This could be any other courtroom scene from a mainstream Indian drama except that the heroine the audience is cheering for is a hijra, or eunuch, named Anu (based on the real-life transgender activist Laxmi Tripathi), demanding to know why hijras aren’t allowed ration cards, even voting rights, merely because the government can’t decide which gender they belong to.
The Marathi -language film by Ramesh More,“We the Outsiders (Aamhi Ka Tisre),” is about a gay boy who gets kicked out of home by his family but finds love and protection among the hijras in Mumbai. The movie, which had its premiere at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, picked up a jury mention for best feature film.
Kashish, which means “attraction” in Urdu, bills itself as “India’s biggest international queer film festival,” with thousands of people attending to watch 120 movies from 30 countries at the Cinemax multiplex and at the Alliance Française de Bombay from May 23 to May 27. “It was sold to the public and press not as a curiosity factor, but as any other fest with a focus on regional or French packages, poster competition, celeb jury, etc.,” says Shibu Thomas, the festival’s media adviser, who, like other volunteers, takes two weeks off from his day job as a journalist with The Times of India to help with the festival.
Sridhar Rangayan, Kashish’s festival director and founder, roughly estimates that this year’s total attendance at around 7,000 people, with 15 completely full screenings. “According to our survey, 37 percent of the participants were in fact non-L.G.B.T,” he says.
Mr. Rangayan started Kashish in April 2010, with modest grants from two United Nations agencies and an Amsterdam film fund. Back then, he says, theaters were wary of hosting an L.G.B.T. film festival. Right-wing groups like Shiv Sena in Mumbai had attacked cinemas screening movies with lesbian content in the past. Deepa Mehta’s “Fire”, about the love affair between two Delhi housewives, for instance, had led to billboards and theaters being set on fire in 1996.
“We’re the only L.G.B.T. fest to get clearance from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting,” says Mr. Rangayan. “Prominent citizens pre-screen films as assurance to the Censor Board. The police cooperate.”
That doesn’t mean that the content being shown at Kashish is any less provocative. Romney Jones’s music video,“Handyman,” for instance, was banned by the municipal council in her hometown of Perth, Australia, for showing a girl with a strap-on dildo. Ms. Jones was present at the Mumbai screening, which went off without a hitch.
The film festival organizers say that the diminished public outrage is the result of gays’ greater visibility in the larger community.
“An invisible community has ‘visibilized’ itself in the social landscape, at college campuses, apartment blocks, on the streets, melting into the mainstream,” says Ashok Rao Kavi, pioneering gay activist who runs the nonprofit Humsafar Trust, an outreach group for the L.G.B.T. community, and is executive editor of Bombay Dost, India’s first gay magazine, both of which organize the Kashish festival.
“In any case, while homophobia exists everywhere, unlike other cultures, it has no sanction in Hindu religion,” says Mr Kavi.