- Although gender identity and sexual expression have been a much-taboo topic of discussion within the South Asian diaspora and the motherlands, in recent years the conversation has been shifting, especially within desi families.
The recently concluded 2022 Chicago South Asian Film Festival (CSAFF) not only attracted large crowds with a smash opening night red carpet and an electrifying rooftop party pulsating with Bollywood dance mixes but also, more importantly, it had an impressive film program line-up.
Although there were films such as “Lost” and “Shiv Shastri Balboa” with stars Yami Gautam and Jugal Hansraj in attendance — the films represented stories by and about the South Asian LGBTQ community, made a big statement, and needed all the love they could get.
Gender identity and sexual expression have been a much-taboo topic of discussion within the South Asian diaspora and the motherlands. Still, in recent years the conversation has been shifting about South Asians who identify as LGBTQ and the growing acceptance of being gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, queer and other expressions – especially within desi families. This shift was visibly underlined during the screening block of the LGBTQ films (a stand-out selection) at the festival last week.
A well-attended screening, the room had a sizeable number of people from the community who were in the 50+ demos. As the films played on the screen, from “Coming Out With The Help of a Time Machine” to “Look Like You” to “Pav Bhaji,” the audience reaction amplified with each passing film, and had us cry, laugh and clap all at once. It was heartwarming to see the audience receive the movies with intelligence and understanding and have an open and honest interaction with the filmmakers.
Some of the stories represented situations, emotional turmoil, and trapped circumstances of people who have faced and are still facing the challenges of family pressure to be in a straight relationship for the sake of the community; or maintaining the façade of such relationships but internally wrestling with their sexuality. Some stories were handled with a delicate balance of humor and heart, and each film spoke of the maturity of the filmmakers’ storytelling capabilities.
“Coming Out With The Help of a Time Machine” is about Sid (Karan Soni), who plans to come out to his conservative, community-oriented parents at a local diner with the help of a time travel device and emerge from this encounter unscathed. The film gives a heartfelt sci-fi twist to tales about family dynamics and acceptance.
Director Naman Gupta said, “I was inspired to make the film when I saw a video of a same-sex couple describing their experience of coming out to their Indian parents. It was honest, funny, and emotional. However, I did not want to do just another coming-out story. Having a passion for sci-fi and blending fiction with contemporary social issues, the idea of “Coming Out With The Help Of A Time Machine” was born.”
Snigdha Kapoor’s “Look Like You” deals with the subject of transracial adoption and sexuality respectfully and sensitively. Tara (Shazi Raja), a South Asian queer woman, goes to see her eight-year-old biological son after years but is unprepared for the tensions that resurface with his white adoptive parents.
Kapoor — the writer and director — clearly describes the position of South Asian women: “In a predominantly conservative South Asian diaspora, women carry the expectations of motherhood and the burden of shame and stigma around their sexual expression. As someone who identifies as nonconforming, I made a film blending themes of both sexuality and adoption. Having experienced adoption in my family, my partner and I have been considering it as a choice.”
In “Same Love,” a dying mother reveals to her teenage gay son a past relationship with another woman when she was his age. Directed by Jeffrey Gabriel Silva, this coming-of-age story of an Indian family’s sexual acceptance was beautiful and inspiring to watch.
“Pav Bhaji” and “Cigarette Daydreams” addresses how we as people compartmentalize our sexuality into seemingly hetero-normative relationships due to societal pressure. The Mumbai- based director of “Pav Bhaji” Geet Gangwani, said, “In Mumbai, people are in denial of LGBTQ issues and cannot fathom someone close to them or within the family could be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or gender fluid. So keeping this in mind, I created the story of a straight couple living in a deadbeat arranged marriage and how the self-absorbed husband is oblivious of his wife’s sexuality.”
The films keep you engaged, absorbed, entertained, and above all, trigger discussions about who we are as human beings and about the labels and titles we crown ourselves and others with to adhere to the dictates of society. Though there are film festivals such as Tasveer in the U.S. and Kashish in India that represent South Asian LGBTQ voices, we as a community need to continue to include and accept everyone regardless of our preferences.