“You know my family. My dad. My brother. And the society we live in. They can’t accept same-sex relationships as normal till today.”
The lead character says these lines to his partner in the stirring trailer of the Manipuri movie Oneness, by filmmaker Priyakanta Laishram. Oneness is Manipur’s first mainstream film on same-sex relationships, says Laishram.
Laishram, who broke norms young by coming out as queer and wearing make-up in conservative Manipuri society, said he was often called “homo”, a slur, by many classmates in school because he was more interested in the performing arts.
“In Manipur, the word ‘homo’ is used to describe transgender individuals,” Laishram told Scroll in an interview. “I knew I wasn’t transgender, but I also had no idea who I was. I was going through a sexual identity crisis, and I had no one to turn to.”
“It was through my work and movies that I finally discovered my voice and could express myself most authentically,” said Laishram.
Laishram moved to Chandigarh at the 16 where racism was intertwined with the discrimination he faced as a queer individual. He also studied for a few years in Mumbai and his experiences and identity have been shaped by both cities.
Four films later – with Oneness being the fourth – Laishram has much to be proud of, but his estranged relationship with his father haunts sometimes as he waits to see the words “papa calling” on the screen of his phone. “It’s been ages,” he said.
Excerpts from an interview:
As a queer person, what was it like growing up in Manipur?
I grew up in a neighborhood full of boisterous alpha males. Nowhere in my immediate environment – family, school, playground, or tutoring centress – had I ever heard the words gay, lesbian, or queer. We had a very limited understanding of transgender individuals since we saw them as actors in Shumaang Leela [a Manipuri theatre form] and as make-up artists and costume designers. There was no concept of sexuality. Therefore, I had no idea what any of the terms meant.
I’ve always felt cut off. I was referred to as “homo” [a slur] by many of my classmates in high school right off the bat because I was more interested in performing arts. I can recall numerous times crying on my way home from school and on the playground. It caused a lot of pain. There were times when I had to inform my physical education instructor in high school that I was ill and would not be attending his sessions because I was tired of the bullying I was receiving from the boys.
In Manipur, the word “homo” is used to describe transgender individuals. I knew I wasn’t transgender, but I also had no idea who I was. I was going through a sexual identity crisis, and I had no one to turn to. I’ve always been flamboyant and expressive like I am now. I attempted wearing makeup for the first time in 2011, using only compact powder and tinted lip balm. A male teacher from my high school once dragged me out of the classroom and forced me to wash my face with tainted water from the toilet. I was traumatised by that incident for a very long time. I was so frightened of being condemned once more for my decisions that I didn’t even notify my family. I was in tears and couldn’t sleep for days.
It was through my work and movies that I finally discovered my voice and could express myself most authentically. Even today, I still experience severe cyberbullying and trolls because of my queer identity in the film industry, how I dress and the movie content I create.
You have used video and films as a means to express queerness. Tell us about that journey, what made you do that, and what kind of reception you received.
My filmmaking journey so far has had two phases. I was nine-years-old when I began making films with a Nokia N70 mobile phone, for which I received the ‘Youngest Filmmaker 2009’ and ‘Manipur’s Rising Star’ titles by Nokia and ANI.
When I made those films, I was a child. Therefore, they had a stronger kid vibe.
The second phase began after my senior secondary education. Sexual identity crisis, sexual harassment/abuse, mom’s ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurological disease] diagnosis and her death, living by myself in Chandigarh and Mumbai, exploring my sexuality, coming out, and dad’s remarriage – many such life-altering events occurred between the first and second phases of my filmmaking journey, and I also discovered who I was.
It started with It’s Not My Choice (2015), based on the narrative of a young Manipuri transgender person. The idea for the film began to take root in my head while I was in Chandigarh when I met some of my sister’s transgender friends (my sister is a fashion designer and she formerly resided in Chandigarh) and a dear friend of mine who was shunned by his family members for being effeminate.
For the first time, I discovered that my films might serve as a platform for both expressing my authentic self and speaking up about societal topics that are either considered taboo or shameful in our society.
There hasn’t been a halt since then. My own experiences as a boy who wears makeup and wears gender-neutral clothing and the kind of prejudice, mistreatment, and disparaging remarks I encountered served as the basis for my 2018 film, Who Said Boys Can’t Wear Makeup. Through the film, I made an effort to speak out against stereotyped behaviors and norms.
When I was in the 12th grade and staying at a boy’s PG in Chandigarh, I had a horrible and sad incidence of sexual harassment/abuse by two men that left me distraught for years. I was made fun of and told I was a boy when I told the PG owner about the incident. ‘You will not get pregnant. Don’t stir up trouble,’ he said and walked away. I was helpless. I felt worthless.
Later in 2019, I took a stand to speak out against similar harassment with my movie The Foul Truth, which was based on the horrible tale of a boy who was raped and sexually molested as a child. Both films were the first-ever films from North East India to deal with the topics of gender neutrality and male rape, respectively.
Likewise, all my films have witnessed how I have grown up. They have given me the voice I never had, the voice suppressed by the general public and the mainstream media, and they helped me to understand others and myself better. The responsibility I feel as a filmmaker today makes me more and more aware of the issues of society, who I am as a person, and what I need to do as a filmmaker.
