Coming out of the shadows

In conversation with gay activist and film director Sridhar Rangayan whose film Evening Shadows will premiere at Mardi Gras

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Sridhar Rangayan.Indian Link
Sridhar Rangayan. Photo: Punit Reddy

At Queer Screen, the Mardi Gras Film Festival this year, an Indian filmmaker will make a bold statement with a tender film. Evening Shadows (Surmaee Shaam) is about a young man coming out to his mother and the upheaval it causes within the traditional family and society around. The film, co-presented in Australia by Sydney-based LGBTQ support organisation Trikone Australasia, will have its world premiere at the festival.

The director of the film, Sridhar Rangayan, is a filmmaker, writer, activist and festival director. Rangayan has many creditable firsts to his credit. He is the Founder Festival Director of KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, which has, over eight years, become the biggest LGBTQ film festival in South Asia. He is the co-founder of The Humsafar Trust, India’s first registered gay NGO. And he co-founded Solaris Pictures, a production house that brings out films with LGBTQ themes.

Evening Shadows is the sixth production by Solaris Pictures. Rangayan insists it’s a film about relationships, and one that he hopes every family watches.

In an interview with Indian Link, Rangayan, one of the jury members to judge the ‘My Queer Career’ Australian short film competition at the festival, talks about his journey and challenges, and why there is a need to normalise LGBTQ issues.

How does it feel to be part of the spectacle that is the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras?

The Sydney Mardi Gras is one of the oldest and grandest celebrations in the world of LGBTQ community. I was privileged to be part of it last year when I was invited to by Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival to attend a conclave of Asia Pacific Queer Film Festival Alliance, a network of about 25 LGBTQ film festivals in the Asia Pacific region. I also marched with the Queer Screen float: it was indeed a heady feeling being cheered by thousands of onlookers! It was magical.

Sridhar Rangayan.Indian Link
A still from Evening Shadows

Evening Shadows will be screened at Queer Screen. What does the film mean to you?

Evening Shadows is a film that is very close to our heart: it is our most ambitious project and the most mainstream one. It is a film about parental acceptance of LGBTQ children, and a film that we hope every family watches. More than a gay film, it is about relationships – between son and mother, between son and father, between father and mother and also between two men who are in love. It’s about how these relationships sometimes conflict with each other because of inter-generational viewpoints and existing social mores. A lot of hope is riding on this film – not only for the cast and crew, but also for around 180 contributors across the world who have supported the film’s crowdfunding campaign. And, of course, the hope of the entire Indian LGBTQ community and the South Asian diaspora across the world.

What kind of reaction are you expecting?

As a conscious decision, we have tried to make a simple film that will touch hearts. There are no auteur flourishes or sensational moments. The film’s narrative and the characters are real and universal. We hope that the audience takes back a story that makes them reflect about prejudices – whether it is against LGBTQ persons or against women. The screening at Mardi Gras being the World Premiere of the film, we are hoping for the film’s journey to begin on a grand positive note.

Sridhar Rangayan.Indian Link
A still from Evening Shadows

What have you seen here in Australia – or elsewhere around the world – with regard to the LGBTQ community that you have been surprised by, or have liked and would like to see in India?

Obviously the laws need to change in India – Sec 377 needs to be read down so it doesn’t criminalise the community. And then we need marriage laws, adoption and inheritance laws that will give the community an equal footing in the mainstream social space. What I have really liked in Australia and other countries around the world is that there are so many LGBTQ persons in power who are out – statesmen, politicians, judges, actors, sports personalities etc. When LGBTQ persons who are well-known come out and underline the normalcy of their gender identity or sexual orientation, it will inspire an entire generation to be more accepting. Only when you are out can you expect families, allies and stakeholders to support you in your fight for equality and dignity.

What is your own story of coming out?

I was a late bloomer! It was only when I was around 27 or 28 that I became comfortable with my sexuality. Because, remember, this was in the early 1990s when in India there was not even a whisper in public about homosexuality, unlike in the US, Australia and some parts of the world where gay rights were talked about in the open. I have been a victim of homophobia and discrimination which left deep scars that took years to heal. But once I managed to look in the mirror and say I was okay and my desires were normal, my journey of coming out spiralled out quickly. From being part of Bombay Dost, India’s first gay magazine in 1990, to co-founding The Humsafar Trust, India’s first registered gay NGO, and then being out in the media, there was no looking back.

Sridhar Rangayan.Indian Link
A still from Purple Skies

Why did you choose to make films with a focus on queer subjects?

At the time I was coming out, I was also directing several mainstream television programs (Rishtey and Gubbare on Zee TV, Krisshna Arjun on Star Plus, Haqeekat on Sahara TV). But in none of these programs was there an opportunity to include either stories or characters who were LGBTQ. The channels back then did not want any of it as they felt it will alienate family audiences! So Saagar Gupta and I (both professional and life partners) decided to start our own company, Solaris Pictures, that will focus on making films with LGBTQ content. We wanted to tell stories that concern our community and impact our lives. Our first film was The Pink Mirror which was a peek into the boudoir of Indian drag queens in 2002 and we have followed it up with five more films over the years. Always, while we want to make films about the community, we want to make it for a larger audience. So with every project of ours, the effort is to reach it to larger mainstream audiences. While The Pink Mirror and Breaking Free are now on Netflix, Purple Skies was telecast on the national network in India, and 68 Pages was taken on a tour of 25 cities in India. So the effort has always been to mainstream LGBTQ issues through cinema, and our latest film Evening Shadows is another step ahead in that direction.

Is it easy to make films on queer subjects?

