More queer stories told by queer people will automatically change the way we look at ourselves. You know, when you see Dutee Chand come out, it's empowering. She is perhaps the only Indian sportsperson on that level who is out. I can't think of any cricketer or footballer. It makes such a strong statement. So, it's important for us from the entertainment industry to come out if you are in positions of power and tell our stories from those positions of power. Those stories will be about lived experiences. It takes time, but it is happening.
For me, today, one of the most encouraging things, but it's not getting empowered, is KASHISH. [The KASHISH film festival is a queer film festival that has been held every year in Mumbai since 2010.] How come these films are not getting the space that they need? Everyone will say without knowing [the process and finances of filmmaking] that “you can put it on YouTube”. Who's going to come pay me? Filmmaking is an expensive business. We also need a huge amount of money today to push the movies. Again, we are not making something that is populist. So, it's not as if overnight it's going to go viral. Right? We need support from the industry and the media.
Today, when I look at my film industry, I feel that it's not really inclusive or supportive of the queer community. If you look at Hollywood, every year, be it for the Oscars or different awards, they try and empower minorities—not just the content, but also the makers behind it. When I made a film like My Brother…Nikhil, which was the first of its kind, or I Am which received the National Award and went everywhere, but when it comes to popular awards, nowhere did it even get nominated. And why is that? There has to be queerphobia.
When I was making my last film, I was in this space where I wanted to work with and have queer actors. And then I realised you cannot force people to be out. At the same time, you're making something which anyway, is not getting financial support from studios. So, my only strength is the film and the actors and the story. There will be queer people who audition but are terrible actors. There may be closeted people who are good. So, I would try and empower queer people who are willing to come out. But at the end of it, I will look for somebody who can also act and is appropriate for the role.
For Pine Cone, I was auditioning for five actors. I was really happy when I was talking to Vidur, they said that they identify as "they". I was so happy that they will probably be one of the first main lead who identifies as "they"—an out and proud queer—introduced in mainstream Hindi cinema.
I feel that again, as queer persons, we know much more about the straight world than what they know about us. As a queer actor, one should be able, though one gets bracketed, to do any role. Similarly, a straight person should be able to do any role.
But when it's trans people, I feel that you can't have cisgender men or women playing trans roles. It's not okay. The series that I am doing right now called We Are has one story of a trans person falling in love. The person I am casting is a trans person. My dream is to be able to make a film where my entire cast and crew are queer. That would be something I'd love to do.
Everything about the amount of queer content you have depends on the viewership—the people watching it. Earlier women-centric films were much fewer. Now, because more and more women are going to watch these films, the number of such films is increasing.
Similarly, when it comes to the representation of people from different backgrounds, we think that Bollywood is the centre of the universe. We forget that there is Malayalam cinema, Marathi cinema, Bengali cinema, which represent queer characters coming from various strata of society. Having said that, yes, there is not enough. I wish there were many more films in different languages depicting people coming from different social strata, be it Dalits or others.
We as a society are very, very selfish. We don't want to come and see the problems of what people go through. For example, what a Dalit person goes through not only because of caste oppression but also because of their sexuality. Then the question is: Who is watching these films? These films are being watched mostly by people from the middle class and upper middle class. I am talking of revenue-generating space that is the cinema or even the OTT platforms because it's not inexpensive to consume content on different platforms. The audiences kind of decide what we get to see. And, unfortunately, because some communities are already not empowered and not there [making or watching these films], so, you see even lesser content depicting their issues.
You need people from different sections of society to be empowered to tell their stories. We need queer people behind the camera to tell our stories. Similarly, we need queer Dalits to tell their stories because I don't have that lived experience. I don't want to appropriate their lives through my gaze because it's a different experience. The horror and the oppression, a Dalit person might have faced is nothing that I would ever have experienced in life. So, it's important for those voices to get empowered to make those films.
They can do a lot, but they won't do anything. Because the film industry, unfortunately, is an industry. Unlike many countries, it's not in the space of art and culture, which gets support. And everything seems to be geared toward profit-making. So, we will have an item number, however regressive it is, if it's believed that it will bring in more money. We will have extremely problematic films, which depict domestic violence, eve-teasing, rape, and molestation as a way to woo women, and those things will be extremely successful and have big budgets and find platforms and studios because it's populist. So, unfortunately for us, I don't have much hope in the industry going out of its way to be inclusive. It will be eternally taking baby steps for the queer community. So, I think it's more important for the community to go all out and support our films and also reject films that portray us in a certain way—start saying “no” to cis-gendered gaze into our lives.
Our film industry is the largest film industry in the world. And, today, with mobile phones and all, there are a lot of possibilities. You can make your own film. But you have to know the craft. People always want the easy way out. So whether you are a queer person or a straight person, you need to train. You need to work towards good stories. And if you have good stories, if you are trained and you know your job, your stories will have a reach. Look at someone like Rima Das. I always refer to her as an inspiration. She comes from Assam and made her film called Village Rockstars after having trained herself through YouTube on how to operate the camera, edit, and watched films from all over the world. And her first film was directed, edited, written, produced, shot by her—a one-woman army. Village Rockstars represented India at the Oscars, and it was made with a budget of five lakhs. So, it is the will to tell the story.
Very often, people want to be a part of mainstream cinema. That desire is what stops them from telling more authentic stories because they are also awe-struck by it. I am constantly told that I have done enough [of this work]. That now, I should do something more mainstream. But they forget that this is my life and my identity and there is no reason why I should leave it behind.
There’s this French film Close which, I think, will be available on MUBI. Another is the lovely Pakistani film Joyland. I don’t know when we will get to see it in India. I have seen it. I will recommend them.
This Q&A is part of a queerbeat project to interview LGBTQIA+ personalities who are challenging cis heteronormative norms in their fields and making them queer inclusive.
Anmol Arora (they/them) is an independent journalist who writes and reports on gender, health, and culture from an intersectional lens.
Zahra Amiruddin (she/her) is an independent writer, photographer, and professor of photography who has been working in the field for nine years with a specialisation in visual practices and contemporary art. Apart from being featured in national and international publications, her main areas of interest include ethnographic studies, astronomy, personal narratives, and family histories. She has shown her work in solo as well as group exhibitions across Greece, South Korea, Indonesia, and India and is currently developing a collaborative project with Eight Thirty, a photography collective with nine women across India.
Nayantara Narayanan (she/her) is an independent journalist based in Bangalore. She has worked as reporter, editor and producer for newsrooms such as The Caravan, Scroll.in and CNBC-TV18. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.