For the first time in its nine-year history, the annual Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival has chosen its home turf, India, as its country in focus. In all, 140 films from 45 countries will screened, of which 33 titles are from India. The festival will be held in Mumbai from May 23-May 27 at Liberty Cinema and Metro Inox.

“This is the year where the highest ever number of Indian films will be shown,” Festival Director Sridhar Rangayan told “In the first first year in 2010, we got around 22 Indian films and screened almost all of them. This year, the submissions were close to 65, out of which we are screening 33 Indian films, both features and shorts.”

This year’s theme is “Together with Pride”. The festival will open with production designer-turned director Vandana Kataria’s Noblemen. An adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the Kunal Kapoor-starrer is about a drama teacher who tries to tackle bullying in an all-boys boarding school. In all, six Indian feature films will be screened at the festival, apart from 23 shorts and four documentaries.

Kunal Kapoor in Noblemen. Image credit: Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival.

Founded in 2010 by Rangayan, Kashish is billed as the largest queer festival in South Asia. But this year’s theme has something to offer to everyone, Rangayan said. “The whole theme of the festival is ‘Together with Pride’ and it goes beyond just the LGBTQ space,” the festival director said. “Each person is different, but is also similar in many ways. Whether you are LGBTQ or heterosexual or fair-skinned, dark skinned, fat or thin, all of us can take pride in who we are. If all of us are able to come together, we could recognise our differences and celebrate that.”

Rangayan said he was excited about the festival’s diverse line-up. “People [from different festivals] usually just focus on the mainstream films and do not focus on so many more independent voices that do not get a theatrical release,” he said. “We are happy to have this fantastic range of films. This was a big break for Kashish.” The international titles include Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland from Sweden and Finland, Jakob M Erwa’s Center of My World and Anatol Schuster’s AIR from Germany, Marcelo Caetano’s Body Electric from Brazil and Pablo D’Alo Abba’s Mater from Argentina.

The Indian feature film line-up offers a mix of genres and movies from various parts of the country.

Suresh Narayanan’s Malayalam film Irattajeevitham is a tale of friendship between two women, Sainu and Amina. Their relationship takes a turn when Amina undergoes a sex reassignment surgery. “It deals with a post-demonetisation phase in a patriarchal society in small town Kerala,” Narayanan said. “In Kerala there are many opportunities for public visibility for a man to change into a trans woman, but not for a woman to become a trans man. I wanted to explore such themes with the film.”

IrattaJeevitham (2018).

Khejdi from Rajasthan explores similar territory. Written and produced by popular television actor Ashish Sharma (Prithvi Vallabh, Siya Ke Ram) and Archana Taide, the movie is based on Kiran Singh’s short story Sanjha about a trans person in Rajasthan.

“The story just stayed in my mind and I used to keep revisiting it in my head since I first read it in 2013,” Sharma said. “The film is about a transgender [person’s] journey. But it can be related [to] by any individual who wants to fit in with the society. It is about fighting the norms and is about the social hypocrisy and how an individual’s system collapses because of the stance that she takes.”

Rangayan’s film Evening Shadows, which has been in production for the past seven years, will also be screened at the festival. Starring Mona Ambegaonkar, Ananth Mahadevan and Devansh Doshi, the crowdfunded film tells the story of a mother who struggles to come to terms with her son’s sexual orientation. The film was recently given a U/A certificate.

“In India anything dealing with homosexuality gets an A certificate,” Rangayan said. “But I appealed to them by saying that the point of making the film was to take it to the middle-class households and that can only happen if it is [eventually] released on television.”

Lokesh Kumar’s Tamil film My Son is Gay also explores the bond between a mother and her queer child. Starring Anupama Kumar, V Jayaprakash, Kishore and Ashwinjith, the film has been co-produced by Anil Saxena and Cyril D’Souza. Kumar found inspiration for the film at a queer film festival in 2013.

“I attended the Bengaluru International Queer Film Festival in 2013 and before that I had not attended such a festival before,” Kumar said. “The festival made me aware about the queer community. I realised that the community was often treated with mockery and insensitivity in the Tamil film industry. So I decided to make a film about the community in an effort to make a change in the society.”

My Son is Gay. Image credit: Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival.

Kumar hopes the film resonates beyond the LGBTQ community as well. “For me the most important thing was to showcase it to the mainstream audience,” Kumar said. “Audiences might be familiar with films such as Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name. But they might not know much about the smaller Indian queer films.”

Rangayan said that many filmmakers are apprehensive about labelling their productions as queer films. “A lot of filmmakers do have that fear,” Rangayan said. “We have had some really great LGBTQ-themed films that did not want to be screened at Kashish. But they did not want to market it as an LGBTQ film. But when the film doesn’t do that well in the box office, they come back to us and the community asking us to promote it. That is very problematic. A mainstream film with gay content is fine. Just by showing it at Kashish, does not make a film a gay film.”

Evening Shadows (2018).

First-time filmmaker Kataria admitted that the “queer film” stamp can lead to hesitation among producers. “I remember when Sridhar first approached us after seeing our work at the NFDC film bazaar, our producers were a little apprehensive thinking it might be detrimental to the film’s release,” Kataria said. “But I actually don’t agree with that.”

While Noblemen delves into a 15-year-old discovery of his sexuality, that is just a part of the film. “The main crux of the story highlights bullying in school,” Kataria said. “The LGBTQ part happens to be a smaller aspect of the story. However, I am hoping that people do not label the film.”

Sharma, whose Khedji will be screened at the festival, said the anxiety over labels is unfortunate. “If your film primarily deals with the subject, why even feel hesitant about being bracketed as a gay film? That is the taboo that we are actually trying to break,” Sharma said. “Even the people who make these films, do not believe in it. That is the exact acceptance you are trying to fight for.”

But there is light at the end of the tunnel, Rangayan said. “There has been hesitations in the past, but the attitudes are changing,” he explained. “The way the audience looks at cinema has changed drastically from the earlier years. They have evolved to look at films which are more nuanced and layered. The number of attendees and the diversity of the audience have increased. In terms of sponsorship, they have been slightly stabilised. There is a continuum of support. A lot of them see it as an initiative to support queer independent cinema instead of a marketing idea.”

Body Electric.