While positive portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community in mainstream Indian films is still a far fledged aspiration, there are few who dare to dream of the impossible. Award-winning film-maker, producer and screenwriter Sridhar Rangayan is one of them.
As a gay activist, Sridhar has been making a stark difference with his impactful and unorthodox approach. Battling at the front lines for the Indian LGBTQ+ community, Sridhar has tirelessly worked to voice their opinions and campaigned for their rights. He is the Founder Member and Trustee of The Humsafar Trust (the first gay NGO in India). He is also the Founder & Festival Director of the prestigious “Kashish Mumbai Queer Film Festival” that is held every year in Mumbai. Furthermore, he has served on the Jury of various international film festivals and is well known for creating awareness about sexual minorities.
Let’s get to know him better; as he talks about to us his filmmaking style, ambitions and much more!
1) You graduated from some of the most prestigious institutions in India like NITK and IIT. You have also scripted and directed several television series. Instead of playing safe, why did you choose to specialize in the production of queer films?
I know, right?! If only I had continued in television I would have been able to lead a comfortable life with all the money and amenities! But where would I find the satisfaction of doing something that I was passionate about. Firstly I never thought that after completing a graduate degree in Engineering I would veer towards a post-graduate course in Visual Communication, and I never imagined that I would be directing so many successful television shows, and then quitting all that to purse making LGBTQ+ films. If someone had told me this to my younger self, I would have said they are mad! But it is me who is quite crazy chasing my dreams. But then every dream comes with its price, alongwith its bounties.
2) Talk to us about your transition from working for national television to founding your own media house, Solaris Pictures.
Saagar Gupta and I felt that there was no representation of our lives in any mainstream media, in films or on television. I’m speaking about the 90’s. We had pitched a simple gay love story to a channel for an episode in a series and they said they can’t greenlight it because they were a family channel. So Saagar and I decided to move away from television and start our own production company Solaris Pictures in 2001 to produce independent films on subjects that mattered to us. For the past two decades of its existence, Solaris Pictures have been involved with production of 6 films on LGBTQ+ issues, organizing the mainstream KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival for the past 12 years, and also organizing the FLASHPOINT Human Rights Film Festival for 3 years. Our dream to work on our passion project has truly borne fruit.
3) India’s first film on drag queens “Gulabi Aaina”, was applauded for its sensitive portrayal of the marginalized community. What did you have in mind while you were scripting this film on Indian transsexuals?
After founding Solaris Pictures in 2001, we right away started our first LGBTQ+ production Gulabi Aaina (The Pink Mirror), a short film about Indian drag queens. The film was inspired by our community living around us, the alternate family we had formed – of gay men, drag queens and transgender persons – we used to have house parties where drag queens used to dance, and then get into bitchy banters. We wanted our first film to reflect the reality of our beautiful colourful world. So we had two real life drag queens and a real life gay man act in the film – though they were not actually actors, since their characters reflected their lives, they delivered very believable performances. While the film went on to screen at more than 80 film festivals, it was refused a certification by the Indian censor board three times, and remains effectively banned till date. But the film became kind of a cult film, and is part of study materials in many universities in USA.
4) Your next film “Yours Emotionally” raised questions on cultural identities and stereotypes pertaining to the hugely closeted Indian Gay Community. What drove you to choose this theme?
Since our first film was effectively banned in India by the censor board, we decided to go all out and make a film about desire and love. And we wanted to remove this entire sanitization around gay relationships – that it is all about love, and not about sex. Yours Emotionally is a complex story of two gay boys coming from UK to a small town in India and falling in love with a local boy who is all set to marry a woman. The complexities of their identities and the relationships have been treated in a surreal manner. This was the first time in Indian cinema that boy love was explored with such candidness, not only exploring love, but also exploring the lust. There was also a beautiful sub plot about two elderly gay men living together as ‘partners’ in a conservative society that abhorred gay relationships. This film not only addressed stereotypes about sexual identities, but also about racial identities.
5) In “68 Pages” you have tried to delicately weave the stigma faced by HIV patients with the problems faced by the marginalized communities. How difficult it was to intersperse these two overtly sensitive topics?
We wanted to tell stories of HIV+ persons from the marginalized communities, who face double discrimination – for being who they are and for being HIV+. While we were advocating for an empathetic perception of HIV+ persons we also wanted to advocate for less marginalization of stigmatized communities – be it a transwoman, a gay man, a female sex worker, a drug user or a lower-caste sweeper. And we wanted to change attitudes towards them, by making these characters real and believable, and thereby ‘normalize’ their sexualities.
