When filmmaker and advertising professional Joydeep Sarkar points out that stories have been told by cis-het men and that needs to change urgently, his own work reflects these ideals powerfully.

From the show Rainbow Rishta to a series of convention-bending advertising campaigns, Sarkar has blazed a trail.

“I have always liked a panga here and there,” says Sarkar, in an interview. “I have walked into many patriarchal boardrooms, where the decision makers are afraid to upset the status quo of the middle-class Indian family.” It is precisely here that I enjoy shaking things up, the most, he says.

“If I am making a commercial for a malt drink, I’ll change the protagonist from a boy to a girl,” says Sarkar. “If it’s the story of a parent concerned for their child’s nutrition, I’ll change the concerned parent from a mother to a father.”

Unfortunately, he says, there isn’t enough work in today’s films and shows that explore gender. Its the bad clichés, and especially crass “cross-dressing humour” that rankles the most.

“All my friends who are non-binary or trans or intersex are some of the most fun and fierce people I know,” says Sarkar. “But we rarely see this reflected in films or shows.”

With Rainbow Rishta, Sarkar set out to do just that. “I wanted to explore and understand what living and loving as a queer person in India today was truly like,” said Sarkar.

With the pen in the hands of queer folx, gender expression in films and television shows will evolve, feels Sarkar. For Sarkar, queer actors playing straight characters – and warriors and wanderers and lovers and wizards and vampires – is the way forward.

“It is absolutely appalling that cis-het man after cis-het man keeps playing trans parts without even a basic understanding of the experience,” said Sarkar. “Choose good actors, not stars who want to win an award riding on trans trauma.”


When you look at a democracy, the role of various institutions, the idea of freedom, evolution and expression are obviously critical. In that context, how do you view the visual media (including cinema, television, advertising etc) and its artistic exploration of gender? Has the exploration been liberating and freeing in the way you'd want it to be?

Culturally, the Indian subcontinent has largely been pluralistic. Explorations of gender and sexuality can be found in our histories and mythologies. But then came the reductionist colonial powers and these nuances were erased, hidden and criminalised. We are still reeling from this colonial hangover!

Unfortunately, in today’s films and shows, I don’t think there is enough work happening that is exploring gender. The expression of the non-binary is hardly there. Apart from Nagarkirtan and Super Deluxe, I don’t think I have seen anything that has felt like it challenged the status quo. Many of the trans, intersex or non-binary characters that we see in our movies are caricatures, emerging from a poor understanding of the gender spectrum.

Very often, anyone who falls outside the binary is still seen as a freak. In many films, you will encounter an intersex character who will pull out a knife and brutally murder someone as if that is an extension of their identity. Why does this still happen? I think it’s because people still fear the “other”. And non-binary, intersex and trans folx are still ‘the other’ for a large part of the population.

The true evolution of gender expression will happen when the pen gets passed on to trans, intersex and non-binary storytellers, and that is yet to happen in films and shows. We need more intersex filmmakers, trans technicians and non-binary writers. Stories have been told to us by cis-het men for far too long and we need to change that urgently. There are, however, some sparks in the current media landscape that give me tremendous hope. Ektara Collective’s Ek jagah apni si made by trans filmmakers is one such shining example. A tale of trans folx told by trans folx – as raw and as real as it gets. It is definitely a huge step forward.

But these examples are few and far between and this is not how it should be. Many a times, even when well-intentioned non-trans people tell trans stories, one can sense a patronising tone, struggling to understand the trans experience. I feel this patronising tone robs the characters of their magic. All my friends who are non-binary or trans or intersex are some of the most fun and fierce people I know. But we rarely see this reflected in films or shows. Presenting them just as victims is such a travesty. I feel we have plateaued with these villain-victim tropes, unfortunately.

What hurts most actually is the “cross-dressing” humour trope that is employed even now. One of India’s biggest shows on a major platform still evokes laughter with characters where men are dressed as bitchy, catty, intellectually-stunted women. It’s sexist and queerphobic and yet the numbers for the show are shooting through the roof. This is deeply distressing and symptomatic of where we are with the gender conversation in the mainstream.


You’ve been part of the advertising world for a long time and the primary focus of ads is to market, sell and get people to consume a product or a lifestyle. Often ads propagate one idea of family and therefore aren’t inclusive. Being queer, how have you tried to address this issue and find your way around it?

