On the last day of the One World International Queer Film Festival on Sunday, a panel discussion was held on the topic, 'How mainstream is the LGBTQ representation in American cinema? Challenges and Achievements'. The festival was organised by The Humsafar Trust with help from the US Consulate General in Mumbai and in collaboration with Kashish International Film Festival.
Panelists for the discussion included Vice Consul of the US Consulate General in Mumbai Alexander Hunt, internationally acclaimed Indian filmmaker Onir and director of the opening movie of the festival Lisa Donato. The session was moderated by filmmaker and festival director of Kashish International Film Festival Sridhar Rangayan.
Alex recounted growing up in the conservative southern USA in the 80's and 90's with no representation of the queer community on screen. When the first wave of representing the queer community in cinema came about, it was full of stereotypes and caricatures, he recalled. According to him, it was the show Will & Grace that first brought in gay characters as leads. "Though still problematic, it opened up the floodgates. The on-screen depiction of the community has only improved since then, and especially in the early 2000's," he shared.
Onir said that in the Indian context, it has become more difficult with time to get a movie with queer characters the approval of the Film Certification Board. He said things were much easier for his first movie in 2005. In 2011, he was asked to edit out a few scenes. Six year later, referring to a homosexual character, a board member asked, "Why are you showing them as normal?" which was difficult to hear as an openly gay filmmaker. He says he feels disappointed by the fact that the same movies that take him to international film festivals across the world, get no recognition at home.
Sridhar then asked Lisa if she faced similar difficulties while pitching her movies in Hollywood, given that she focuses on stories of queer women and people of colour from the community. She shared how despite saying they love the concept, network executives and producers have rejected her projects as "we already have that one gay show". She feels that as most gatekeepers in the world of cinema are cis-gender, white men, they just lump the entire LGBTQ+ community together and don't understand that two stories from the community can be very differnet in tone and presentation.
Underlining the need for more nuanced storytelling with regards to the queer community, Lisa cited a survey which revealed that 18% of all characters on American screens are queer and their average screen time remains below six minutes. She called this casual inclusion for the sake of it, rather than having good intentions towards the community.
Agreeing with this, Alex said every little bit of representation helped him, growing up. Even something like Billy Elliot that focused more on the idea of being your true self, which helped him with his coming out.
Sridhar wanted to know from Onir how difficult it was to have some of the best actors in India play gay characters in his movies. Onir said that he found it easier to convince female actors to take on different roles than men. However, the convincing needs to be done to get producers on board, not actors, he insisted. He gave the example of how the six films he made that dealt with the LGBTQ+ community's issues were the ones that didn't have a producer.
He spoke of an invisible homophobia within the mainstream movie industry that stops the works of queer filmmakers from reaching a wider audience. When such a filmmaker goes to the festival circuit, international producers and directors are disinterested in their stories as well since they have already made movies on those themes years ago.
This is an experience common to both Sridhar and Onir. Sridhar, in fact, went on to say that he has seen queer people in production houses actively blocking projects pitched by queer filmmakers about the community. On this, Lisa said she wished there were more decision makers from the community in Hollywood as she thinks it would be easier to pitch her ideas and explain her perspectives to them.
Sridhar also drew attention to how unlike most other organisations, the US Consulate was not using the Pride Month to pink wash their image. That they had consistently worked towards upholding the rights of the queer community. Alex informed this was the first year that US embassies across India hoisted the Pride Flag. He also informed that the Consulate was working towards changing the public perception towards the community in India.
Sridhar asked the panel what was the missing representation on the American screens that they would like to see more of. For Alex, there was room for improvement for transgender representation on screen. Lisa felt that there should be more stories revolving around non-binary people and people of colour. She was also unhappy with the very little representation of the bisexual community.
With regards to the Indian scenario, Onir feels there is a slew of lesbian stories which he feels is just being done to check some boxes on a checklist. These stories, he says, are often told in the form of a heteronormative fantasy. The transgender and gay characters are still full of stereotypes and unrelatable, he thinks. He also feels that there is no representation of queer people from smaller town or the hinterland where there are so many stories waiting to be told.
Sridhar then brought up a topic that has been a point of consternation - whether the queer characters on screen must be played by queer actors. Lisa gave this a big yes. She says that it is important to level the playing field for trans actors and work towards more authentic casting.
Onir's next movie, in fact, has one transgender actor and two drag queens. However, he felt that finding the right actor for the role was also important to him. When he could not find the lesbian woman to play the lesbian character, he gave that role to a straight person. He said that actors who agree to play these parts are allies, and play a big role in the empowerment of the community as well.
Sridhar agreed saying he believes that making a film itself is a part of the sensitisation process. Often when there is a transgender person on the film sets, the actor and therefore the community at large strats getting more respect because of the filmmaker's inclusivity efforts.
Giving a foreigner's perspective on the Hindi film industry, Alex said he has seen a marked improvement in the way mainstream Bollywood movies portray queer characters. He looks at movies like Shubh Mangal Savadhan as a watershed moment for Indian cinema even with all the problems with the movie.
Onir disagreed saying there was no romantic chemistry between the leads and they looked more like friends than lovers. He stressed the need for the works of queer filmmakers to get a mainstream audience.
Sridhar concluded by saying that things have definitely improved in Hollywood when it comes to queer representation, especially in the last couple of decades. He also said there's a lot of scope and room for improvement and he hopes we see that happening in the years to come.