I have always believed in subverting the tropes by presenting these marginalized characters in the same genre of mainstream dramatic storytelling format (with songs et al), but giving these characters central space and making their stories relatable. Also if you give respect to the characters in your narrative, the audience will start giving respect to these characters in real life.
6) Your documentary “Purple Skies” depicts the opinions of lesbians, bisexuals and trans men in India. It is also the first documentary on LGBT topics to be screened on a national network. How was the feeling?
After the Nirbhaya gang rape incident, PSBT, an organization in New Delhi put out a call for proposals for documentary films that highlighted violence against women. We felt that violence against lesbian & bisexual women and transmen should be part of this and we proposed Purple Skies. It was really challenging finding lesbian & bisexual women and transmen to come out openly on camera and speak about their lives – since they face double discrimination, firstly as a woman in a patriarchal society, and secondly because of their sexuality and gender. We wanted to highlight not only the struggles and anguish of the LBT+ community but also their hopes and victories. The film features a beautiful relationship between a bisexual woman and a lesbian woman which is a joy to watch and hear.
When Purple Skies became the first film on lesbian & bisexual women and transmen to be screened on Doordarshan, India’s National Television Network, we were greatly elated, but also anxious, since we also understood the challenges the protagonists who shared their stores so candidly may face. So we had a counsellor on hand in case any of the protagonists face any trauma. Thankfully there were none. There were also hundreds of calls to the helpline number we had listed, so we realized the film had reached its intended audience and also created an impact.
While Purple Skies touched briefly upon Sec 377, the law that criminalized homosexuality, our next documentary feature Breaking Free delved deep into finding out why, how and what made such a draconian law push the Indian LGBTQ+ community underground. Using a personal narrative with me as a spokesperson, the film strings together interviews of lawyers and LGBTQ+ community leaders, alongwith true-life stories of those actually victimized by the law. The film also traces the history of Sec 377 from the time it was introduced during the British Raj, through the reading down of it in 2019 by Delhi High Court, till it being reinstated again by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Breaking Free was accorded the National Award for Best Editing (non-fiction) in 2015, no mean feat for a LGBTQ+ film. The film also travelled to around 18 film festivals including the prestigious International Film Festival of India and was released on Netflix in 2016 for 3 years.
7) “Evening Shadows” is very vivid and painful portrayal of dogmatic Indian society, it’s restrictive nature and the patriarchal mentality. Explain your vision behind this movie?
While Saagar and I have been making films about the LGBTQ+ community through our company Solaris Pictures for almost 15 years, we felt we haven’t really focussed on where it matters – on the family of LGBTQ+ persons, pivotal stakeholders. since India is such a family oriented society. So we decided to make Evening Shadows, a film about a gay son coming out to his mother in a small town in India, but more about how the mother deals with the truth and stands up against her tyrannical husband. It is so complicated for mothers from conservative patriarchal societies to even understand their son/daughter’s sexuality, let alone accept it.
Evening Shadows was made with a modest budget pooled from 180 contributors across the world. We made it primarily for Indian audiences. Little did we expect that the film will travel to 75 international film festivals and win 24 international awards, not only for best film, but also best director, best actress, best cinematography and best costume! Over its festival run and also its run on Netflix and Emirates Airlines, we have been flooded with messages how the film changed their lives, with people watching it for 5 to 7 times! And not just from LGBTQ+ community members and their families, but also general families who do not have a gay son or daughter, but have found resonance with the conflict between two generations.
8) What was the motivation behind founding The Humsafar Trust, the first gay NGO in India?
In the early 90s when everything was still underground and hush-hush about homosexuality, Ashok Row Kavi broke the bubble, coming out as a gay man and starting India’s first gay newsletter Bombay Dost in 1990 alongwith Suhail Abbasi. It so happened that I was still in the closet and had not whispered about me being gay to anyone – not even to myself! And it also so happened that Suhail was my classmate!
When I read the first edition of Bombay Dost, my life changed dramatically, because what was hidden till then was out in the open. It gave me courage to come out of the closet and confide in my friend Suhail that I was gay. Soon one thing turned into another and I joined the magazine as a board member, as a designer and also started editing content.
In 1994, Ashok, Suhail and I decided to found The Humsafar Trust as a support group for gay men, with the simple mission of bringing together gay men at a safe space where we could interact socially and discuss our lives, and support each other. We were the first registered organization for gay men and conducted the first HIV/AIDS program for testing and care for gay men. From then on The Humsafar Trust has grown to be one of the premiere organization working for the full spectrum of LGBTQ+ community with research, advocacy, counselling, testing and support facilities.
