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Queerness on screen: LGBTQIA+ narratives find home at Chennai’s Queer Film Festival

TNM caught up with filmmakers Talin Subbaraya, Anureet Watta, Coraci Ruiz, Soumyajit Ghosh, Arun Siddharth, and Mani Shankar Iyer to discuss their films which were screened at the Chennai International Queer Film Festival.

The pride flag flapping at the entrance of Goethe-Institut beamed bright, welcoming people with its rainbow hues on a rainy evening in Chennai. The auditorium was abuzz with laughter, chatter, and imploding silence at times, depending on the film being screened. Despite the heavy downpour outside, the compact auditorium was filled to capacity at this year’s ‘Reel Desires  – Chennai International Queer Film Festival’ (CIQFF), which saw the attendance of members from the LGBTQIA+ community, allies, and cinephiles. Queer narratives came to life through the 22 shorts, features, and documentaries from eight countries that were screened in the festival held between November 11 and 13.

The organisers of the festival told TNM that the responses — both in terms of submissions from filmmakers and the audience turnout — have been substantial, given that the festival returned to the offline mode this year after it was held virtually for the last two years owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. “This year we had a number of submissions from Latin America, Portugal, and Spain. As for the audience, the auditorium was full on all three days, but it peaked on Sunday evening. We were also happy to have visitors from Bengaluru, Coimbatore, Salem, and other places,” says a volunteer from Orinam, the collective that organised the festival in association with Goethe-Institut, Nirangal, and SAATHII.

The organisers also shared that the films were reviewed on factors such as the sensitivity of representation, storyline, production quality, and entertainment value. Volunteers from Orinam added that they tried to include films with themes representing a diversity of genders and sexualities.

Panel discussion held at CIQFF 2022. Credit: Instagram/

Among films focusing on the ordeals faced by transgender persons was Zuhur’s Daughters, a feature-length documentary by Germany-based filmmakers Laurentia Genske and Robin Humboldt. It chronicles the lives of siblings Lohan and Samar, transgender women who shifted from Syria to Germany. The feature film Blooming on the Asphalt by director Coraci Ruiz, walks audiences through the journey of a teenage transgender boy and his experiences with transitioning, as the feature unfolds in the backdrop of a conservative wave hitting Brazil in 2016.

Coraci Ruiz, who directed the film along with Julio Matos, tells TNM that the idea struck them in 2016 when a friend of their son was transitioning. “Inspired by the Russian documentary Anna from 6 to 18 by Nikita Mikhalkov, we wanted to make a film that had the passage of time as the central element, telling in parallel the story of a character and a country.  In 2018, openly LGBT-phobic Jair Bolsonaro was elected as the president of the country,” Coraci says.

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Poster of ‘Blooming on the Asphalt’. Credit: Instagram/ Coraci Ruiz

The filmmaker adds that they changed the approach in 2019 to also discuss the resilience and strength shown by queer communities. “We shifted the focus also to the process of building a community of solidarity and affect among young LGBTQIA+ people in the midst of adversity caused by a conservative government and a pandemic,” Coraci observes.

While the lineup included other impressive shorts like Fake by Lou-Brice Leonard from France, Fado Menor by Salvador Alejandro from Portugal, it also had films from independent filmmakers closer home.

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Spotlight on upcoming filmmakers

In addition to paving the way for movie buffs to revel in the magic of cinema, CIQFF has also helped independent filmmakers experiment with themes based on the lived experiences of LGBTQIA+ individuals that are seldom represented on the silver screen. Filmmaker Anureet Watta, who wishes to take up filmmaking as their full-time profession a few years down the line, says that their short film Oranges in the Winter Sun was born out of the itch to weave together characters and narratives. “My flatmate, on a lazy Tuesday night, told me about her camera which can only contain a film roll that can take 12 pictures. This mundane limit of the camera stuck with me. This limit then gave rise to the idea of memory, as photographs are most commonly understood as archives,” Anureet says.

The filmmaker explains that themes like faith, queerness, familial violence, and dreams, find a home in Oranges in the Winter Sun, a short film that is based on the story of two queer persons deeply in love with each other. It unravels through 13 scenes, each depicting a conversation, followed by a photograph, and a poetic narration. The inspiration for the title came from one such scene in the short where the narrator is fascinated by the fact that their partner had not peeled an orange before. “The title Oranges in the Winter Sun is about the mundanity of love, how the small moments get lost in the hugeness of this thing called life. It represents what love is about, sometimes something as trivial as teaching your lover how to peel oranges under the winter sun,” the filmmaker says.

Poster of ‘Oranges in the Winter Sun’.

Arun Siddharth’s short film Pride starts and ends with one question, but within less than four minutes, it nudges viewers to think about larger questions about queer desires and relationships. “How am I expected not to change when nature is ever changing by design?” the narrator asks. Pride is about a gay couple from Chennai. Shots from their present-day are interspersed with visuals where the couple is reimagined as Adam and Eve. “We have all heard stories of Adam and Eve, but in this short story, we have replaced them with two men in a relationship. The forest they are struck in symbolises their struggles,” says filmmaker Arun, who started out as a producer with Tamil television channels like Zee, Vijay, and Thanthi TV, before he joined director Krishna Marimuthu’s team as an assistant director.

