One World International Queer Film Festival organised a panel discussion, "OTT Era: How Digital Content is Changing LGBTQ+ Narratives?" on June 19, 2021. The film festival is organised by The Humsafar Trust, with sponsorship from US Consul General, and in collaboration with Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival.
Filmmaker Pradipta Ray was the moderator and set the tone with saying that the LGBTQ+ rights in India might have started in the 1990s but the portrayal of the LGBTQ+ characters has been there in films before. The portrayals have gradually transitioned from being a comic relief to more sensible queer subjects. And with the digital content opening up many avenues, we are here to see how the digital content in the OTT era is changing queer narratives. Pradipta then welcomed the panelists and introduced them. The panelists were content producer Srishti Behl Arya, National award winning director Neeraj Ghaywan (Masaan, Ajeeb Dastaans - Geeli Pucchi), writer and director Hitesh Kewalya (Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan), and trans activist and actor Rudrani Chhetri.
Pradipta started the conversation by asking what makes OTT different from other media when it comes to queer stories ? Srishti responded by saying that the flagship of OTT is diversity and it gives creators an opportunity to have more inclusive storytelling. You’re no longer dependent on a 'one-size-fits-all.' There’s an audience in streaming for every story. Also, when something resonates with a certain audience, there is a conversation as it intrigues people. Pradipta further asked whether the OTT platforms are helping to bring a social change or is it just in vogue? Srishti said of course it's good for business but also the fact that makers do not have to conform to stereotypes anymore is liberating. A good story well-told resonates with a wider audience regardless of the origin.
On Geeli Pucchi, Neeraj shared that when he told his parents that he is making a film on lesbians, they were absolutely fine with it. They have seen Made in Heaven and used to talk about it. Audience for theatre and OTT are definitely different, which makes the need for awareness to be more for the theatre audience.
Pradipta asked whether OTT has opened up the platform where there is not just a massy-approach to storytelling. Srishti responded by saying that she always felt that massy is a misused term because when a story speaks to people, it is massy and it is a good thing. Hitesh added that internet has helped OTT platforms by democratised content making and content sharing. Content creators feel that conversations happening around us need to reflect in the web shows.
If we look at the misrepresentation in the 90s shows now, we will cringe but at that time, we all laughed and clapped. "Nothing happens in isolation. We create content, people like it, and it becomes a commercial success. The more people see it, the more they are opening up to the next wave of storytelling. So, massy means good." Pradipta noted that awareness has to be done to the masses. Hitesh agreed saying that he has used clichés in his films so that the audience come to see something that they are used to and that helps in taking the narrative forward.
Neeraj added that OTTs have come with an institutional approach, with an intent to make inclusive stories part of their offering. But, it is also because of CBFC not being there. Makers do not like their content being cut. OTTs like Netflix and Amazon Prime plan to make a show diverse as possible, but it boils down to the intent of the maker. If the intent is 'tokenism', it will show. It needs to come from an honest place for the content to shine through. "The base for content is writing. Characters have to be humanised for the story to click. The intent should be to normalise the stories and not make them stand-out."
Neeraj explained that the freedom to watch content on OTT anytime may seem trivial but it’s important. His mother used to be hooked on to the TV in the evening, but now she can pause and watch anytime. And the freedom to choose your content in comfort of your phone. Pradipta asked Rudrani to share her view as an activist. Rudrani expressed that overall she is happy with the OTT content. "Not everything is perfect, some content is so educational that people converse about it. When I read the script of The Last Colour, it spoke to me because the character was real. My trans friends are getting small roles now and they’re happy about it because the roles are decent. The OTT makers are willing to listen to the community is what I like about today’s times."
Talking from the point of view of a content producer, Srishti said that when you choose a story to commission, you have to be mindful of the format. OTT is another form of distribution that makes people access exactly what they want in that moment. People are curious and want to know more about topics that they are unaware of. The thinking of the world will change drop by drop. "I do not agree that if you’re making an LGBTQ+ themed content, you must not include people from outside the community. Make people comfortable watching sensitive topics. Geeli Pucchi takes about caste, sexuality, privilege and so many things, hence it resonates. When we start looking everything together, that will make a difference. Investing in a story is important.
As a writer Hitesh said nothing happens in isolation. "My journey started in childhood living in a South Delhi household. We were taught that men are supposed to be a certain kind. When I went to National Institute of Design, world opened up. You get to know people from the community then all the biases and classification starts to dissolve. One needs to tell a story in a humane way. We are also dealing with our biases when writing. You have to question yourself while writing. It’s a fulfilling process but also very scary. The first film in the franchise—Shubh Mangal Saavdhan gave me the confidence to write a script that spoke about erectile dysfunction. Reception of that film gave confidence to take this franchise forward to say something important. It was a huge responsibility to represent LGBTQ+ community in the correct way possible. I was questioned how can a cis-het person write a queer narrative. My answer was if women can write for men and vice-versa, why not me? Point out the wrongs but don’t say I can’t do it." Pradipta noted that someone somewhere has to give it a try.
Neeraj said that if you will alienate a homophobic person it won’t work. If you make your character a well-rounded person, acceptance comes far more. Everything boils down to lived experience. I can empathise with someone but I’ll never know what a person has went through. Hence, in the writing phase, you have to include the community. Someday we would have something like Pose (Netflix series) in our country, which is all done by the LGBTQ+ cast and crew. But, we are a decade behind. In Geeli Pucchi, Neeraj included lesbian friends to give feedback on writing. "There’s nothing about sexuality that needs drama." He shared an example of a Scandinavian crime series where a subordinate is talking about her girlfriend with her boss and it is so daily life. These normalised scenes will be far more powerful in bringing the awareness.
Srishti said that it eventually comes down to what you want to achieve. The responsibility does not just lie with the people from the community. We are still at a time in India, where we applaud a female producer and a female director. We need to empower each other. I don’t want to make something about the community by the community. The triumph is when someone makes content for others. Neeraj agreed saying that Pose maybe a decade away. But, somewhere they need to be given chance to talk about their lives.
Pradipta asked Neeraj about the Vicks ad and if the decision to cast Gauri Sawant and the story was his or the agency. Neeraj said that the decision was of the agency. Neeraj’s attempt was to make the trans protagonist Gauri go beyond what society sees her; "I wanted her to be seen as a Mother."
On casting Konkona Sen Sharma in Geeli Pucchi, Neeraj said he would have liked to cast someone queer. But, we need a name for people to wake up to it. Secondly, the intent of the makers and the actors who are playing it, comes into play. I do not want any random actress to play it because even if there was a slight homophobia, audience will not like it. We got some of the crew from the community for feedback. This problem is faced while casting a dalit character. Race is easy to see but caste and sexuality is not visible. So, to ask someone that identity question is not easy.
The panelists answered few audience questions and Pradipta closed the conversation with a vote of thanks.