2018 will mark the 100th year of Tamil cinema. However, while the industry has grown in leaps and bounds when it comes to technology and experimentation with different genres of cinema, the LGBTQI+ community remains barely represented on screen. Worse, the few times a queer character appears in a film, they are vilified or humiliated.
27-year-old filmmaker Lokesh Kumar whose Tamil film My Son is Gay is all set to release next year, was inspired to make the film after attending the Bangalore Queer Festival some years ago.
'You don't have to be gay to make a film on gay people'
Speaking to TNM, Lokesh said that the experience at the Bangalore fest made him research if any Tamil film had been made with such themes.
"But there was no such film or reference at all. That's when I thought we should do a movie on this. Then I met some people from the LGBTQI+ community, spoke to them and so on. I came to know about a lot of things. How Section 377 affects them etc. This went on for a few months and I decided to make a film," he says.
My Son is Gay is Lokesh's first film. And on hearing the title, the first thing many people ask is, "Are you also gay?"
"If you want to make a film about a rape victim, you don't have to be one. You can observe, talk to them...that's how filmmakers create stories. That's all you need and that's how my film happened. But yes, people do ask me if I'm gay. It's been four years now, so I don't really care what people think any more," he says.
The film is about a young man coming out to his mother. Among all the stories that Lokesh listened to, how did he zero in on this premise?
Noting that very few Tamil films have had gay references and the fact that none of them has dealt with the issue deeply, Lokesh says, "Most people have no clue. People think being gay and being transgender are the same, for example. There is a lot of taboo and assumptions around it."
He goes on to explain the idea behind the film, "So I wanted to bring this awareness, tell everyone that these are people who live among us in day to day life. They are not able to come out because of our social setup. I thought it should touch on very basic things and that's how I came up with the idea of a guy who comes out to his mother. What happens in a typical Indian family? How does the society around him react?"
Lokesh was always interested in cinema but it was not until 2013, when he started attending film festivals and was exposed to world cinema, that he decided to make films. That's when, Lokesh says, he realised that so many different kinds of stories could be told through cinema and not just the regular commercial fare that he was used to watching.
The realisation led him to make short films for a few years before he decided to make a full-length feature.
When Lokesh first decided to make My Son is Gay, his plan was to get it done in Hindi because he felt the Tamil audience wasn't ready for a film like this.
"Because if I get someone to invest, I need to give them the money back. So it has to be saleable material. When it comes to Tamil, I was skeptical about who would buy the movie. And back in 2013, I was not confident about doing it in Tamil. In Hindi, there were films on the subject already, so I thought it would be easier to find a buyer," he says.
However, the idea of shooting with a cast and crew from Mumbai didn't work out as the costs went beyond the budget. Finally, last year, Lokesh felt he could make the film in Tamil and that the audience would be open to it. Lokesh says he's grateful to Anil Saxena, the first person who believed in the film when it was to be made in Hindi and has now co-produced the Tamil film along with Cyril D'Souza.
Is the Tamil audience ready?
Nevertheless, Lokesh acknowledges that it's one thing for a film to be accepted in the festival circuit but quite another for it to remain palatable to a larger audience. The recent short film Lakshmi, which is about a woman who has an extramarital fling, is one such example.
Although the film was received well in the festival circuit, it sparked outrage among the general audience when it was uploaded on a platform like YouTube. Lokesh agrees and says, "About Lakshmi, I have been seeing the comments on social media. It's just crazy. When you make a film and it goes to the public, you have to be careful...some issues are very sensitive. I'm not blaming the filmmakers. I know Sarjun (Lakshmi director) and the team very well. But there are some sentiments – like this Bharathiyar one in Lakshmi – that you have to be very careful about or it could backfire. When I see such mixed responses, I get worried as a filmmaker. I'm happy about my film but tomorrow, someone could come and tell me that I'm trying to turn people gay through my film or some such thing. It is a scary thought."
Speaking about how the LGBTQI+ community is represented on screen usually, Lokesh says that the portrayal tends to be mocking.
"It's treated like a joke. This makes it harder for people to come out. Filmmakers have to understand this. When doctors or police people are shown in bad light in a film and they protest, people understand why. These are people who are accepted in the mainstream. But people from LGBTQI+ communities don't have this acceptance in the first place. So we should be even more responsible and sensitive in how we portray them," he says.
The making of My Son is Gay
Given how Kollywood has treated this subjects in the past, how difficult was it for Lokesh, a first-time filmmaker, to convince experienced actors like Kishore, Jayaprakash, Anupama and Sriranjani, among others, to act in the film?
Lokesh says that it's tough to get actors on board for any film which has a "bold" subject because they worry about their image among the public.
"We look for experienced actors because if the film's to do well commercially, it's good to have known faces. But when we approached mainstream actors, we knew they wouldn't be willing. They have that insecurity that they will be stereotyped according to the role that they play. The actors I met were all skeptical. They'd say 'Ok, all this is fine. But I have a son...what will happen to his image?' and so on. That's when I realised that beyond being an artist, they too have all this to deal with," says Lokesh.
But fortunately, Lokesh got Anupama Kumar on board, an actor who, Lokesh says, is very open to such issues.
"She understood all this and said this is an important film which must be made. She didn't ask about payment or anything. She was on board in 2013-14 itself," he says.
When the idea of the Tamil film came about, it was Anupama who took the initiative to speak to the other actors and convince them to be part of the film.
"They didn't have deep knowledge about the theme. It was what they knew from the outside. Even so, they were fine with doing the film as actors and believed the material was sensible. Anupama involved herself in various aspects of the film and also co-directed it," says Lokesh.
A promo video of the film shows the two actors, Ashwinjith and Abhishek George, who play the gay couple, sharing a fair amount of intimacy. Given the social taboos surrounding same sex relationships in the country and the image consciousness of actors, was it difficult for the team to shoot such scenes?
"We can't quite shoot films with gay scenes like they do in the West here. It's the first film. We first have to make people understand. I didn't want it to become an Adult rated film. So whatever we had was sensible and mild...like what's shown for a straight couple romance on screen. The two actors who came in knew what the film was about. The others who were not comfortable were eliminated at the audition level itself. I told them what the film demands and they were okay with it. We had rehearsals, watched films at Anupama's place… So yes, they were very comfortable," Lokesh says.
Lokesh further points out that when someone tells the world that he's gay, people immediately think only about the sex aspect of it.
"They don't understand that just like a straight couple have romance, conversation and so on, gay couples also have such moments and it's not only about the sex," he says. "I feel my film will be an eye-opener in this aspect."
In fact, Lokesh says that when the film premiered in New York at a film festival, there were many gay people who watched it and complimented him for how different the film was from the usual fare.
"There were many old people also who were there and they said we've seen so many films which have shown sexual intimacy but not something like this which captures the romance," he says.
My Son is Gay has been passed by the CBFC with a U/A certificate and without any cuts, in a move that has come as a pleasant surprise for the director and his team. The film will premiere in India on November 25 at the Kolkata LGBT festival.