In India, because of the prevailing legal and social environment for LGBTQ rights, it is quite challenging to make films on LGBTQ topics. There is no government funding and the mainstream industry is very cautious about how they want to approach the topic. Also issues of censorship complicate matters. So stuck between the devil and the deep sea, most filmmakers turn to crowdfunding or personal resources. While there is no externalised homophobia, there is reluctance by mainstream actors and distributors to be part of LGBTQ films. Things are changing with a few films, but we are not there yet. Our hope is in the independent films, documentaries and short films – a substantial number of LGBTQ films are being made in these genres.

Voices of pride

Our film not only underlines the challenges, but celebrates diversity. Audiences at the festival will get a close peek at the cultural and social conflicts Indian LGBTQ community faces even today, as well makes a strong plea for gender equality

Sridhar Rangayan, film director

 

It’s rare for us to be able to program narrative features from India, especially ones that have such a universal and relatable story. I’m thrilled we will have its World Premiere and a number of the key players as festival guests

Lisa Rose, festival director of Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival

 

It’s a matter of great pride that our film is being appreciated so much across the world; it validates all our hard work and all our hopes for the film. I hope and pray that our simple and honest narrative will touch those who watch it

Mona Ambegaonkar, who plays the mother in the film

 

Evening Shadows is an invitation to a journey of self-reflection. It’d be my hope that everyone who watches it finds it thought-provoking

Maulik Thakkar, one of the 180+ contributors to the film’s crowdfunding effort

What kind of reactions have you got for KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival? It’s been around for eight years. Have you seen more acceptance come your way since its first edition?

When we started KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival in 2010, soon after the Delhi High Court striking down Sec 377 in 2009, our main aim was to have a LGBTQ film festival in a mainstream theatre – as a celebration for the community, but also for mainstream audiences to get a window into LGBTQ lives. Over the years, the festival has grown not only to become South Asia’s biggest LGBTQ film festival, but also one of the important events in Mumbai’s cultural calendar.

We have had corporate houses supporting us, embassies coming forward, A-list celebrities gracing the festival, but most gratifying is that out of 2000+ audience who attend the festival every year, around 30% are non-LGBTQ audiences. Based on the feedback we have received (the festival does a post-event survey), it is evident that the festival has managed to change perceptions and impact attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. Even the number of Indian LGBTQ films has grown exponentially. Last year, we had over 50 Indian LGBTQ films at KASHISH. Even quality-wise and content-wise, there is more promise now with their diversity and storytelling power.

You have made films on HIV/AIDS within the LGBTQ community. What other issues or problems does the community face that those in the mainstream wouldn’t know about? Do you plan to address them in your upcoming projects?

While the LGBTQ community has issues about their self and society, more complicated is the dilemmas of the parents who are caught on the one side with their children’s issues, and on the other side with social mores. Especially when they are from a generation that has been entrenched in an environment with negative attitudes towards non-binary gender and non-heteronormative sexualities, the families suffer a lot. Evening Shadows tries to address this and we hope the film can become a tool for parents to understand their children and stand up against prejudices.

Some of the other areas which need understanding are bisexuality and asexuality. There is hardly any information about these sexualities. Domestic violence among same-sex couples, drug abuse, old age issues are (other topics) to deal with soon.

Sridhar Rangayan.Indian Link
A still from The Pink Mirror

Which other films or projects are you working on? Since your work revolves around LGBTQ community, how do you achieve a variety of themes and subjects within it?

I am a filmmaker who not only makes a film, but is involved in taking it ahead. So dissemination, distribution and the dialogue enabled therein is very much part of my filmmaking process. With Evening Shadows just beginning its journey, it will be some time before I embark on my next film. The one in the pipeline which I hope to get made soon is a feature length film in English, Songs of Eternal Love, a poignant romantic story at the cross section of religion and sexuality.

The Pink Mirror is still banned in India. Do such restrictions dishearten you? How do you work around them?

The Pink Mirror still doesn’t have a censor certification. Our application was rejected thrice and we didn’t have the energy to follow up. That was back in 2002-03. The censor board has definitely been more liberal since then. My film Purple Skies received a ‘U’ (universal) certificate though it was about lesbians, bisexual and trans persons; and our latest film Evening Shadows received a ‘UA’ certificate (children below 12 need parental guidance). My attempt has never been to sensationalise the issue or use it as a peg to promote the film. My films deal with LGBTQ issues as normally as in real life.

Sridhar Rangayan.Indian Link
A still from Breaking Free

How has Section 377 affected the LGBTQ community in India?

While Sec 377 hasn’t been used often in legal terms, it has been misused by the police and blackmailers to both extract money and sexual favours from LGBTQ persons. Our feature-length documentary film Breaking Free (now available on Netflix) is a detailed account of how Sec 377 impacts the community – with real life testimonies of those affected as well as lawyers and stakeholders – and also the two-decade-long legal challenge to change the law. The film won the National Award for Best Editing (non-fiction) at the National Film Awards, which is the highest recognition for creative excellence in the country. It was a big victory for an LGBTQ film to receive the award and was a proud moment for me receiving it at the hands of the President of India.

Same sex marriage has recently been legalised in Australia after a postal ballot, but the Indian community’s vote wasn’t an unequivocal ‘Yes.’ What do you want to say to them?

There are always some people who will have regressive views. Perhaps they are not even their real views, they just want publicity by standing out. My message to them is, ‘Don’t be the barricade, it will fall. Be the wings, so you can soar too.’

Evening Shadows will be screened on Sun 25 Feb (7.30pm) at Event Cinemas on George Street. Stay on for a Q and A with director Sridhar Rangayan and lead actress Mona Ambegaonkar