The seventh edition of the Chennai International Queer Film Festival (CIQFF) saw close to 30 films, showcasing sexuality, gender diversity and associated issues, screened to a rapt and appreciative audience this year. These documentaries, feature and short films, touched upon a variety of topics regarding the everyday struggles, stigma and successes of real and fictitious individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community. But one striking issue that came to fore was the minimal south Indian content on screen.
Of the 120 films submitted for the festival, only 30 were selected to be screened. And of these, only three were from the south. These were two Malayalam films - Njan Sanjo (I'm Sanjo), Ennodappam (By my side) and one Tamil film - Oruvanukku Orutthi? (A woman for a man?).
From the response of the audience on Day 2, it was clear that Njan Sanjo and Oruvanukku Oruthi, which were screened on Saturday, struck an immediate chord. The familiarity of the language played a huge part in terms of the audience understanding the nuances of the scenes, dialogues and even in comprehending the comic timing. Why then, were there only few selections from southern cinema?
Quality of submissions
"We got about 10-12 films in Tamil and Malayalam," says Felix, a volunteer from Orinam, an organisation involved in hosting the festival. "However, we found that some of them lacked sensitivity in the manner in which they portrayed the LGBTQIA+ community and we couldn't select them. For instance, in one film where two lesbian women are having a conversation, one asks the other, 'How did you get into it?'. Such a question propels the misunderstanding that your sexuality is something that you 'get into'. It is not like finding a new job or picking up a hobby. Then there was the unacceptable portrayal that a woman became lesbian because she was abused as a child. This is despite research showing that this is wrong," he adds.
Felix points out that movies that propagate misconceptions on the community cannot be showcased.
"A well-shot movie which is engaging but with wrong information, could undo a great amount of work that we have done in clearing misconceptions," he explains. "The problem is these filmmakers have not discussed the subject with members of the community and clarified if their portrayal is right. This is one of the reasons we have very few films from regional cinema," he adds .
Telugu, Kannada take a backseat?
Last year too, the CIQFF showcased close to 30 films, of which only a few were from the south.
"We had some Tamil and Malayalam films as usual. We tried to get a Kannada feature film but did not get permission," says Felix. "As for Telugu, there were no entries from what I recall."
TNM spoke to experts and filmmakers to understand why southern cinema doesn't produce more content portraying queer protagonists or relationships. They pegged it down to interest, funding and lack of open-mindedness of filmmakers.
Vamshi Reddy, a professor of Film Studies in Hyderabad, says, "The Telugu film industry shows general disinterest in film festivals. Historically, the Telugu film industry didn't make parallel films consistently. Occasionally, we had a tide of parallel films. Sometimes not necessarily in Telugu but in Deccani, like Shyam Benegal films. However, the Telugu film industry is averse to sending the films since it hardly produces parallel films...somehow that culture never developed here unlike Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada industries."
Even the few parallel films that do get made, he says, do not focus on the LGBTQIA+ community.
"Don't even think of LGBTQIA+ centered films in Telugu. The Telugu film industry is notorious for mocking the queer community. They are so many films even in recent times, where their images are used to create mockery and comedy," he points out.
Funding, a major issue
Jijo Kuriakose, who directed Njan Sanjo, notes that there are several other factors involved. His film, which documents the life of Sánjo, a dynamic young trans man in a transphobic suburban locality, was meant to be a full-length documentary.
"But due to lack of funding, it was a short documentary highlighting only certain aspects of his life," he says. "Also, in view of Sanjo's request for privacy, I cannot screen the film near his home in Kerala or publicise it in Malayalam media."
Oruvanukku Oruththi? director Vimal Santiagu agrees that films in southern languages will have a greater reach in the region. But, he points out there are multiple hurdles that a filmmaker must overcome to make a movie on the queer community. His movie revolves around a conversation between a young man and a gender-fluid female-assigned person, who are both uninterested in the idea of arranged marriage but are forced to meet each other by their respective parents.
"This is my first film and I chose a subject which I wasn't sure people will understand," he explains, "I wrote it in 2017 but after that I had several doubts, inquired with multiple members of the community and took an entire year to shoot the film. I had to make sure it was not very preachy and that the portrayals were right. Plus, I found it very difficult to find actors willing to do these roles."
Even after the shoot, Vimal says that funds were hard to come by for post-production work.
"To make a good film, we need adequate funds and there are not enough people willing to invest in our scripts," he points out. "If film festivals can help us raise funds, we can deliver more quality content."
But as of now, given the current constraints, he does offer an immediate solution.
"These films are not made only for English speaking audiences. It is for people to understand the community better and for queer persons themselves to know they are not alone," he says. "So, one way to get the message across would be to dub the films into Tamil, Kannada or other languages. It may not be Hollywood quality but it will help the message permeate into the grassroots of society."