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Hoisting the rainbow flag

An interview with Sridhar Rangayan, founder-director of Mumbai’s Kashish International Queer Film Festival, who is giving the LGBTQ community space on the screen

Not everyone possesses the courage to stand up for what is right. Sridhar Rangayan is one of those rare souls who was brave enough to break free. National Award winning filmmaker, activist, producer and founder-director of Mumbai’s Kashish International Queer Film Festival, he is all set to conquer the world and make the rainbow flag fly higher.
Rangayan uses film as a medium to give a voice to the LGBTQ community and to portray their daily struggles on-screen. His films have won both national and international acclaim. He led the Montreal pride parade alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016. His latest film “Evening Shadows” bagged an award at the Roze Filmdagen, an LGBTQ film festival in Amsterdam. He shares with us his journey till now, the challenging circumstances under which his films are made and more…

Tell us a little about your journey as a film-maker who represents India’s LGBTQ community internationally, making iconic films which portray queer India.I studied to be an engineer, worked as a designer and wandered into film-making — it was an unplanned journey, but it has been fulfilling.
I assisted renowned filmmakers like Sai Paranjpye, Kalpana Lajmi and Dev Benegal for four years. In 2001, I and my partner Saagar Gupta set up our production company Solaris Pictures, and made our first queer-themed short film “Gulabi Aaina” (The Pink Mirror). It was a time when there were hardly any queer films, apart from the groundbreaking “Bomgay” by Riyad Wadia and couple of other short films. I felt there was no representation of our LGBTQ community.
“Gulabi Aaina” was refused certification by the censor, even after three applications. But, the film made queer lives in India noticeable across the globe — got screened at more than 85 film festivals, became a part of university study materials, and was discussed widely in the Indian mainstream media. There was no turning back after that. We continued making queer-themed films, bringing to life different spectrums of the LGBTQ community in each of our films.
The road has been intensely challenging, the journey Herculean —but the happiness and joy of those people who saw their own lives being portrayed on-screen — made it worthwhile.

‘Breaking Free’ won the national award for best editing in 2016

What do you think is the reason behind the dearth of such strong LGBTQ films in the Indian film industry?
The Indian film industry, as you rightly termed it, is an ‘industry’. So it has to manufacture ‘products’ that sell and can yield profit. LGBTQ films, unfortunately, are not yet ‘saleable’ because A-list actors still shy away from playing honest and sensitive, gay, lesbian and transgender characters on-screen.
Thus, many big producers and distributors do not come on board, as a result of which these films don’t get a good release and publicity, and hence fail to reach a wider audience. It’s a vicious circle that can only be broken when everyone in the chain takes a risk and pushes the envelope.
However, all is not bleak! There have been good films of late like “Aligarh”, “Angry Indian Goddesses”, “Margarita with A Straw”, “Shab” etc. which have portrayed gay, lesbian, bisexual characters with sensitivity. Also, there are wonderful films made in regional languages as well.

His latest film ‘Evening Shadows’ bags award at an LGBTQ film festival in Amsterdam

What are the financial and other social challenges you had to face in order to make films portraying the sexual minorities of our country? Has the scenario changed or subsided to some extent?
I’ve already mentioned the social challenges we face. Moreover, unlike North America and Europe, in India there is no government funding for independent cinema, and there are no theatres dedicated to screening such films. If these two factors come into play, it could be a game-changer. Also, there have been severe challenges because of the existing censorship rules and distribution systems.

“Gulabi Aaina” is a critically acclaimed film, which has received many awards and was screened in several international film festivals. But, it was rejected certification by CBFC thrice and still remains banned in India. Please tell us a little about it.
“Gulabi Aaina” was made in 2003 and it was refused a certificate citing reasons that the film was ‘offensive’ and ‘vulgar’. We applied for certification three times and were rejected every time with a note that they can’t give clearance to such a film. The film went on to be screened around the world, but in India it’s still banned.
Recently, after 14 long years, “Gulabi Aaina” found distribution on Netflix, iTunes and Google Play. Thus, people in India and across the world can watch it online.

You are the founder of the much appreciated and celebrated Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. How has the journey been till now? How has the festival helped in bringing out the best of LGBT films?
The Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival was started in 2010 as a queer-themed film festival. Starting with a 125-seater at PVR cinemas and then to a 235-seater at Cinemax, the festival over the past four years has been held at Liberty Cinema, which is Mumbai’s oldest art deco theatre, seating close to 1,200 people.
And interestingly, around 30 per cent of attendees are non-LGBTQ. Kashish has been able, over the past eight years, to not only establish itself as South Asia’s biggest LGBTQ film festival, but also one of India’s premier film festivals and an important event in Mumbai’s cultural calendar.

‘Gulabi Aaina’ (The Pink Mirror), even after receiving international acclaim, remains banned in India

Your production company Solaris Pictures is perhaps the only Indian production company that has consistently been making bold, path-breaking films on issues such as homosexuality and gay rights. Tell us a little about the company’s aims and plans.
When Solaris Pictures was started in 2001, the idea was to make independent films which would enable us tell our own stories, with no encumberment of any authorities. This spirit of independence is what dictates each work of ours.
The films we have produced and/or co-produced have been able to open up dialogues on several key issues around the LGBT community. “Gulabi Aaina” talks about trans identity and HIV/AIDS; “Yours Emotionally!” about racial and sexual identities; “68 Pages” about role of intervention and counseling around HIV/AIDS; “Project Bolo “talks about an oral history project with 20 LGBTQ role models; “Purple Skies” about lives of lesbian, bisexual and transmen; and “Breaking Free” about Section 377 and how the LGBTQ community is victimised under this colonial law.

In future, do you see LGBTQ films breaking into the mainstream and enjoying the same status and respect as mainstream Indian films? What, in your view, can cause such a positive change to take place in society?
In recent times, there has been an increase in women-centric films in Bollywood. The reason behind this is that audiences are bored of typical male-dominated narratives and they want to see more and more of these women-centric films.
Similarly, I believe a time will come when the audience will be more interested in seeing films dealing with socially marginalised subjects. That’s when the actors, producers, distributors will come around and these films will come into the mainstream.