- Dinkar Sharma
- 24 June 2021
Writers can meet, consult, even co-opt community members for LGBTQ+ narratives.
SWA Exclusive interview with writer-director-activist SRIDHAR RANGAYAN
Sridhar Rangayan wears many caps – of a filmmaker, writer, LGBTQ activist and festival director. His award winning films The Pink Mirror, Yours Emotionally, 68 Pages, Project Bolo, Purple Skies, Breaking Free and Evening Shadows present hard-hitting social issues with warmth, compassion and humor; and are at the forefront of India’s emergent queer cinema movement. He is the Founder Festival Director of KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, South Asia’s biggest LGBTQIA+ film festival. He is a founder trustee of The Humsafar Trust, India’s largest LGBTQ CBO, and also a founding facilitator for Sweekar – The Rainbow Parents, a support group for parents of LGBTQ children.
Sridhar talked to SWA about his creative journey and the LGBTQ+ cinema movement.
Tell us about your journey as a filmmaker inclined towards social issues such as, but not limited to, the LGBTQ issues. Would you say you're a filmmaker first and then an activist, or an activist who became a filmmaker to spread his message?
I became a filmmaker by default. When I graduated as an engineer, and then entered IIT Bombay to do my Masters in Visual Communication, filmmaking was not even in my wildest dreams. Films were just something I would go to the theatres with my Mom to watch, or bunk college and go with my friends to watch. It is only in the second year of my Masters that filmmaking was introduced as a subject, and we were given a rudimentary Low-Band Umatic camera and an analog editing system. Only I know the challenges that I had to face to shoot and edit a 60 sec montage! But doing that hooked me onto filmmaking. After passing out of IIT, I joined the Ali Yavar Institute for the Hearing Handicapped as the Mass Media Officer. My colleague and I managed to set up a video unit there to make awareness films. So, that started my filmmaking journey, and also my bent towards making films to create awareness. From then on after completing a short course in film appreciation at FTII Pune, I set out to assist two amazing filmmakers Sai Paranjpye and Kalpana Lajmi, both torchbearers of qualitative cinema. Through them I had a solid foundation to understand cinema and its intricacies. With Sai Paranjpye I learnt to use everyday humour, and with Kalpana Lajmi I learnt how to envisage a grand mise-en-scène.
After branching out as an independent director, and doing hundreds of hours of mainstream television – dramas, comedies, thrillers, etc – I came to the conclusion that there was no space in mainstream media for our own stories, I mean our LGBTQ+ stories. So Saagar Gupta and I started our own production company Solaris Pictures to make exclusively LGBTQ+ content.
So while my efforts at making films on cancer and hearing impairment was born out of an interest in exploring the form of awareness films, my efforts at making LGBTQ+ films is born out of this need to tell our own stories, our own way, to reach the mainstream audiences.
Do you think only a LGBTQ+ person can be an artist focused on LGBTQ+ causes and it's actually very difficult even for writers with abundant imagination to identify with LGBTQ+ experiences without going through them? If yes, do you see any exceptions to this?
Every writer and filmmaker has a right to tell a story using the power of imagination, not necessarily through lived-in experiences. But when it comes to sensitive subjects, like LGBTQ+ narratives, it would be best if the writers/filmmakers consult, or even better co-opt, with someone from the community. I feel only then a more nuanced portrayal is possible, instead of the stereotypical or unidimensional portrayals we see mostly.
Do you see any change, in the past two decades, with the depiction of LGBTQ+ characters in Indian cinema and also the social realities of LGBTQ+ community within the society? In other words, has the cinema been able to make a dent?
I’m happy I’m seeing changes within my lifetime. The community has moved from complete invisibility in the 90s to some level of visibility and empowerment today. I have seen the youth come out in large numbers, claim their identities and speak their mind openly. The legal change in 2018, with the reading down of Sec 377, has been a watershed moment. But I feel mainstream cinema has not kept pace with the rapidly changing aspirations and realities of the LGBTQ+ community. Yes, definitely over the past decade there has been more sensitive portrayal of the community, but these have been few and far apart. But whatever little has been there, has definitely helped in changing popular perceptions about gay men, lesbian women and transgender persons.
