The rainbow screen at Kashish

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on July 24, 2020 Published on July 24, 2020

The last word: This year’s edition of Kashish will end with the screening of Hum bhi akele, tum bhi akele, a film on the friendship between a gay man and a lesbian woman

For the last 10 years, Mumbai’s Kashish Queer Film Festival has been helming cinematic dialogue on alternative identities

“We are queer, we are here, and you better get used to it!”

Twenty years ago, I made a film called Mango Souffle on the theme of gay love and betrayal, based on my 1995 play On a Muggy Night in Mumbai. In spite of the backing of a major film distributor, a famous multiplex chain in India refused to screen the film because of its theme. There was little we could do as the country was in fear of the moral police — an extra-constitutional law enforcement by politicians backed by a conservative vote bank. This aggressive tactic was activated much earlier when, in 1996, Deepa Mehta’s film Fire was released. Fire is probably the first feature film to depict sexual love between two married women in a middle-class Indian setting. Theatres were vandalised, a storm was kicked up by the media and the controversy then died down, but not without an unspoken warning to film-makers who might otherwise have dared to go beyond what is considered socially acceptable cinema.

About 10 years later, a group of young activists and film-makers took a hesitant but courageous step to start planning a queer film festival. In 2010, the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival was born, headed by the maverick Sridhar Rangayan. Its vision statement read, “The butterflies in rainbow colours that dot the Kashish logo symbolise the spirit of queer people breaking out of the cocoon of social mores and flying free”. Kashish has been flying free ever since, with the festival achieving an iconic status among film buffs of queer cinema, activists, artists and the ‘just curious’.

Rangayan writes to me in an email, “From a small 123 seater hall in PVR Juhu (2010) to a 230 seater hall at Cinemax Versova (2011-2013) to a 1200 seater grand art deco theatre such as Liberty Cinema (2014-2019), the festival has grown in strength and numbers. From around 500 audience members registering for the first edition to around 2100 audience members in 2019, the festival has embraced both LGBT community members as well as their families, friends, colleagues and film enthusiasts in general.”

Interestingly, about 30 per cent of Kashish audiences are people who are identified as ‘straight’. So the festival serves the purpose of introducing alternative identities to many outside the queer community. It also helps those who feel uncomfortable in the world of binary sexual identities and do not know yet that there are spaces available that could help them discover their true selves.

The films are mostly made on low budgets, just like most independent cinema all over the world, but there are other challenges as well. Film-making requires an entire team of creative and technical people who need to share one vision. Not everyone is on the same page when it comes to queer sensitivity. Just like films with a strong feminist theme can only come with women at the helm of film-making, is it the same with queer cinema? “Definitely [a] queer-sensitive crew is desirable, but many times they are not available. So the best way is — make them queer-sensitive during the process of shooting and editing... As you work with the crew, you peel away the myths and misconceptions and then sensitise them to LGBTQIA+ issues... But if the film-maker or [the] producer are not queer-sensitive, then God save the project,” Rangayan says.

The irony in the last remark is not lost on me. It has become fashionable to add a queer character in almost every web series. Lesbian love-making scenes are often on the producer’s tick box because of the voyeuristic pleasure they offer to straight males. One famous queer writer was asked why all his protagonists were gay. He responded that he was tired of seeing the gay men only as hairdressers or as funny people who mock their own lifestyles.

Kashish definitely has had a role to play in dispelling such stereotypes. Many films that premiered at the festival made mainstream cinema take note of them: Chitrangada (by Rituparno Ghosh), I Am (by Onir), Noblemen (by Vandana Kataria), Naanu Avanalla Avalu (by BS Lingadevaru), Dunno Y Naa Jaane Kyon (by Sanjay Sharma), for example.

This year’s Kashish, which began on July 22, has gone online with a selection of 52 films. The closing night gala on July 30 will screen Harish Vyas’s Hum bhi akele, tum bhi akele, a film on a friendship between a gay man and a lesbian woman. That is as “plus” as it can get in the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.

To me, attending Kashish is usually time well spent with friends and by marvelling at how comfortable and proud the young today are of their true identity. This year is, of course, different. But I am glad the festival hasn’t had a zero year. We need these stories to raise our empathy levels, especially when we have begun questioning old beliefs on many things that affect us — domestic violence, pollution, class and gender disparity, urban and rural inequity.

Rangayan puts it succinctly. “A story well told will always touch hearts. The topics the films deal with are very diverse, and we see a shift from showing urban stories to those set in small towns or villages. Also, the diversity of narratives these films deal with, have set a tone for a future that is, hopefully, respectful of all genders and sexualities.”

I hope the awareness leads us to seek the queer within us, making the term redundant. Like post-feminism, we must welcome the post-queer era with an embrace. That probably is the real new normal we want to see.


Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and a stage director

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Published on July 24, 2020
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