Report: Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival
The fourteenth edition of the festival was a remarkable celebration of queer joy that also provided a great opportunity to socialise
Amidst all the corporate-funded rainbow regalia during Pride Month, people often forget that it is celebrated every June to commemorate the Stonewall Riots of June 1969 when members of the queer community rose up in rebellion against police brutality in New York City. Queer parties, queer potlucks, queer club nights, queer stand-up comedy shows, and queer film festivals are all possible today because of the sacrifices of earlier generations of queer people.
I thought about our queer elders and ancestors a lot all through June, especially at the fourteenth edition of the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. Helmed by filmmaker Sridhar Rangayan, the founder festival director, it was a remarkable celebration of queer joy and a much-needed space to meet people like myself outside the context of dating and political organizing. The offline component took place from June 7 to 11, 2023 at two different venues – Liberty Cinema and Alliance Française de Bombay – and the online component was from June 16 to 25.
This year’s theme was: Be Fluid, Be You. Over 110 films from 41 countries – including Israel, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Iran, Austria, Lebanon, Finland, Brazil, Canada, Greece, Germany, India, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia – were screened at the festival.
It is humanly impossible to watch so many films even if one has the luxury of time, excellent eyesight, and an unfaltering attention span. I decided to catch as many as I could, both online and offline. Discussing films with other queer folks is as much fun as watching them, so I used the time between screenings for conversations over meals. I met people who travelled from other towns and cities because Kashish is a special part of their annual calendar, and they come for it every year.
The best part of the opening night was a performance by the Dancing Queens, a trans-led dance troupe that danced with Bollywood actor Raveena Tandon to some of her legendary film songs such as Kisi Disco Mein Jaayein, Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast Mast and Tip Tip Barsa Paani. Singaporean drag queen Opera Tang, who appears in the documentary film Baby Queen, also had audiences swooning due to her gorgeous costume and graceful moves.
All this entertainment set the stage for the first film of the festival – Pine Cone – a feature directed by Onir. It revolves around the life of a gay filmmaker who is scared to bare his heart to anyone because of the disappointments, rejections and betrayals that he has faced from the men he has been in love with. It was worth watching for the bold, unfiltered portrayal of gay relationships, clearly not meant to seek approval from straight audiences. Onir was at the festival along with the entire cast of young actors making their debut with this film.
Films in numerous languages including Urdu, English, Kannada, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Thai, French, Cantonese, Italian, Swedish, Russian, and Portuguese, were shown at the festival. They also represented the lives of various people under the queer umbrella – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, intersex, asexual, genderfluid, pansexual, and more.
My favourite film at the festival was Ek Jagah Apni, directed by the Ektara Collective. It tells the story of two trans women searching for a place to call home after they are evicted from the house that they were renting earlier. It touched me because it showcases the everyday struggles of marginalized people with their natal families and with strangers. It does not reduce them to their suffering and their sense of humour, the joy they find in playing antakshari, and their optimistic spirit are also an integral part of the film. It won a Special Jury Mention in the Narrative Feature category when the awards were announced.
I also enjoyed watching Saim Sadiq’s feature film Joyland, which was Pakistan’s official entry for the Oscars. The writing is particularly sharp and funny. The whistles and claps from the audience proved that the jokes were landing well. The film deserves all the accolades that it has won internationally because it does a marvellous job of showing how little people know each other even when they live under the same roof. They marry people whom they do not love; they have secret liaisons with people they can never acknowledge publicly; and they throttle desires in the name of religion and culture.
The short film Malwa Khushan, directed by Preeti Kanungo and Sourav Yadav, stood out for the endearing simplicity of its storytelling. They got the Riyad Wadia Award for Best Emerging Indian Filmmaker. Set in a village in Madhya Pradesh, it is a must-watch for people who believe that same-sex attraction is an urban, elitist or Western experience.
