Eight years ago, Malini Jeevarathnam would make jokes about those who identified as gay or transgender. This, she says, was before she confronted the truth - that she was queer.
"I used to be attracted to women while growing up, but I never acknowledged it," says the 28-year-old filmmaker whose Tamil documentary Ladies and Gentlewomen is releasing on January 21 in Chennai.
Produced by Pa Ranjith's Neelam Productions, Malini says her documentary is about the untold stories of the LGBTQ community.
Commenting on the teaser of the film which is high on humour, Malini says, "People don't want to see films with serious content. If we say 'lesbian', people imagine women sitting alone in dark rooms or walking about, looking psychotic. I wanted to bring out the fact that same sex relationships can be jolly and are to be celebrated."
Malini notes that her film talks about the problems the LGBTQ community faces and does confront serious issues. However, the point of the teaser, she says, was to "make people feel guilty without hurting them" - by reminding them that they haven't allowed these narratives to be told all these years.
Malini goes on to add, "The film has been officially selected for screening at seven international film festivals and has won the Best Documentary award in three festivals. It has been recognised as a film that gives voice to lesbian women's rights."
Malini points out that the LGBTQ community is invisible even among the marginalised in society: "If a Dalit person has a problem or if a woman undergoes some kind of violence, it's still possible for them to seek out others like them for help or consolation. But for a lesbian woman, a transgender person or anyone from the LGBTQ community, it's so difficult for us to meet someone like us. We have to leave where we live, get into activism and so on. But it's possible that there was someone like me who died in the next street in my village because she was lesbian and I wouldn't have even come to know of it. Coming out is still so difficult."
Hailing from Paramakudi (Kamal Haasan's land, she quips), Malini says it's a misconception that it's only city people who can be openly gay. She has travelled across Tamil Nadu for her film and says that in small towns and rural areas, same sex attraction is commonly expressed.
"I have seen lesbian women even in my schooldays in Ramanathapuram district. I used to make fun of gay and transgender people until eight years ago. But it was only after I came to terms with my own identity that I was able to engage with this. It's possible that there are people in our own family who are gay - it's nothing new," says Malini.
She goes on to say that when she came out to her friends and family, they too opened up to her about others they knew who were gay and their own sexuality. A relative who comes from a rural area, Malini says, was very supportive of her because he had a gay friend who'd died.
However, she has chosen not to show any lesbian women (even with blurred faces) other than a married couple from Kolkata in her film.
"I could have taken a hidden camera and interviewed ten women who had their faces covered, asked them about their state of mind. I could have told them this is a big film that will go for film festivals. But if I had done that and if tomorrow, because of the woman's voice or her clothes or some parts of the story she tells, her identity is revealed, she could be ostracised and even murdered. It's enough that they speak when they have come out," says Malini.
Malini shares that many women use fake profiles on social media because, ironically, that's the only way they can be honest about who they are and write about what they feel. Many of them have also reached out to her to discuss their problems and feelings.
Therefore, instead of first person narratives, Ladies and Gentlewomen has stories gathered from communities, about same sex love and relationships. The point of the film, Malini says, is not to out anyone without their consent but to encourage people to come out themselves. She further says that she's made a choice not to include the derogatory and humiliating things people say about the LGBTQ community because she wants to be positive in her approach.
"This is not a film for LGBTQ people as such, it is for their parents," says Malini. "I want them to understand that this is something natural. So I didn't see the need to include anything derogatory to make it controversial."
Commenting on how Tamil cinema has depicted LGBTQ communities over the years, Malini says that it is humiliating and putting down others which has passed off as comedy in general.
"Remarking on someone's physical appearance, disability, colour or sexuality has been shown as funny all these years," says Malini. "This is the reason why we wanted to release the movie in Vadapalani and not a Russian Cultural Center. We want people to watch the film and know that because of how they've written these scenes, there are many who have been led to suicide."
Initially, Malini had thought the film could be crowd-funded. However, when Pa Ranjith, with whom she has worked as Assistant Director in Madras, came to know about the film, he offered to produce it.
"He is someone who gives voice to the oppressed, so it's only someone like him who can understand the pain of another who's oppressed," she says. "I was heartbroken when I could raise only Rs 10,000 to 20,000 through crowd-funding. I asked him if he could arrange for a camera. He told me - what camera? Tell me how much it will cost to produce the whole film, I will produce it."
Malini says she was touched by how little the Kabali director worried about his image, given that he was already ruffling feathers by voicing his views against caste: "He told me that the voice against oppression is one and the same."
The documentary will premiere at Prasad Labs theatre, Chennai, on January 21 at 5.30 pm. Members from Ranjith's Caseteless Collective will also perform a song at the event - as a 'Genderless Collective', Malini says.