Arun explains that the technical aspects had to be meticulously planned. “I have wanted to experiment with soundscapes for a while now. In Pride, we use ambient sounds, dialogues, poetry, music, and songs along with visuals to invoke the intended emotions. For instance, when the hero touches his partner, I told Tenma and OfRo (the music composer and sound designer) that the sound playing in the scene should feel like a branch of a tree sprouting. As for the screenplay, the shots are not linear. We have tried to connect the first shot with the last one, the second with the second last shot, and so on. The DOP and I took reference from renaissance paintings for textures and lighting,” he says.

Pune-based filmmaker Soumyajit Ghosh Dastidar’s Marathi short film Taap also centres around senses invoking specific memories. Set in an old Hammam, the film tracks the conversation between its central characters — Avani, a middle-aged masseuse, and Shanthanu, who craves his partner Huzaifa’s touch after the latter left him. The short film ends with Shanthanu dancing under shimmering purple lights, which coincides with a mythical story of a chameleon that could not camouflage and hide in shame, until one day, everything around the chameleon became colourless and the chameleon could gleam in colours of pride.

“I wanted to explore the concept of touch through Taap. Both Shanthanu and Avani lay their souls bare. When Avani touches Shanthanu, it is reminiscent of her long-gone brother. I wanted to understand how the sense of touch lingers on and turns into a memory,” says Soumyajit Ghosh, a student at the Film and Television Institute of India.

Screengrab from ‘Taap’. Credit: Instagram/ Soumyajit Ghosh Dastidar

If Pride relies on immersive soundscapes to move audiences, first-time filmmaker Talin Subbaraya uses movement as a medium to draw parallels between attempting to learn Alarippu (a piece that is traditionally performed at the beginning of Bharatanatyam recitals) and the narrator’s experiences of exploring sexuality in and around Bengaluru. “It finds its basis in an incident that I encountered in 2015. At the time, I was 17 years old. I was beginning to make sense of the fact that I was attracted to men. There was guilt and stealth in both the acts and the acceptance. At one such point, I had an encounter with the police when Article 377 was not scrapped. The moment was filled with fear and insecurity,” Talin, who created the film An Alarippu in collaboration with Priyanka Chandrasekhar and Armaan Mishra, tells TNM.

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Exploring cities and cultures through a queer eye

Both Talin and Anureet observe that the city has added layers to their shorts. “Spots of cruising, chai addas, bakeries, and public transport among other spaces become innate to my experience of the city and my sexuality. I think public spaces have been kind to me. In the erasure and unseeing of the queer by heteronormative individuals, I think there is a certain leverage to indulge sexually, in small ways, in parks, in buses, at bus stops, in malls, in isolated spaces,” Talin shares. They add, “The piece explores watching and being watched. It explores both voyeuristic pleasures in the acts and the discomfort that comes with them at varied points. ‘Hudugana Hudgina’ which translates into male or female, was something that often came up.”

Meanwhile, Anureet says that they have attempted to create safe spaces for queer couples who explore public spaces in Delhi throughout the short. “I wanted Delhi to be reclaimed by queer people, as a place that rightfully belongs to them, wherein the world doesn’t barge into their romance,” Anureet says. Some of the shots in Oranges in the Winter Sun were filmed at the tomb of Jamali Kamali (a Sufi poet and his disciple and lover Kamali), located in the Archaeological Village Complex in Delhi’s Mehrauli, as an ode to the city’s queer history, and with hope for public spaces to treat a queer person with tenderness, without harming them.

Anureet and Talin point out that shooting in public spaces also pushed them to introspect further. “In an attempt to talk to a bakery owner about the piece, I realised how hard it was for me to articulate what this piece was about in a language other than English. It opened me to how I did not have the vocabulary to talk of this piece, and desire, in a language other than English,” the An Alarippu director says. As for Anureet, they explain that while trying to show the city as a safe space for queer persons, they aknowledged that their understanding of queerness is also not divorced from the larger cis-hetero-patriarchal world.

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Valentine @ III, a Tamil feature-length film by director Mani Shankar Iyer, revolves around the lives of three gay couples from different age groups and socio-economic backgrounds. The film, which is in line with the sensibilities of mainstream Tamil audiences, has scenes offering comic relief, as well as sequences running high on emotions. “Tamil cinema viewers are apprehensive about watching the story of a homosexual couple. We wanted to change that by showing gay romance in a manner appealing to them. My father was a journalist with the Times of India and some of my friends are from LGBTQIA+ communities. For Valentine @ III, we researched and spoke to queer persons to understand their lived experiences,” says Mani Shankar Iyer, whose previous film Magizhvan, also narrated the story of a gay couple.

Poster of ‘Valentine @ III’. 

Source: The News Minute