While both Sridhar Rangayan and Vivek Anand have been trailblazers in the LGBTQIA+ community in India, one other trait is common to both of them. Both of them remain incredibly humble about the pathbreaking work they have done in their respective fields. Sridhar Rangayan is one of the major queer auteurs in India (joining the likes of Rituparno Ghosh and Onir)- with every single one of his films addressing queer themes! Yet, he quickly brushes off the compliment when I call him a 'maverick' for his revolutionary achievement in crafting a space for LGBTQIA+ stories. "I'm just a filmmaker who is making films on critical issues to hopefully create a change in social attitudes towards marginalized communities," Rangayan addresses. Similarly, Vivek Anand is the CEO of Humsafar Trust, the country's pioneering organization working for queer and HIV-positive individuals. Despite being instrumental in various grassroots movements pertaining to the LGBT community, Anand resists all showers of praise heaved upon him.
It has been over a decade since the duo collaborated on their film 68 Pages (2007), a social drama exploring the lives of five individuals and their varying encounters with HIV/AIDS. Produced by the Humsafar Trust, the film was (and still remains) one of the few attempts to address the prevalence of HIV in various marginalized spaces. Directed by Rangayan, with the story and dialogue penned by Anand, the film was (as its opening credits tell us) "inspired by reflections of true life-incidents." A very poignant film that did away with several cliches of formulaic Bollywood storyline and caricatured stereotypes, 68 Pages has now become the go-to film for HIV/AIDS educational purposes. Screened regularly at various NGOs and organizations, the film has also been listed for mandatory viewing at National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) for their counsellors training program. Looking back at their relevant film, Sridhar Rangayan and Vivek Anand detailed the making of the film, its politics, and how its optimistic nature inspires people to this day.
Sridhar Rangayan personally describes himself as someone wearing many caps "of a filmmaker, writer, activist and festival director." From starting the production house Solaris Pictures with his partner Saagar Gupta, specializing in LGBTQIA+ stories, to establishing KASHISH, South Asia's biggest LGBTQIA+ film festival, Rangayan has worked tirelessly for queer representation in Indian cinema. Thus, it is fitting that only someone like him would dare to make an Indian film with protagonists like a gay couple, a sex worker, a transwoman, a street sweeper, and an intravenous drug user! Such characters barely appeared in a standard Bollywood feature in 2007. If, by chance, they did, they were either villainized or were morally irredeemable.
When asked about this unconventional choice of moulding a narrative around such characters, Rangayan replied that he always aims to subvert the tropes of mainstream storytelling in his films. He says he does so by "presenting these marginalized characters in the same genre of mainstream dramatic storytelling format (with songs et al.), but giving these characters central space and making their stories relatable." But wasn't he afraid of the audience's reception of such a narrative? Rangayan replied, "…if you give respect to the characters in your narrative, the audience will start giving respect to these characters in real life."
Further, Rangayan related that it was not the audience he faced problems with. "The only resistance we faced was when we went looking for mainstream distribution for the film. The distributors said that there were no 'normal' characters in our film, that even the counsellor is not normal because she comes from a broken relationship! How do you change mindsets like that?" he mentioned, reflecting on the still-prevailing conservative attitude in the film industry.
Talking of the counsellor mentioned above, 68 Pages narrates most of its story from the viewpoint of Mansi (played by Mouli Ganguly) and the titular sixty-eight pages of her diary. Mansi, in the film, works as a counsellor for HIV-positive people, and it is her interactions with various individuals from all walks of life that form the basis of the film. Rangayan talked about this unique narrative choice at length, mentioning how the figure of a counsellor is of paramount importance in the lives of positive individuals. But Mansi's character is not limited to narrative fulfillment but developed as a three-dimensional character who has her own struggles and tribulations. "…we wanted to add a layer to the counsellor's character too – the discrimination she faces for being an HIV/AIDS counsellor, where her aunt says she should look for another job, and also her boyfriend deserts her because of her profession. One of the most interesting facts for me is - where does the counsellor unload her emotional baggage that she carries from the stories of pain she hears every day? The counsellor in the film says that some counsellors shout out their pain into a hole in a tree in a deserted jungle, while she decides to put it out in her diary. The same way she offers succour to her HIV+ counselees, the diary offers succour and hope for her. She also derives her own strength from the grit and determination of her HIV+ counselees," elaborated Rangayan.
