Of speeches, straight friends and a cult following for Simone Singh

May 27, 2013, 07:13 IST | Vikram Phukan

A snippety look at Mumbai's Kashish Queer Film Festival that ended yesterday

Most of who spoke at the opening night of the Queer film festival Kashish, which ended in the city yesterday, just about managed to dole out minute-long homilies on inclusiveness, or gay rights, or the transformative force of cinema.

Reflection: An image from Facing Mirrors 

Filmmaker and guest of honour Kalpana Lajmi took advantage of the fact that there would be no Oscar-style orchestral score to drown out her extended speech, and delved into the making of her film Darmiyaan, which was her contribution to the queer genre, based as it was on the life of an ageing actress (Kirron Kher) and her hermaphrodite son (Arif Zakaria).

The engrossing account was the highlight of the evening. it was quite resonant with the proceedings because that film’s writing team consisted of Sridhar Rangayan and Saagar Gupta, who were incidentally the key people behind the massive effort taken to mount a festival such as Kashish. Rangayan, its festival director, and Gupta, his real-life partner, its sole programmer.

Viva for the Diva: Simone Singh

China from Underground
Much like India is a guest nation at Cannes this year, this year’s Kashish had a special focus on China. This has a lot to do with the recent Beijing Gay Film Festival, where Rangayan was an invitee, being cancelled at the very last minute by draconian authorities.

The organisers improvised somewhat, hiring a cafe for screenings and sending out secret invites, which ensured that an underground festival did go ahead. However, it was only fair that some of the more remarkable films should be deservedly shown on a big screen, which is why several Chinese films (three narrative features and three documentaries from mainland China and Hong Kong) were part of the festival itinerary.

Allies anyone: Tushar M does some straight searching  

Bow or Curtsy?
Over the past few years, the Cardiff-based Iris Prize has become the standard bearer of excellence when it comes to queer short cinema, and one of its founders, Berwyn Rowlands, was at hand to introduce a selection of films from that august repertoire.

The ice-breaker for the session was Rowland’s recent encounter with Queen Elizabeth II, described predictably, to much laughter, as a ‘meeting between queens.’ He did not know whether to bow or curtsy to Her Royal Highness, and ended up doing a combination of both.

“I looked as if I had a stroke,” he said in his wonderful Welsh brogue. Jokes aside, Rowlands raised a very pertinent point about queer cinema. At one time, it would excite him terribly to just see gay people represented on screen, in any way possible. Visibility was the paramount concern. Now, he could not any more tolerate ‘bad acting or bad production values or bad editing’ in queer films.

Now, there can be no excuse for gay and lesbian stories to be brought to screen and not be well told. Indian queer cinema is, perhaps, still in the first phase, with the local community content just to see their lives blown up on celluloid, to be visible, to have cinema acknowledge their existence, which explains why well-intentioned films that are now part of a burgeoning queer sub-continental film output are often lacking in a cinematic sensibility. Out of 50 Indian films, only about 20 were selected for this year’s festival, pointing towards the curatorial team’s growing commitment to excellence rather than the mere expression of alternative persuasions.

Shehnai? no Please
Overheard between screenings when the house music featured a track with a shehnai refrain: “Perhaps, this is what will be played at your wedding?” The comment was directed at intrepid young filmmaker, Nakshatra, who had carried a placard at the Mumbai Pride declaring, “My mother is looking for a partner for me.” Pat came the riposte, “No shehnai. It’ll be a Goan beach wedding for me.” Nakshatra’s short film Logging Out, which was an ode to that uniquely gay dating pastime called ‘husband-seeking’ in some circles, was an audience favourite at last year’s Kashish. He was back with a new film for this year’s edition, and won’t have had too far to look for grooms, best men, or bridesmaids.

Simone sigh Singh
It would seem that member of the jury, Simone Singh, who added a dash of diva-esque glamour to the festival with her Oriental-style outfits, has a cult following amongst certain 20-something gay men thanks to a television serial called Heena. It ran for five seasons from 1998 to 2003, when that particular demographic were just tweeners. So, instead of regular gay fodder like SpongeBob Squarepants or Teletubbies, they were being fed a steady diet of old-style Muslim social melodrama. Explains it all, really.

A straight ally?
‘Are you straight and queer-friendly?' read the little white board held up by a bespectacled young man in white cargo shorts. Tushar M, an enterprising 23-year-old, was trying to put together a video montage of straight people speaking up for the queer cause.

He drew little squiggles with sketch-pens on their fingers, to denote them with their respective gay friends, which they could then hold up for the camera, and mouth pithy one-liners. At first, straight people suddenly seemed scarce near Cinemax Screen 1, where the Kashish films were being screened, almost belying the festival’s USP of attracting a sizable mainstream crowd.

The resident straight allies were of course the members of the jury. These included writer Jerry Pinto, theatre director Quasar Thakore Padamsee and filmmaker Aruna Raje. They pitched in indulgently to record a piece and add to Tushar’s tally to get him some momentum. By the end of the evening on the first day, he had gathered footage of more than a dozen ‘straight allies’ on his iPad. By the time the weekend was halfway through, he had scored a century, drawing extensively from the crowds that had come to view the other films runningin the multiplex.

Lookin' for Ladies
If straight people weren't up for some gay and lesbian action by the side, then queer women were also conspicuous by their absence at this year's festival. Day 2 of Kashish is usually the ladies day, because that's when most lesbian selections are screened.  The missing women could be blamed on the festival's male-centric programming which in turn maybe reflects the kind of cinema that is being made, with so many minorities jostling for space under the queer umbrella, but not quite managing to be equally represented. Maybe a more targeted advertising campaign would help to bring in the ladies. Or maybe, either Saturday or Sunday could be leased out to them, rather than a Friday, when so many professionals, women or men, are wrapping up their work weeks.

About the Cinema
Ultimately, any film festival is about its cinema, all sideshows apart. The Iris Prize showcase gave us some thought provoking, if a tad less than impactful, shorts this year. Grant Scicluna's The Wilding (the 2012 winner), of love between two young men, is set against the smouldering angst of an authentically depicted remand home for boys, where their daily struggle against other inmates is as much about territory as it is about latent homophobia. In Jarrah Gurrie’s Those Empty Streets, a lonely woman is drawn into an amorous tryst with the object of her son’s affection. The transgression makes her feel, like never before, a peculiar closeness with her gay son, a frequent runaway from home made in her own likeness, it would seem. 

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