Mumbai’s Queer Film Festival Aims To Transform India’s Queer Landscape

So far, Mumbai’s third Kashish Queer Film Festival looks like it’s going off without a hitch. The festival, which runs until the 27th, kicked off last night with a showing of Beginners. The Oscar-winning first selection will set the tone for the rest of the festival, which aims to bring acceptance for LGBT people by normalizing queer identities in film.

The festival’s organizers are putting an emphasis on accessibility this year; they’ve taken the 2012 theme, “For Everyone,” seriously, going so far as to reserve seats for any protesters who show up so that they can learn “what queer is all about.” But in the festival’s three year history, there’s been hardly a whisper of dissent. It’s a far cry from the censorship and vandalism that followed the release of India’s first lesbian film, Deepa Mehta’s Fire, 14 years ago. Members of the right-wing organization Shiv Sena stormed movie theaters, smashed glass, burned posters, and drove out terrified audiences.

But political, economic and cultural changes mean that the city Kashish finds itself in today bears little resemblance to the Mumbai of 1998. This year, festival attendees can expect to find panels, art exhibits, and allies of all stripes along with the 120 international films that will be featured over the course of the week.

While it’s good news from the capital, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of the country is moving in the same direction. Although homosexuality was decriminalized in 2009, Anjali Gopalan, Founder of the NAZ Foundation and arguably India’s most prominent LGBT activist, says that little has changed for queer people who continue to face police harassment, discrimination from doctors and employers and rejection from their families. According to Goplan, laws can only do so much.”What worries me is when we talk about rights, the courts can do very little.”

Which is why celebrations of queer culture like Kashish can do so much to influence the otherwise glacial pace of change in Indian politics. As Goplan points out, it’s not just straight society or Parliament who reject the existence of queer people, many LGBT people struggle with self-acceptance. She underscores the importance of normalizing homosexuality, something the festival’s participants continue to affirm. Jury member Parvin Dabas suggests that moviegoers “watch these movies as cinema and not ‘queer’ cinema. This is what I realized while watching the movies. It is Human Cinema where the characters just happen to be gay.” While encouraging people to look past identities might be easy to criticize as erasure, it’s only half of a two-fold plan to make bring queer to mainstream India.

Festival co-director Sridhar Rangayan look at the festival opportunity to increase LGBT visibility. “One of the constant questions that we still get is – who are these gay and lesbian people we hear a lot in the media these days, what do they look like, what do they do? Are they interested only in sex, are they only activists?”

And what better forum to answer these types of questions? With a quarter of the movies coming from India, local filmmakers are being accepted as authorities on their own lives. The films at Kashish will span the range of queer existence from homophobia in sports to relationships in the urban landscape to family drama. Rather than separating gay from straight or overlooking diversity in favor of embracing conformity as the road to unity, Kashish hopes to blur lines between conventional and queer and transform Mumbai into a city that really is “for everyone.”

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Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

Laura has written 308 articles for us.


  1. This is really interesting, Laura. When I first saw Fire it seemed unbelievable that it could’ve caused such outrage in India. Cool to see some things have changed since then.

  2. I really like this quote specifically, “Jury member Parvin Dabas suggests that moviegoers “watch these movies as cinema and not ‘queer’ cinema. This is what I realized while watching the movies. It is Human Cinema where the characters just happen to be gay.” While encouraging people to look past identities might be easy to criticize as erasure, it’s only half of a two-fold plan to make bring queer to mainstream India.”

    For me, I’m not cognizant at looking through the “LGBTetc” lens or strict boxed-in identities, it’s always a HUMAN lens that I see things through and whether or not I can relate to that particular human individual. I’ve never really had a strong “identity,” whether it’s based on race, sexual orientation, or whatever, like some people often seem to describe and or experience. Interestingly and ironically enough, I usually feel out of place because I don’t have that strong “fervor” and or “gung-ho” attachment like others seem to have toward their more “boxed-in,” identity. I also think it’s quite ironic, when you compare and contrast India’s perspective on sexuality in ancient times prior to colonialism. I actually have a lot more to say about this and can expound upon this article and just identity in general, but this is not the time nor place, plus I’d be here forever. Anyways, I’ve always loved “international” film (even the term “international” is ironic to me) and have not watched Fire yet, it’s been on my “to see” list for awhile and I’m familiar with the outrage that movie caused as well as movies like Water ( It’s also nice that there are directors who are directing films that go beyond the typical Bollywood scripts. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Bollywood movie once in a blue moon and definitely for the laughter aspect, but I also like films that stimulate my mind too, especially when they explore the depths of human expression and experience in full.

  3. thanks for this, laura! my parents are both from mumbai and i was raised there for years. the social atmosphere is progressing so rapidly, it’s almost completely transformed in my life time. but it’s true, cultural traditions lie at the heart of Indian life and they’re cemented, established. it still feels impossible to even consider introducing my Indian family to a girlfriend. but there are SO MANY GAY INDIANS, you guys. i mean….we can only continue becoming MORE visible, which is cool. kashish means attraction in hindi, btw :)

  4. I think part of the problem is that there seems to be a gap between the things people are willing to tolerate in films/ from “other people” and what they’ll accept from someone in their own family. It’s hard culturally because your family’s reputation means so much, and that reputation is based on fitting into x/y/z expectations. It becomes something nobody will talk about. So while it’s good to know things are changing, I’m not sure how optimistic I can be, really.

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