“Most literature festivals, both in India and abroad, bear two distinct features — one is the interest and appetite for queer issues and another is that most litfests are focused on other things, and in the name of inclusion, the topic of queers lands up as one odd session,” says Sharif D Rangnekar, director of Rainbow Lit Fest, a first attempt in the country at a litfest for queers.
To Rangnekar, the idea of queer and inclusive, which is the tag line of the fest, implies that people with non-normative sexual orientations and identities are more than happy to have other people around. “The world needs to understand that we are not heterophobic… I think within the mainstream there is homophobia and a lack of understanding of identities itself because once you are mainstream, you just become like a bunch. There are gender stereotypes, a fixed idea of success and careers, etc.” According to Rangnekar, the “trying” has to come from people who have experienced and understand what exclusion is, then those doing it purely as an act of change. The two-day event did meet his expectations of being inclusive, drawing people from all parts of the country, from all age groups and sexual identities. From senior citizens to queer men in saris and drag queens, the fest saw it all.
A feature unique to the festival was that every conversation was in the form of a dialogue and not a mundane monologue. One of the major highlights was informal chats between personalities from the Indian film industry and the audience. In the guise of an informal chat, Nandita Das talked about how 23 years ago, in 1996, Fire was a complete accident for her. She admitted that before Fire, she understood queerness on an intellectual level but couldn’t fathom it emotionally. “I didn’t know that I lived in such an insensitive society and that there was so much hypocrisy around. People had to face so many problems to just be themselves and rent houses or come out to their parents,” she said.
Das also recalled that during the first screening of Fire at the Kerala Film Festival, “the hall was packed with men and when the scene of the mother-in-law spitting on Radha (Shabana’s character), occurred, they started clapping and laughing on all the wrong things. I was shocked. I felt we have a long way to go. How can human beings in this hall be so different from the ones in the halls in Europe, US?”
The festival also brought in Lush Monsoon (Ayushman), a drag queen, to convey a message about gender nonconformity and non-binary identity. In collaboration with the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, she narrates stories to children across various schools in Delhi, Mumbai and Jaipur because “children need to understand there are no boxes of gender. They need to know the story so that they learn, from a young age, to discover and explore themselves without boundaries so that they don’t grow up and turn into bullies”.
Menaka Guruswamy, a lawyer in the Supreme Court who played a significant role in repealing Section 377 in India, made a significant statement. “Law has a great debt to literature and literature is often inspired by law,” she said. In a conversation with renowned Indian mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, she discussed how regional languages play a very important role in lower courts and how”…there, you can’t survive with quotations of Shakespeare. The lower courts love Mirza Ghalib and Faiz Ahmad Faiz”. Guruswamy ended the session with her opinion on how nuanced language is and although constitution and samvidhan are literal translations, they are different in meaning.
Then there were directors like Onir and Apurva Asrani, who shared snippets oF their journey. Echoing Rangnekar’s sentiments, Onir said, “Very often a comment on issues about women and LGBTQI are like a tick mark and nothing but an attempt to show that you are doing the right thing. Cinema imitates life and vice-versa and one cannot deny the power of the box office. So we are continuously doing things that are regressive and promoting a certain ‘popular belief’,” he said, touching upon the struggles My Brother Nikhil faced for featuring homosexuality.
Asrani talked at length on how important Aligarh was for him both on professional and personal levels, and how he could relate with the character of Karan from Made in Heaven, where he was the lead editor.
Members of the audience pitched in with their stories too. While Asrani was on stage, a middle-aged woman stood up and spoke how her homosexual son had sent her to the event to sensitise her about these issues, and during transwoman writer Gazal Dhaliwal’s talk, a young cisgender woman shared how her trans friends call her up and cry about never finding love because of their identity.
Enthused by the response, Rangnekar plans to continue with the litfest, but with one major change. “I felt that because the speakers and content are fantastic, it becomes difficult for people to choose sessions and I feel we are depriving people and forcing them to make a choice, which they don’t want to,” the director said, adding that he plans to have fewer sessions and probably more days next time.