What is one big change you wish to see, or bring about, with the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters in Indian cinema?
As a society we have moved from Ignorance about LGBTQ+ issues, to Tolerance. Now it is time to move towards Acceptance, and finally towards Integration of LGBTQ+ persons in the larger fabric of civil society. Cinema has been instrumental in this change, and can surely catalyse further changes.
How do you define yourself as a writer? Are you a director who writes his own scripts, OR, considering your body of work with television, a writer who also directs?
I’m basically a man with a mission – be it through the medium of writing or through making films, television shows or web series, I want to explore every medium to carry forth the stories that are bursting forth within my heart. All I need is avenues and projects to express them. And yes, backing by people who believe in my narratives, would certainly be helpful.
Of all your films, which one is closest to your heart and why?
I would say Evening Shadows, because it is semi-autobiographical, and very close to my heart. The film (streaming now on Netflix) is a heart-warming story of a gay son coming out to his mother in a small town, but more about the mother coming out as a woman within a patriarchal society. The fact that this film is not just about a gay son coming out, but it could be about discordance among two generations in a family, seems to have touched many hearts. After winning 24 international awards and screened at 75 film festivals worldwide, the film still continues to elicit an amazing response, not only from the LGBTQ+ community and their parents, but also general families across the world.
Who are the other LGBTQ+ filmmakers, or writers whom you admire, national and international?
In India I definitely admire Onir who has been consistently championing for LGBTQ+ narratives in his films like My Brother Nikhil, I Am and Shab. Internationally, I love the films of Pedro Almodavar, who manages to weave in LGBTQ+ characters within a larger narrative.
Tell us about the Kashish film festival, its objectives and future plans.
KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, which I co-founded alongwith some close friends in 2010 was meant to be a celebration for the LGBTQ+ community to gather in a safe space and enjoy international LGBTQ+ cinema on the big screen without any apprehensions or anxieties. But it was also meant to engage the mainstream civil society and open their eyes to the realities of LGBTQ+ lives to dispel myths and misconceptions. Over the past 11 years it has managed to find that perfect balance of being a festival by the community for the community, but also a larger cinematic experience for the entire Mumbai audiences. People have described it as one of the most exhilarating experiences of their lives to be able to watch films, mingle with each other, discuss, interact, gossip, find partners, etc etc.!
KASHISH over the years has emerged as a powerful platform for exhibiting, distributing and even producing Indian LGBTQ+ content. Due to the COVID pandemic we had to shift our 2020 festival online, making it the first ever Indian film festival to go online with a full slate of new films. The KASHISH 2021 event is scheduled from August 19th to September 5th as of now online, but if the situation opens up who knows we may be able to do a one or two day ground event. That will be so much fun!
What are your future plans as a writer director?
I hope to expand my horizons and make films that are universally appealing. My next feature, when I get to make it, is a love story between a Jewish American professor and an Indian Muslim Sufi singer titled Songs of Eternal Love. To be shot primarily in California and the backwaters of Kerala, it explores the intersectionality of queerness with religion, faith and spirituality.
What is your message or an insight for non LGBTQ+ writers trying to create more layered LGBTQ+ characters?
Please do thorough research with the LGBTQ+ characters you want to portray, meet some community members, know their inner feelings.
If you are writing a story about a cop, you feel you may know a lot about them through personal interactions, through numerous stories you have read, and the films you have seen. But to write about LGBTQ+ characters, your reference points are so little since so few books or films have managed to bring out true-to-life or sensitive portrayals of the community.
That’s why I say please know them before writing about them, please avoid negative stereotypes, please avoid gay or lesbian or trans bashing. I’m not saying you have to portray LGBTQ+ characters always as ‘goody two-shoes’, but since there is so little representation, a positive empathetic portrayal would do a lot of good, and have the LGBTQ+ community rooting for you, and embracing your film wholeheartedly.
Dinkar Sharma is a freelance writer-director and script consultant. He studied screenwriting at Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. Formerly, he worked with Whistling Woods International as a faculty for Screenwriting. He's a guest script-mentor at FTII and WWI, and guest faculty for recently started FTII short-term script writing courses.