Opening Night At Mumbai Queer Fest With Sir Ian McKellen

Also KOTI, a small film that made big waves.

I left Mumbai in 2009, shortly after Section 377 of the Indian Constitution – the bit criminalizing homosexuality – was ruled unconstitutional. At the time, I still didn’t think Mumbai would become a place of LGBTQ acceptance, and my pessimism was backed up less than three years later, when 377 was reinstated. The fight goes on to this day, but while I was away in New York and Los Angeles these last seven years, something was brewing back home, in theatres that seated a hundred odd people. That number grew to two hundred at some point, and this past Wednesday, the KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival kicked off its seventh annual celebration at the city’s famous Liberty Cinema. The seating capacity? One thousand four hundred and forty.

Liberty. How fitting.

For its seventh year, KASHISH went with the theme "Seven Shades of Love" and is currently exhibiting 182 films from 53 countries (this year’s spotlight is Brazil!), and the films range from documentaries about trans issues, to sweet tales of self-discovery, to stories about the intersection of gender, race, sexuality and religion. It’s as rainbow-coloured as it can get, and what’s more, inaugural guest Sir Ian McKellen made the trip and celebrated his seventy seventh birthday with us!

Dancers from all over India, mostly men in modern burlesque and Indian classical routines usually performed by women, lit up the stage and were met with an equally fiery reception. Indian celebrities, and I’m talking A-listers like Neerja’s Sonam Kapoor, showed up to lend mainstream credibility to the event. The biggest cheers of the night went to the organizer’s rallying cry to strike down 377, Sir Ian’s speech about how coming out and being yourself would be “The best thing you’ll ever do,” and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He wasn’t present, but the event was co-sponsored by the Canadian consulate in India, so you can bet people applauded when his name came up. This was promptly followed by a performance from Canadian drag queen Rita Baga. Neat!

People from all over the world (and “all 28 genders,” as the host joked) got to speak and sit in the audience, as the event ran about two hours longer than it should’ve. No one was complaining though, and most people stuck around for the 9pm opening night film that began sometime after eleven. It was Carol, by the way, so no surprise there. But while Todd Haynes’ New York-set lesbian period piece exists on one end of the cinematic spectrum, the KASHISH film on the opposite side is likely Koti, a minuscule and contemporary rural Indian drama about a twelve-year-old figuring out his gender identity in a village bound by strict social customs and gender norms. I got to watch Koti tonight, and I’m not exaggerating even a little when I say it got the single most thunderous and vocal response I’ve ever heard from an audience, anywhere in the world.

Rural India is steeped in tradition (the cities aren’t far removed either) and one such tradition is Raksha Bandhan, which loosely translates to ‘bond of protection.’ Once a year, sisters tie rakhis or decorated threads around their brothers’ wrists, in exchange for a continued promise to look out for their safety. Babrya, the impish class clown, wants a rakhi around his wrists as much as the boys who have sisters. The girls stand around the marketplace picking out rakhis for their brothers, but Babrya isn’t allowed to buy one. That’s not what boys are meant to do, and right from the get-go, we’re thrown into a small town with strictly binary restrictions… but this isn’t Babrya’s story. As he exclaimes “I wish I had a sister!” his brother Shyam, shy, unassuming and standing apart from the crowd, looks at Babrya longingly, as if he wants to tell him something. Shyam can’t quite find the words, so he stands in silence, and settles his slightly-longer-than-average hair by tucking it behind his ear.

The use of pronouns gets a bit tricky here, since it’s hard to put a label on Shyam’s experience. Maybe a culture a step or two behind the West in terms of discourse has its advantages, because the film doesn’t feel the immediate need to label him. His parents and the village however, do. He’s a hijra to them, which could mean anything from a trans woman to a drag queen to a eunuch. ‘Koti’ could mean either the latter, or simply ‘man with feminine characteristics’ but hijra has a very specific cultural connotation. Hijras, either cis men or masculine trans women in saris, live isolated from the rest of Indian society, and only show up on trains or during celebrations to ask for money. There presence is considered bad luck, but if you pay them to bless you, everything should be okay. Shyam’s parents believe he’d be better off in a hijra community, but Babrya won’t hear it.

