As the world celebrates pride month, the US Consulate General of Mumbai, went live on Facebook on June 26, 2020, to converse with two legendary pride filmmakers, Tim Wolff and Faraz Arif Ansari, on the changing perceptions of the LGBTQIA+ Community through film. The session was moderated by Alexander Hunt, vice council, US Consulate General, Mumbai.
India has seen two historic verdicts with regard to the queer community – one in 2014, where the Supreme Court recognized ‘trans’ as the third gender, and one much recently in 2018, where Article 377 of the Indian Constitution was abolished.
The live stream started with a brief introduction to the panelists, after which, the viewers were shown the trailers of ‘Sisak’, India’s first LGBTQIA+ silent film, directed by Ansari and ‘Sons of Tennessee Williams’ a 2010 documentary, of gay men in New Orleans who created a vast culture around ‘drag balls’, directed by Wolff.
Films and the media play an important role in influencing and changing perceptions of many people. Filmmakers today are responsible, to become tools of change for the community at large. “People today look up to cinema to learn, unlearn, both consciously and unconsciously. Cinema helps us all evolve into an accepting civilization”, said Ansari. According to Wolff, “Films have a strong power to change the mindset of people. Showing the everyday life of the LGBTQ community will lead to more conversations and reports around the same.”
After article 377 was abolished, India saw the release of two mainstream films, namely, ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ and ‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan’, both starring mainstream actors, and touching upon the topic of the LGBTQIA+ community. When asked if the depiction of these characters was accurate, Ansari said, “The whole perception of ‘mainstream’ needs to be redefined. It puts films in boxes, which shows how the larger understanding of cinema has been. Queer content is largely guided by commercial success. It is still not mainstream and hence perceptions need to change.” According to him, both these films have opened conversations, but there is a long way to go for proper representation of the queer community.
When asked if representations often perpetuate stereotypes, Wolff said, “There is always a stock file you borrow from while creating your character. Back in the 70s, people from the queer community were shown to be criminals on screen.” He took the example of the 1991 film ‘Silence of the Lambs’ in which the antagonist, who plays a trans character, is a criminal. “However, today we must realise that the actors are more about the character they play, and gender should not be questioned.”
With more releases on OTT streaming platforms in today’s age, Hunt asked Ansari if they normally do have potential in opening up a conversation about the queer community. “Given how India is, queer films should not release only on OTT platforms. It should also be on the big screens, joining the 100-crore club of many Bollywood films. It should also be shown on Indian television, that, definitely has the potential to make conversation.” According to him, Indian television has never had true honest queer representation at all. “We cannot be using comedy as a tool to get away with queer characters anymore. Despite having two mainstream films with mixed reactions, there is still a long way to go to humanize and transform how people are represented, which will eventually open conversation”, said Ansari.
Both the filmmakers agreed that struggling with producers and finding funds was a very big problem. “Having a bigger budget and a crew would definitely make my documentary more visible”, said Wolff.
The live stream also had the option for viewers to ask the panellists questions. One such question asked by a viewer was how one could make films or literature for children to educate them about the LGBTQIA+ community. According to Wolff, “Documentaries are the best way to educate children about such topics. A documentary, perhaps, on gay parenting can help teach children and also explain the parent-child relationship.” Ansari answered the question by recommending a book titled, “Elfie the Elephant” which explores the relationship of a non-binary elephant with his friends.
As the live stream came to an end, Hunt asked both the filmmakers one last question. He asked, “What is something you are too scared to try in your work?”
Wolff said that he was still trying to normalise the current representation of the queer community in films. “However, an intimacy between LGBTQIA+ people is something very difficult to get on screen, but is being explored by the media.”
The ‘Sisak’ director, on the other hand, spoke about his second film, Sheer Qorma which according to him, was ‘very off-limits’. “I tried to reflect faith in my film and in India, sexuality and faith, are very apart, and that is something I would want to work on.” He added that he also wanted to make an animated film for children. “It is about time to make animated queer fairy tales happen.”
It is quite evident that with changing times, films are also trying to bring in new stories with characters belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community. If conversations around the same continue to build up, in the future there will definitely be a proper representation of such characters. However, for now, we are yet to see social change driven by film.