Advertising is a rather tough tightrope to walk, which is what makes it so exciting for me. You have to play with the familiar in order to reach out to the largest audience, and yet your work has to be disruptive for that audience to truly sit up and notice. You have to say something new and yet not alienate them. It’s like serving new wine in an old bottle or old wine in a new bottle. Don’t change the wine and the bottle, they will outright reject it.

I have always liked a panga here and there. I have walked into many patriarchal boardrooms, where the decision makers are afraid to upset the status quo of the middle class Indian family. It is precisely here that I enjoy shaking things up, the most. If I am making a commercial for a malt drink, I’ll change the protagonist from a boy to a girl. If it’s the story of a parent concerned for their child’s nutrition, I’ll change the concerned parent from a mother to a father.

Visuals of a father getting their child ready for school or a mother returning late from work should not be so revolutionary, and yet they are! And often, when done right, these changes really strike a chord with the audience. A lot of middle-class India, double-income nuclear families feel seen by the brands who are in touch with how Indian family structures are changing.

One of the campaigns I am most proud of is a De Beer’s campaign I did with JWT Mumbai. In the jewellery segment, the dominant narrative has, for long, been a man showing his love for his woman by buying her jewellery. Jewellery has been equated to how precious she is to him. Sweet yet sexist, these films were losing touch with reality. In 2018, we did a campaign for De Beers’ where these women were building their own lives and buying themselves jewellery with their own money and it had nothing to do with how men saw their worth, but how they wanted to celebrate themselves.

The campaign resonated deeply with the brand’s clientele and the numbers reflected in the sales. It is hard to find this balance of capitalism and “revolution” and that is precisely why I love advertising.

Do you think market economics is a constraint as it leads more and more filmmakers and advertisers to play safe with scripts, stories and actors?

I have to say this in Hindi – “Yeh chalchitra hai. Yeh chalni chahiye”. We cannot ignore market economics if we want to reach larger audiences and make an impact with our work. But very often, the pursuit of numbers, box office success, viewership, followers and TRPs lead us to a point where most of our stories are simplified and sensationalised.

Nuances are ignored and deeper explorations of sexuality or gender are actively avoided, in order to make the piece of work more “palatable” for a large audience. This trepidation of whether the audience is “ready” or will it offend someone, is detrimental to the work and the community it represents. It leads us to very reductionist storytelling.

Tropes like “funny gay sidekick” or “evil intersex villain” will get the viewership because it plays to the stereotypes that have been perpetuated for far too long. So filmmakers will fall back on these tropes to reach a wider audience. But in the effort to “play it safe”, they end up creating yet another dreary piece of work. And in the name of “representation”, this film or show has gone and taken the conversation many steps backward for the queer community.

I feel films or shows don’t work when you play it safe, but when you take risks, when you take decisions from the gut. Without challenging these done-to-death stereotypes, and without taking any risks, we won’t be able to make anything breakthrough that works for both the box office and the critics.

This has happened very rarely, but when it has, it has been splendid and remarkable. Jeo Baby’s Kaathal starring Mammoothy is one such fine example of a big star putting his might behind a queer love story and the film smashing the box office charts. So it’s possible, but the fear of “image” and perception and stigma hold actors and filmmakers back from telling truly authentic tales.

When many Hindi film actors refused Kapoor and Sons, Fawad Khan was cast as the gay protagonist. That film, that character and the actor will go down in history as a milestone in queer cinema. Not some actor who donned a sari, wore some bad makeup and pretended to be a villainous abuse-spewing intersex trope. Market economics will only reward those who take the risks and very few people are taking those risks today.

One of the most hotly-debated matters is about queer representation, particularly in front of the lens. That is queer folks playing queer roles, in a sense creating opportunities as well as bringing authenticity to a story. A counter argument to this is that authenticity can be brought to the fore through scripts and direction too. Another is that queer folks may and would like to play more roles than just a queer person. How do you view this debate?

I feel queer folx should play not just queer characters, but also straight characters. They should play warriors and wanderers and lovers and wizards and vampires. I don’t see any merit at all in creating more boxes, where we set out to smash the ones that exist. You don’t have to be an alien to play ET. I want trans women to play cis-het parts as well.

