Speak up!

Jun 27, 2012, 08:06 IST | Sudeshna Chowdhury

Project Bolo, a multi-generational oral history project, aims to prepare an oral archive of India's Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) movement, which will serve as an inspiration for members of the community

Twenty in-depth interviews across four different cities might equip members of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community with courage and determination to fight for their rights.

Support: Aditya Bandopadhyay (right), Asia-Director on the board of International Lesbian and Gay Law Association during an interview. Pics/ Project Bolo

In an attempt to document the oral history of the LGBT community in India, Solaris Pictures, The Humsafar Trust, in association with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have come up with a unique concept called Project Bolo, where interviewees share their struggles, experiences and how they came to terms with their sexuality.

Courage: Sridhar Rangayan (right) with author Ruth Vanita

Conceived and directed by Sridhar Rangayan, from Solaris Pictures, the project traces the history of the Indian LGBT movement from the early 70s till date, through various interviews.

Candid: Sunil Gupta, photographer shares his experience during an interview

Rangayan elaborates, “Through interviews with 20 eminent LGBT persons across different cities in India, which include Mumbai, Pune, New Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad, we have tried to bring to light their growing-up years, family, meeting people with similar preferences or identities, how did they fall in love, how did they negotiate their sexuality in their workplace, did they come out in the media and to their families, what have been the repercussions, what have been the personal victories, failures, regrets and moment of happiness, etc.”

Initiative: Sridhar Rangayan (left) during a shoot

These interviews, claims Rangayan, “furthers the understanding of what it means to be a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or a hijra in India? These interviews also brings to light the important milestones of the Indian LGBT movement— where did people meet, the early efforts at forming groups in Mumbai and New Delhi, the first gay newsletter, the first lesbian book, uncovering historical evidence of same-sex literature and iconography, the formation of LGBT organizations and various advocacy efforts leading to the historic Delhi High Court verdict decriminalising homosexuality.”

Pioneer: Historian and scholar, Saleem Kidwai shares his experience

The aim of interviewing so many people from the community is to put together various perspectives. “Each of them bring a different sort of an experience, a different piece of history, to form a rich mosaic, a rich tapestry of Indian LGBT life, history . This multi-generational oral history project, hopes to serve as an inspiration to the LGBT community and reconstruct the unique history and progress of the Indian LGBT movement. It is available for free viewing so that everyone can watch it. They can share it, forward it and even embed the videos,” said Rangayan, who conceived the idea of Project Bolo in 2009.

Capture: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History Museum in San Francisco, California. Pic/AFP

“It was selected as one of the 25 ‘projects for change’ from South Asia for the International Programme on LGBT Rights in Stockholm. The project was developed in consultation with experts from the UK, the US and Sweden,” said Rangayan.

Collection: Vintage photographs of gay couples displayed during the  opening of the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco, California. Pic/AFP

However, later The Humsafar Trust and UNDP too got involved with the project and provided the necessary funding. Vivek Anand from The Humsafar Trust, who is also the Producer of Project Bolo, said, “The Humsafar Trust got involved in this project as it seemed to be an excellent advocacy initiative. We look at Bolo as an initiative that will strengthen the LGBT movement in India. We hope that soon many individuals will come forward and speak about their lives as LGBT and help create visibility and acceptance in society.”

Rangayan derived inspiration for the project during an exhibition he had designed for Bombay Dost, India’s first gay magazine, during the World Social Forum. “It was titled ‘Queers Like Us’ and featured 14 LGBT icons — a short write up about them and their work with some photographs. I had always wanted to take that initiative forward. Also, over the past couple of decades, being involved with the queer movement, one has always encountered the common whining— Who are the LGBT persons in India? All we see are couple of activists, the same faces all the time. I wanted to highlight the fact that there are writers, filmmakers, lawyers, sculptors, potters, historians, dancers, outreach workers and even corporate white-collar professionals who are queer. And each one of them live successful lives interweaving his/her sexuality with their professional life with dignity,” said Rangayan. Crew members travelled to different parts of the country to interview LGBT people from all walks of life.

“The funding was just enough to take a small crew of three persons to shoot the interviews. So everyone had to be a master of multi tasking. What was good about it was that it made the interviews intimate and interviewees comfortable,” said Rangayan.

Subransu Das, cameraman, said that the whole experience of interviewing people from the LGBT community was “very enriching and new at the same time. I was incharge of the camera and the sound while the interviews were going on. Hearing people sharing their personal experiences also helped me to see things in a different perspective altogether. Sometimes, the interviews were so touching that I had tears in my eyes.”

Getting people to share their life stories wasn’t quite easy. While some were reluctant to share their stories in front of the camera, others bluntly refused. “There were some who came on board very easily, some who were hesitant but eventually came on board and finally there were a few individuals who refused to be part of it,” said Anand.

Project Bolo approached 35 people, but finally 20 people gave interviews. “Some we couldn’t interview because of logistical issues like date and time for shooting, but there were also couple of people we approached to talk, who backed out in the last minute. I do understand their fears, but their hypocrisy upset me. On one hand they claim to be champion activists, but on the other hand, they refuse to put their face and name out in public. It is time they stand up and make themselves counted,” said a disappointed Rangayan.

A written consent was taken from those who agreed to speak for the project. Said Anand, “We then did the interviews on camera through an unstructured questionnaire,” said Anand.

Problems related to HIV/AIDS have also been addressed through the project. “One of the interviewees, Sunil Gupta talks openly of being a HIV positive gay man and recounts in detail about his personal experiences when he came to know of his HIV status and how it impacted his relationships with his boyfriend, his family and his friends,” said Rangayan.

Activists from the LGBT believe that, although homophobia in urban areas is being addressed with the help of various rallies, seminars, etc, the real challenge lies in rural areas. Anand of The Humsafar Trust said, “We have a project supported by Global Fund titled Pehchan in which we are working with rural and semi urban populations and currently we are using this platform to reach out to smaller towns and cities. Also we have DVDs of the film which can be used for screenings and we can take the dialogue forward.”

With the end of the first phase of the project, members of Bolo are now contemplating to come up with the second phase of the project. Ernest Noronha, Program Officer, UNDP said, “The interviewees in the first phase are the first generation leaders of the community. Now one has to look at the second rank of leaders. In the second phase of Project Bolo we intend to focus on much broader aspects, like the social and the political front.”

Rangayan added, “We are currently designing the second phase of Bolo. Once we are ready we will advertise online for participants to come and join the project." to come and join the project."

Tommorrow: Stonewall and the city—the LGBT movement in Mumbai and the West.

Shorter version of the videos can be watched at http://www.youtube.com/user/Indianlgbt. However the full versions are available only on DVDs. The DVDs are available across the world through Amazon at http://astore.amazon.com/projectbolo-20 . In India it is available through Queer Ink at http://bit.ly/ProjectBolo and Kriti Film Club in New Delhi (space.kriti@gmail.com ) Queries can be mailed at projectbolo.india@gmail.com 

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