Rangayan also made sure that his lifelong commitment for greater visibility of LGBTQIA+ folks also translated onto the screen. Beginning from his film The Pink Mirror, he has made sure that people from the community essay queer character. 68 Pages features the character of a Umrao, who is played by an actual transwoman (credited as Uday Sonawane). Rather than deliver a condescendingly pitiful view of trans life, the film showcased how Umrao braves it all despite her HIV status to become the breadwinner of her family. "We strongly believe that trans and non-binary characters should be played by real-life persons since they are able to bring the truest feelings and nuanced gestures, which can never be brought out even by the best actors," he mentions.
But, apart from ensuring political visibility of the community, Rangayan mentions how this process of casting queer folks also has a social impact on film sets: "When they walk into the sets you can see disdain among the crew members. You can hear guffaws, sneers, and jibes about 'why is this Hijra person who begs at the street corner here on the sets', etc. But when we give the same respect to this person as we give to other (professional) actors, the attitude changes completely on the sets. Immediately the spot boy brings a chair & chai, and offers it to the transgender person, and the lighting person also gets alert and puts a backlight on her head to give a halo!"
Another distinguishing feature that separated 68 Pages from other HIV-related films was its relentless optimism. In a society where HIV is generally regarded as a death sentence, 68 Pages dispelled away such archaic myths and depicted how people with HIV can live normal healthy lives. This, Rangayan emphasized, was the core message of the film, "The very raison d'etre for making 68 Pages was to instill hope among HIV+ persons that being positive is not the end of the world... The characters who are HIV+ in the film seem to lose all hope, as is normal given the society's prejudices, but decide to live their life to the fullest extent once they receive care and support from the counsellor and their near & dear ones." He further stated that this positive attitude helped him through his own life struggles and thus, hope remains a prominent part of his life as well as his films.
Rangayan wishes up-and-coming queer filmmakers to carry forward this torch of optimism, "…I sincerely hope the coming generation of queer filmmakers push boundaries and bring out narratives that have not been depicted before. They have the technology; they have the freedom; all they have to do is give wings to their dreams."
Looking at Vivek Anand, one wonders how the CEO of a humanitarian organization gets involved in making a film? But when we start talking, Vivek proudly proclaims that cinema is in his blood. "My father had come to Bombay to be an actor, but when he met my mother, he left his dream to make a family," he relates. However, growing up, Vivek found himself fascinated with moving pictures. This passion for films led his mother to frequently joke that perhaps the "father's unfulfilled desires" had found their way into the son. Vivek had always wanted to be a film journalist, but fate had other plans. A school topper, he was persuaded not to pursue journalism (humanities and arts considered a domain for less intelligent kids) and instead went on to study marketing. In Mumbai, Vivek started as a volunteer for Humsafar Trust and eventually ended up being its CEO—currently helming the health and advocacy unit of the organization.
Vivek relates that much of 68 Pages came from his own experiences and his friendship with the first female counselling head of Humsafar Trust. This friendship, coupled with his activism, laid the groundwork for the many stories behind the film. When asked if he wanted to make the film to "spread awareness about HIV/AIDS," Vivek answered that such a utilitarian purpose was not the only intent. "I never wanted to make a film to spread awareness. I wanted to tell stories of the HIV-positive people around me. To tell people that 'Yeh Insaan Hai Aap Hee ki Tarah'" (These are people just like you!)" he mentioned. The enterprise being very personal, Vivek ended up weaving many of his own poetry and stories into the film's dialogue.
When I similarly asked him about the optimistic tone of the film, despite its grim subject matter, Vivek replied that for him, hope is significant and thus the film's positive resolution. He further joked about how he considers Devdas the worst film he has ever seen, hinting at its nihilistic and hopeless nature. This hope, Anand further adds, has helped him to brave several of life's difficult hurdles. "Even after the 2013 Supreme Court Judgement, I did not give up hope, even when the entire LGBT community was hopeless and crying," Vivek elaborated about the time when he was in Delhi during the Court's infamous upholding of Section 377.
A decade after its release, Anand feels the film is still very relevant: "The film is still important as it shows that while getting treatment for HIV is fine, dealing with the stigma of the disease is much more difficult." He further detailed various personal experiences wherein the film changed the lives of viewers who saw it. "Once a young doctor was so influenced after seeing this film at a screening that he joined the Humsafar clinic and even worked there for four-five years," Anand related. Further, in a screening in Chennai, a guy walked up to Anand and told him that he was ready to translate the entire film into Tamil! He had felt that the film's message was too important not to be shared with a broader public.
Having worked in the field for quite some time, Anand feels that despite the continuing stigma, the country has made immense progress in ensuring HIV/AIDS treatment programs available to all. He is hopeful for a time in the coming future wherein we would have eradicated not only the disease but also the stigma and discrimination that have long been attached to it.