Why should Trinetra only play trans characters? She has the ethereal presence of Smita Patil, the grace of Shabana Azmi and the charm of Nargis. It shows your lack of imagination if you can’t imagine her as the lead of your cis-het love story. It is absolutely appalling that cis-het man after cis-het man keeps playing trans parts without even a basic understanding of the experience. That needs to change. Choose good actors, not stars who want to win an award riding on trans trauma.


What is more important is that queer folx start telling their stories. For two reasons, one because the current tone of queer films and shows are often terribly offensive and get it very wrong. Only queer filmmakers can come in and course correct this. Secondly, because the queer perspective of the world, of love and desire can truly enrich our cinema and shows.

But that said, a lot of queer actors don’t have access to skill training. It’s not a level playing field for so many trans and intersex actors, who haven’t had access to theatre training or even workshops. This is something that we need to change urgently. We need to create space, so that their incredible talent gets a fair chance. Maybe production houses and studios can support this? Or casting directors and theatre practitioners? We need to change the landscape and make it a fair playing field for all. And this needs to happen fast. Or else, our cinema will remain rudimentary, stunted and poor!

In a market-driven space you made Rainbow Rishta and it has been critically appreciated and even shortlisted for awards. What was unique was the reality TV approach but filled with authenticity and realness. You also went beyond the “popular” queer faces, sort of challenging the typical power structure of representation, who gets heard and seen. How did this series come into being?

I’ve spent most of my work life writing feature films and directing television commercials. Documentary was an absolutely alien turf, till I got the call from Vice studios. Those were the dreary and uncertain times of the lockdown and I just decided to take the plunge into the unknown. I could deliver one thing, story, and I told myself that irrespective of the medium, all I had to do was tell a story.

When the interviews of potential characters started pouring in, I was amazed by the courage, the gumption, the joy each character brought with them. I came out very late in life, and I haven’t had the company of kindred souls, of the queer community around me. This was the first time I was meeting so many people like me, even if through a Zoom window.

As you grow older, your firsts become rarer and rarer, which is why this was so precious from the beginning. This was new, this was a gift and I wanted to milk it. I was ambitious for the scale because this opportunity was a luxury and I knew this was my chance at mounting queer love on a scale that hadn’t been done before, in the Indian mainstream. The crew that came together was just filled with a sort of immense kindness and empathy that I hadn’t encountered before. There was a feeling in the crew that we could be onto something pathbreaking.


As we researched the stories, reality kept defying everything we would plan for the story. For example, Sadam’s arc is nothing like what we imagined it to be. The deeper we looked, the more epic each story became. The characters were raw and the emotions were cinematic. Queer joy hadn’t been celebrated so intimately before. So if we had gotten the chance, we decided to occupy the mainstream unabashedly.

Whether it’s the drone shots over Imphal or Hampi or the kitschy drama of a drag queen in Lajpat Nagar, the grammar of the storytelling was grand and music was the soul of every story. We wanted diversity not just in the queer spectrum, but also the places our characters belonged to. We wanted stories from small town India, as well as metropolitan cities. In a sense, I wanted to tell the story of where India was today, when it came to gender and sexuality. From Guwahati to Bhayandar, from Ranchi to Bengaluru, I wanted to explore and understand what living and loving as a queer person in India today was truly like.

Very often, we would ask each other what genre we were making. This was raw like reality, but never crossed the line of respect for our characters. This wasn’t a documentary. Our use of music and montage belonged more to fiction than non-fiction. Nothing was scripted either. There was never a retake and there was never a prompt. We never really ever had an answer about what genre we were making. And we still don’t!

There is a notion that feminism and queerness overlap. If we look at cinema itself, we’ve seen many more women behind the lens, part of production and scriptwriters. Arguably, this has led to a change in story-telling, the idea of what a man is, the slowly diminishing presence of a hero and a different representation of women besides the visibility of queer folks. Do you think this “overlap” needs to be “exploited” and therefore, are women potentially greater allies?

I think that the queer movement globally stands on the shoulders of the feminist movement. We are united, in the sense that we are staking our claim in a world that has hitherto only belonged to cis-het privileged men. The feminists started questioning these hegemonies first.