In the film, two schoolgirls, who are sisters, develop crushes on people roughly their own age. The elder one likes a boy; the younger one likes a girl. The excitement, the nervousness, the innocence and the sincerity are all thoughtfully captured. The elder sister is uncomfortable when she learns that her sibling might be lesbian but she teaches herself to be supportive. It is moving to witness how their bond evolves, especially because they have no access to identity terms and the language of queerness, pride, and allyship.
The feature film Maja Ma, directed by Anand Tiwari, had me in tears with its depiction of a lesbian love story with Bollywood actors Madhuri Dixit and Simone Singh playing childhood sweethearts, who get married to men but continue to love each other deeply. It highlights the pain of closeted lives, and also the pain of discovering that your partner has hidden something so important from you. It also throws light on the insensitivity displayed by allies who do not understand the social and psychological implications of coming out. They are so eager to help that they fail to prioritize the safety and consent of the queer persons they wish to support.
Olivier Peyon’s Lie with Me, set in rural France, was another film that stayed with me. It explores what happens when a famous gay author ends up meeting the son of his former lover – a lover who was so fed up of leading a closeted existence that he eventually took his own life and left behind a suicide note. Watching this melancholic film was like being on an emotional roller-coaster ride. It won the award for the Best Narrative Feature.
Going to the festival made me reflect on the wide variety of stories that exist and are waiting to be told. These stories will probably never get a theatrical release or make it to an OTT platform as they are made with low budgets and don’t feature big names. These stories are also probably far more complex than the ones currently being told only to make queerness palatable to non-queer audiences.
Daniel Kahana’s film First Time is about a sexual encounter between two men – an intern and his supervisor – on the last day of the internship. It complicates the issue of consent. They are technically not in a superior-subordinate relationship any longer. They are not even colleagues any more but there is a power dynamic that is too difficult to overlook.
There were several other films with noteworthy storylines.
In Jen Nee Lim’s film, The Note, a teacher who invites students to share their secrets anonymously finds a note from a student who shares that he is HIV positive. In Barbora Chalupová’s film, The Law of Love, marriage equality activists take on conservative politicians, violent extremists, and the church. In Keli’i Grace’s film, My Partner, a Filipino student and a native Hawaiian student try to understand each other’s cultures.
In Vusala Hajiyeva’s film, Bunny Decides to Go, a filmmaker facing death threats in Baku sets off on an unplanned trip to Tbilisi. In Arvind Caulagi’s Taps, two lovers manage to save their fragile relationship from an unfortunate misunderstanding caused by jealousy. In Amir Ovadia Steklov’s Bi The Way, the protagonist narrates his struggles as a bisexual person who is a misfit in heteronormative society and invisibilized in the queer community. In Ahmad Alyaseer’s film, Our Males and Females, the parents of a trans woman, who is supposed to be given an Islamic burial, are faced with the task of bathing her dead body.
Festival attendees had a chance to interact with the cast and crew of some of these films after the screenings, and enjoy snacks and beverages at a pop-up canteen set up by The Trans Café. It is an entrepreneurial initiative run by trans people. What made the experience even more joyful was the old-world charm of Liberty Cinema, which is an art deco movie theatre.
In addition to films, the festival also had a few panel discussions featuring activists, diversity and inclusion professionals, actors, filmmakers, and authors. The speaker who made the strongest impression on me was Nandini, a trans actor from the hijra community who is also a casting director and a script consultant. She spoke without holding back to let audience members know that trans actors face discrimination even on sets that claim to be inclusive. She also held forth on how important it is to regard trans people as professionals when they are hired for a project instead of treating them as specimens to satisfy people’s curiosity.
The closing ceremony was a night to remember, with a glorious performance by drag queen Rani KoHeNur, who has a mesmerizing stage presence and vocal range. She sang Rolling in the Deep, Pari Hoon Mein, Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja, Mehboob Mere and Mayya Mayya with festival attendees dancing without inhibition and asking the diva for more.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.