Their father is up for a promotion to the village council, and when the elders come knocking, he’s embarrassed by each of his sons, one at a time. First Babrya, who shows up wearing a rakhi and disrupts them. Then Shyam in a dress and lipstick, the ‘sister’ who tied it around his wrist. Violence ensues, as it does throughout the film, acting as an extension of a specific masculinity: the Indian kind that seeks to dominate physically, instead of ever having to use words. It turns out this is a continued ‘problem,’ one that Shyam’s parents hoped he would excise as he aged. He keeps this side of himself hidden, quite literally, by burying a suitcase full of dresses and makeup. He finally feels ready to share this secret with Babrya, whose bewilderment turns to joy when he sees how happy it makes him. From that point on, Babrya’s rebellious focus shifts from his teachers to his parents, and his new reason for acting out is the promise on his wrist.

The film focuses on femininity’s performative aspects, which as I understand it, is a gateway for some. Shyam is awestruck when he sees the ornate outfits of a dancer from out of town, and he even puts on his own performance as Shyamli, with the boys of the village whistling at his carefree energy, and at the socks in his bra. Some of the kids are skeptical at first, and even the girls don’t want to play with Shyam since the genders inevitably group together on the playground, but once the boys get behind him (even though all of them including Babrya still make fun of adult hijras - the film doesn’t seem to lionize them just for being tolerant), the rest of the village begins to take notice. It’s a war of worlds and a war of words, backed by some of the loudest cheering and applauding I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of.

Whistling and shouting at Bollywood movies was once, and sometimes still is, reserved for the role of the ‘heroine.’ The same is true here, only the heroine is played by a twelve-year-old boy. Koti is the furthest thing from Bollywood – it’s a small Marathi film that few outside the fest will see – but to be able to draw such a powerful reaction is kind of incredible. It’s a film that looks tiny and almost amateurish, making strangely removed shot choices amidst strange tonal shifts, but its individual moments land so hard that it’s difficult not to love it. Babrya standing up to his abusive father. Shyam’s toothy grin while putting in hair clips. Even the other boys of the village parading around in dresses to support their friend, preceded by about ten hilarious reaction shots, are just a handful of small moments that end up feeling monumental because of the stakes at play. They’re all risking ejection from society, or perhaps worse, being thrown off a cliff by their fathers.

Yeah, this movie isn’t all fun and games. There’s a very specific cliff where this stuff takes place, and apparently has for a long time, as implied by a conversation later on. When he’s seriously considering sending Shyam away, his father interviews a well-respected hijra in the city, who tells him what he’s really trying to do now that he’s decided against the cliff. He isn’t sending Shyam away, he’s making him leave, and he doesn’t understand the implications. Men leave society once, she says. When they die. Women leave three times: when they’re sent off to get married, when they have children, and when they die. Hijras have to leave society four times: when they figure out who they are, when their families kick them out, when society kicks them out, and if they’re lucky to make it to stage four, when they die as well.

There’s no dearth of heavy moments in Koti, but it’s broken up nicely by Babrya’s mischief and Shyam’s genuine sunshine. The latter is played by Divesh Medge, who I had the opportunity to meet after the film. He’s an incredibly humble and equally lively kid, and his performance is nothing short of courageous. On its surface, the film feels almost repetitive, as each victory is followed by even more physical abuse (hitting your kids is unsettlingly normal in parts of India), but it’s less of a repeating circle and more of an increasingly frustrating spiral for everyone involved, leaving both the victims and the perpetrators of bigotry exasperated, since the latter is part of its own cycle of inadequacy.

The film can’t help but have a slight bummer of an ending – don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything, the film is up front about its intentions from the start – but its eventual down is mixed with a whole bunch of ups. The shade of love it focuses on is acceptance. For a lot of people, it was probably their first time seeing their story, or something close to it, reflected back to them. More importantly, it’s a sign that there are people in India who care, and that nonsense like Sec. 377 is on its way out. Hopefully this time it’ll be for good.

KASHISH’s growth over the last seven years is a triumph. It’s still a relatively tiny festival – I think the movie may have been projected off a DVD – but with more and more big names throwing their weight behind it, gay, bi, straight or otherwise, there’s a chance it’ll open up a lot of doors, and a lot of minds. The best part, though? It’s fun! The great thing about queer events is that they’re super welcoming. If you’re in or around Brooklyn this summer, make sure to check out FlameCon for the best of LGBTQ indie comics. Or if you’re around Mumbai this weekend, head on over to Liberty to see what’s going on! It’s guaranteed to be a good time.