer actors are actually out — but writers like Dhaliwal have been quietly breaking new ground (she co-wrote this year’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga on a lesbian relationship). Progress might be slow but change is clearly in the air.

The writer is a playwright and stage critic.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 6:45:02 PM |

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