I have created some of my most compelling work with women who have relished challenging the patriarchy. Over the past few decades, some of the major voices in advertising agencies have been women, unlike the ’70s and ’80s where the stories were told only by cis-het privileged men.

Women characters who featured in advertising were either put on a pedestal or pitied upon. When the women creative directors started coming in, they started changing writing women with more nuance, making them feel real rather than just Goddesses. These women creative directors challenged the patriarchy of the boardrooms confidently and brought to the table disruptive ideas and characters and scripts.

I have closely worked with Swati Bhattacharya, who headed JWT Delhi and then FCB Ulka for many years. I have seen her consistently move the needle through her work with the biggest brands. Whether it’s addressing female desire through her work for Men’s Horlicks or Slice or bringing mothers out of kitchens and showing them working at laptops. With Nandita Chalam, I created the Forever Mark De Beer’s campaign where the man was an active parent and the woman, an on-call doctor. She didn’t need a man to buy her diamonds, she could buy her own. Inverting gender roles continues to be the most fun part of the work I do in advertising.

When the space starts opening up, the horizons start expanding and the possibilities are endless. And we can’t do this alone. The feminists and the queers are connected through the history of our marginalisation and we are all in this together. We are our biggest allies because we understand what living in a borrowed world feels like! It is with Swati, that I created the Times Out & Proud campaign featuring queer folx claiming their space in the Times of India classifieds.

From the time you came out – you were in the ad world then – to now, what changes have you seen? What disappoints you most?

Advertising’s biggest strength is that it knows that to work, it has to keep its ears to the ground always. If anything, advertising has to be relevant. Brands have come to realise that they need to go beyond the problem-solution, product benefit communication. And this has opened up interesting narratives for us filmmakers. The young audience increasingly wants to connect with the brand’s philosophy. The most fun work I have is when the brand has had the courage to create work that is not just a pamphlet for their product but takes a stand for what they believe in.

The problem is when they do it too obviously or expect applause for standing by a “cause”. This self-aware saviour complex of a brand is very common these days and I find that very disappointing. Like most of the hollow Pride Month stuff. It’s infuriating when companies who have no inclusive policies for the marginalised, suddenly start sporting rainbow colours. It’s when a brand has no philosophy that the obvious exploitation of a subject starts to show. And in most cases, it backfires for them. It’s disappointing that brands still think they can get away with it.

What would you tell young queer filmmakers in terms of a direction and a sense of hope?

In many ways the world is going to nought and yet, in many ways, this is possibly the best of times to be alive. If anyone had told me 10 years ago that I could make a show about queer love, I would have thought they were cracking a rude joke. But a Rainbow Rishta is possible today, because of the many heroes who have made incredible strides up until now. From Sunil Gupta to Onir, Nishit Saran to Rituporno Ghosh, these filmmakers have consistently moved the needle. We are on a long journey and all we can do is walk a few miles confidently, telling our stories without apology. The changes we see may be small today, but it is all adding up. We can’t afford to stop telling our stories anymore.

What next? Is there a Rainbow Rishta two?

As of now, there is no conversation of Rainbow Rishta – two. Also, I have done what I had to with this subject and genre. Of course, there are many more wonderful and powerful stories of queer love to be told, but personally, I am thankful for the catharsis that Rainbow Rishta has been for me.

As I look ahead, I am interested in exploring the politics of desire, whether queer or straight. In our cinema, desire has been explored through a disinterested or sensational lens. The men in our stories are almost always testosterone action figures. Women beyond a certain age are robbed of sexuality and desire.

I want to change that. I want to tell stories of vulnerable men, who are scared of being loved. Men who are un-consoled and hurting. I want to tell stories of women who are not afraid of their desires, or defined by their morality. Marriage, for example, has been sold as the quintessential “happily ever after” in our movies, but it is rarely the case in real life. To explore the complexities of marriage and desire in a long-term relationship excites me tremendously.

But most of all, I want my queer joy to reflect in my work. I prefer to see my world with a pinch of salt, in every scenario. I don’t want to take anything too seriously. In the work that I am developing now, I am finding humour to be a great tool to tell my stories.

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.

Also read:

‘Rainbow Rishta’ review: A docuseries with heart and spunk