9) You are the Festival Director of KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, one of the top five LGBTQ film festivals in the world. Although Mumbai is a diaspora of multiculturalism, organizing a queer festival isn’t an easy feat. How impactful it has been?
We started KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival with the idea of mainstreaming queer visibility by taking LGBTQ+ films to mainstream audiences through a festival held in a mainstream theatre. We founded the festival in 2010 and getting permission to host the first edition in a mainstream theatre was really challenging because there was no precedent of a LGBTQ+ film being screened in a theatre (apart from the film Fire, to dire consequences). Also finding the financial resources to organize such a huge event, when support by corporate to LGBTQ+ events was unheard of. From then on the festival has grown in stature and size over the past 12 years of its existence, to not only become an important LGBTQ+ film festival in India and the world, but also a cultural landmark in Mumbai every year. It has become an important platform to nurture Indian LGBTQ+ cinema with all round facilities of exhibition, production & distribution. Apart from facilitating exhibition of Indian LGBTQ+ films at film festivals across the world and at colleges & community events in India, the festival also offers a grant to emerging Indian filmmakers to make their short film. We have produced 6 films, supported by Lotus Visual Productions.
KASHISH has not only become a safe space for LGBTQ+ community, alongwith their families & friends to enjoy watching films and interacting with each other, but also for the 30% non-LGBTQ audiences a space to discover LGBTQ+ films that dispel their myths and misunderstandings.
10) Do you think that Cinema can change the radical Indian mindset about the LGBTQ community. Did abolishing Section 377 bring about any positive reforms?
Being an optimist I would definitely like to say yes. I strongly believe that films have the power to catalyse change in attitudes, but not sure if they can change deep rooted dogmas instantly. It takes several films to bring in positive attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community, and it is happening right now. We are seeing more sensitive portrayals both in independent and mainstream cinema, which has the power to at least make people reflect about their own prejudices. If I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t be making films, or organizing a film festival!
Reading down of Sec 377 certainly lifted the cloud of criminality from above the community’s head. It has emboldened LGBTQ+ persons to be out and proud, albeit in their own social circles or on social media. So many youngsters have come out to their family. But has acceptance by family members increased after reading down of Sec 377. Perhaps in metro cities to some extent, but in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities and towns, the mindset hasn’t changed – most people still think of homosexuality as something perverse or sinful, and transsexuality as an aberration.
11) Same sex marriages are still not legalized in India. What is your personal opinion about this issue. Do you think that the LGBTQ community might receive a possible reprieve in the near future?
I have seen changes in my lifetime which I didn’t expect at all. I mean in 1980s and 1990s when the LGBTQ+ rights movement really took shape in India, who would have thought that within 20 – 30 years, so quickly, we will have freedom from centuries old law like Sec 377. So I’m sure same-sex marriage rights will also come by, in whatever form, and I hope to marry my partner of 26 years Saagar Gupta. I mean we are practically married, being together for so many years, but we need the law to recognize our partnership, so we can have right over each other property and bodies. We should definitely have the right to take care of our partner in the hospital and not be shunted out because we are not a recognized spouse.
12) Several international OTT platforms like WeTV, Viu, Viki and GagaOOLala, are actively promoting LGBTQ content. Will India ever have this kind of media experience?
India will very soon have its LGBTQ+ OTT platform and hopefully KASHISH will either found it or help facilitate major programming on it. But the idea is to also have Indian LGBTQ+ films on non-LGBTQ+, I mean mainstream, platforms so that the issues and messages in these films reach to the common audience.
13) Will you be interested in producing a queer web series or television show catering to the broad minded demographics?
Something is already cooking – definitely not a television show since television in India is still so regressive. A LGBTQ+ web series that is massy is definitely on the cards. But just to appeal to a broader audience I cannot compromise on my gay gaze!
14) We have a lot of BL fans and members of the LGBTQ+ community as our avid readers. Do you any advice or message to share with them?
If you are from the LGBTQ+ community, I would like to say is ‘never fear anyone, and be true to yourself’. And if you happen to be an Ally, then my request is ‘not to fear us, and let us be true to ourselves’!
The BL Xpress would like to thank Mr.Sridhar Rangayan for this opportunity!
☆ Krishna’s Sidenote- Evening Shadows recently won the “Best LGBTQ Feature Film” at the YathaKatha International Film & Literature Festival in Mumbai. This is the 25th Award won by this phenomenal film. Heartiest Congratulations to the cast and crew!