Due to my unconventional movie choices, I have been an easy target for harassment and trolls coming to the reception. The audience in Manipur who has been seeing commercial Manipuri films, which are no less than the flag bearers of sexism and misogyny, is entirely alien to the type of films I make. However, I am glad that a lot of people also comprehend what I am attempting to accomplish and transmit, and why I am doing what I am doing. One step at a time. Baby steps.
You have a feature film ready to be released later this year. What is it about? How did you fund it?
Yes, Oneness. It is the first gay-themed movie in Manipur. The film is based on the terrible real-life account of a gay youth from Manipur named Ivan Martin [name changed], who was murdered by his brother because of his sexual orientation. I was surprised when the victim’s cousin first contacted me and shared the tale because it was a very unusual occurrence that I had never thought would happen in Manipur. I was writing a couple of different scripts centred on same-sex relationships when the idea for the movie’s plot suddenly struck me.
Given that it captures our reality, I believe it to be a crucial story of our time. It’s high time we started producing more films about these subjects. Since I am constantly interested in marginalised and underrepresented communities, I believe this tale found me more than the other way around.
Regarding finances, I was unable to locate any producers willing to provide funding for my films given the nature of my genre. I have always been an independent filmmaker. Before Oneness, I was the only producer of every movie I made. I always put all of my paltry savings – awarded money from domestic and international film festivals, social media brand promotions, advertisements, individual savings, and YouTube revenue – into my films. I also had assistance occasionally from my dear sister.
Fortunately, after two years of struggles to produce Oneness, my partner, Roushil Singla, supported me with the finances. He genuinely shared my idea and was willing to come on board as one of the main producers. We are now the producers of the movie: Roushil Singla and I. Having said that, we are still working hard on the distribution, and I am hoping everything works out.
How supportive has your family been to you? Have you had to seek refuge, help, and friends from outside the immediate family and the extended circle of relatives?
I wish I could have answered this question simply, but my heart always skips a beat and I have to take a deep breath whenever I see/hear this question. I find the word “family” to be incredibly complex. Things have been really difficult ever since my mother passed away and our father remarried. It just feels that our father has lost the connection with us, even though my sister and I tried our best to bridge this strange gap between us. Although it hurts, this is life and we are okay with it.
When my mother was alive, I was still in high school and unsure about my sexual identity. But now that I am out in the open, I feel that my sister [Caroline Laishram] is all I have. Each of us has the other’s back. She is completely in tune with me. I don’t even need to use words to express anything. Just from my gestures, my sister can comprehend me. Every time I visit my hometown for a few weeks or months, I have been taking sanctuary in my sister’s house for the past few years. I feel most secure at her house.
But you know, Sharif, deep down, I also secretly want our father to revert to his previous self so that I could see ‘Papa Calling’ on the screen of my phone. It’s been ages.
You moved to Chandigarh some years ago. Has it been easier being queer in Chandigarh than in your home state given that parts of India are known for racism against folks from the northeastern states?
I moved to Chandigarh for my senior secondary education when I was 16 years old. I’m not sure if “easier” is the right word. There were both “easy” and “hard” parts to it since I’ve encountered numerous difficulties ever since I moved to the city. There were no other North Eastern students at my school. There was just me. I experienced racism on multiple occasions, and one incident even sparked a protest within the school premises. In addition, the two men who harassed me sexually at my PG caused me anguish for years as I also struggled to come to terms with the reality that my mother was dying, which brought me down.
But it was in this city, Chandigarh, where I first discovered who I truly am, where I first began to explore my sexuality, where I first began to interact with a few queer people, and where I discovered some amazing friends for life who don’t criticise me for who I am.
Then, in 2015, I switched to Mumbai for my bachelor’s degree, where I developed a more open, exposed, and flamboyant personality. I began to dress in gender-neutral attire. I got to know a few queer personalities, and for the first time, I got invited to speak on panels and attend pride events in Mumbai, which made me feel like I belonged and was moving in the right direction. In 2019, I returned to Chandigarh, and I’d say both cities have given me the skills I needed to be self-sufficient, independent, and pleased with my life.
If you were to choose between anti-discrimination laws, the kind that would have given you a safer youth over marriage equality, what would you choose – either, or, both?
I would go with both. We need comprehensive anti-discrimination laws given the difficult experience we all had growing up as queer people amid all the hate, lack of legal recognition, limited legal protection, and discrimination. Every year, thousands of queer people are killed or badly hurt in hate crimes all over the world. Discrimination is still widespread and can manifest itself in subtle ways. I find it very discouraging.
Our legal system must be equipped to safeguard and advance all human rights for everyone. And I do believe that when we discuss anti-discrimination laws, we also discuss marriage equality. The freedom to marry whomever one chooses should belong to everyone. The lack of legal recognition of same-sex marriage not only denies us social and legal benefits but also leaves us more open to prejudice and violence.
Legal recognition, in my opinion, will pave the way for social acceptance. We just cannot wait for society to take notice. They might wait for a long time before recognising same-sex marriage because doing so has no bearing on heterosexual couples’ rights, and they might never take into account the discrimination that same-sex couples face daily or the fact that we do not enjoy the fundamental rights that come with the recognition of marriage. It needs to be legalised.
Sharif Rangnekar is the author of Straight to Normal and Queersapien. He is also the director of the Rainbow Literature Festival.
This article is part of the Queer & Inclusive series.