As the fourth Bangalore Queer Film Festival starts on Friday, Gay Star News interviews one of the organisers Poorva Rajaram. She tells us about the experimental short films, a Bollywood blockbuster with a transgender lead and an Indonesian trans superhero film that are on the schedule, and how Indian queer film festivals can benefit from corporate social responsibility.
How long has Bangalore Queer Film Festival been happening?
It actually started in 2003, when it was a much smaller festival and then in 2009 we brought it back fully, over three days with at least 50 movies and 20 countries. In 2003 it was much more intimate and there was some very edgy performances. We basically had no sponsorship then. And since then we’ve got incrementally more sponsorship, but never as much as we’d like – because the films are all free.
Who’s sponsoring it this year?
There was talk of Goldman Sachs, Google. There’s this new thing that definitely wouldn’t have happened in 2003 where Indian branches of these multinational companies have to prove to their western branches that they have LGBT inclusive policies. It fits into this corporate social responsibility thing. So they’re basically on the hunt for LGBT events to sponsor.
In previous years we have got money from UNAIDS India. This year IBM is placing an ad in our brochure. A lot of our money comes from personal donations and various community members making personal efforts to fundraise. Recently Pink Nation, an LGBT entertainment company, threw two fundraising parties for us.
A fundraising party for Queer Azaadi Mumbai in January was broken up by a ‘moral crusader’ who tried to get people arrested. Have you had any trouble from authorities or negative reactions to the film festival?
Thankfully not. In the political climate in India it’s very easy for extremist groups to just latch on to some cause and it turns into a media frenzy. Thankfully it hasn’t happened with us yet. Maybe it’s because right now we’re at this optimum point where we’re not so mainstream that our event will be a target every year, but we’ve made it to being a fixture on the cultural landscape of Bangalore, for both queer and non-queer people. I don’t know how this will change the bigger we get. But right now things seem to be ok, touch wood.
What have you got planned this year? How many films from how many countries?
We have 59 films over three days. One can’t possibly have 59 feature films over three days, many of them are short films. That's actually what I really love about the festival, we have so many short films there is this experimental energy and intensity to a lot of the films shown.
We’ve got movies from 16 countries and one thing we’ve been working on and we hope to get better at is getting more and more Indian films. We have our first mainstream Indian film this year. This is a blockbuster Tamil movie and the protagonist is a Hrjia, which is transgender here. It’s a theatrical horror movie called Kanchana.
Another very exciting thing is that we’re showing movies by Akram Zaatari, an Arab artist. He’s from Lebanon. He’s made both explicitly queer and non-queer films, but his films are really quite special. They do a lot of things with the form of cinema. We’re really thrilled to be showing his film. It’s definitely outside the normal coming-out-story queer film.
This year we have a whole load of Bangalore movies. We have five Bangalore filmmakers and their films.
How do you choose the films?
We have two major concerns. One is balance between films from developed countries and films from the global south and India and south India specifically. And this is a balance we like to keep because it is actually possible to have three days of American movies, but that’s a shortcut we don’t want to take.
The other major concern is balancing experimental films with feel-good films that are more traditional storytelling. Our selection jury includes a couple of academics, college teachers and cultural studies students so debates break-out because they tend to favour the more layered conceptually complex films. And then someone will say we do need that one film that will bring out 500 people.
What film is your personal favourite on the schedule this year, or is there one you haven’t seen that that you’re really looking forward to seeing?
The one I haven’t seen yet that I’m looking forward to immensely is a movie called Madame X which is our opening night premier film. It’s a movie from Indonesia about a trans superhero. It just looks fabulously campy, fabulously entertaining. It has the most exciting posters I’ve seen in three years of the film festival [see trailer below].
In terms of the ones I’ve already seen, I am really excited about our first mainstream Indian movie, Kanchana. I actually did go to the theatre and watched it when it was released. It was fabulously entertaining.
I like the idea of these two parallel streams meeting. The little bubble of queer cinema with what hundreds of thousands of people are watching in theatres. The meeting point of that should be really exciting. What was amazing is that when we wrote to the producers of the mainstream movie they were happy to give it to us. The only thing they said was please don’t charge and that was really heartening.
Is mainstream Indian cinema becoming more accepting of LGBT characters and storylines?
Sure, there’s a lot of empirical evidence to support this. One is a movie from four years ago called Dostana made by India’s most mainstream production house. It was this interesting plot where two men pretend to be gay, for half the movie they act like a gay couple. There’s an interaction with the mother and coming out. The movie ends on a ‘what if?’ note, what if they had been together. And there’s sort of a clever, tongue-in-check, non-imposing way to bring up the theme, because it really was an unbelievably mainstream movie.
Recently actually there’s an openly gay director breaking into Bollywood, Onir who made this film called I Am which is four parallel stories – one of the stories tackles child abuse, one the Kashmir issue. And that movie got a commercial release.
At some level it’s Bollywood co-opting queer films, because right now the media will cover anything queer, and usually quite positively. But we just have to be wary so we can preserve the little experimental films that we’ve come across from different parts of the country and those are really special.
How does the award process work? Who's on the jury?
We pick culturally notable people in the city and so far no one really has said no to us, which is really nice. This year we have one of Bangalore’s finest journalists. We have two filmmakers and a jury of all women, just coincidentally.
And it's not just films, you also have photography exhibitions and performances, can you tell me about them?
The location we use has a lovely atrium that lets us curate a fully-fledged photo exhibition. We were lucky to collaborate with a photographer called Akshay Mahajan. He’s quite famous, he used to work for the Wall Street Journal, for being a pulse on young India. He’s curated the exhibition for the last two years. This year we’re premiering the works of a photographer from Bangladesh, Gazi Nafis Admed.
The photography exhibition is hugely important to us because through our queer networks we know of a lot of photography being done that just wouldn’t get a gallery showing. And we really want to make sure we give space to that kind of photography – very contemplative photography that explores queer intimacy in ways that you can’t easily sell to the market.
The performances are a big crowd pleaser – there’s never any place to sit. This year we have a large chunk of queer poetry. And the boys from the gay men’s group are doing a medley of Bollywood songs, Lady Gaga and Beyonce. It’s startling that they managed to fit eight songs into eight minutes. It boggles the mind.
How did you get involved with the film festival?
The year I started I was still a student so it was being queer and having time to work on it. But I’m especially interested in cinema, I write about cinema. There’s no project that comes more easily to me. It’s just so common-sensical to me that I should just do it. It’s the one thing I don’t ring my hands over and question. Hopefully I’ll be doing this for the next decade, two decades, until people are sick of me. See the trailer for Madame X here: