Activist, writer and filmmaker Sridhar Rangayan’s 2003 film Gulabi Aaina (The Pink Mirror) was banned by the Central Board of Film Certification. It has finally released on Netflix worldwide. Sridhar speaks to TBI about the long wait, his journey, inspirations, and the film he is currently working on.
Gulabi Aaina is arguably the first-ever film made in India, which featured transsexuals as lead characters. Made by Sridhar Rangayan, the franchise went through a hard time, locking horns with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) on three separate occasions, only to be denied clearance.
After 13 long years, the film has finally found a way to reach a wide, worldwide audience — it was released on Netflix.
The 40-minute-long movie features two drag queens and a gay teen as protagonists and narrates their story in a light, breezy, Bollywood-like manner. The film has made the rounds at over 70 film festival across the world and has won several awards. It has also gained a place among existing resource material on queer Asian cinema and gender studies.
Sridhar, quite understandably, is pleased. He says, “We made this film when all the odds were against us. We shot on a shoestring budget and had to shoot the film indoors as nobody was making a film of this kind back then and we were anxious about shooting in the open. I am happy that the film is reaching a wider audience through one of the best platforms.”
Sridhar is a man who wears many hats; he is a filmmaker, a writer, and an activist. He also happens to be the co-founder of The Humsafar Trust, the first gay NGO in India; founder-director of the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival; and has directed many fictions as well as documentary films dealing with LGBTQ themes including 68 Pages, Breaking Free, Purple Skies and Yours Emotionally. His production company, Solaris Pictures is dedicated to making and distributing LGBTQ-themed films. His latest, the documentary Breaking Free, won the National Award for Best Editing (non-fiction) this year.
It was the sheer need to express himself and bring a different narrative to Indian media that drew Sridhar to filmmaking. An alumnus of The National Institute of Technology, Karnataka (NITK), Sridhar worked for a long time in television, writing and directing several successful projects like Rishtey, Gubbare, Kagaar and Krishna Arjun.
“After a while I realised that there was no space in the mainstream media for anything else besides the regular heterosexist narrative. I even tried pitching a story idea for an episode that involved a gay couple, but it was rejected. It was also the time when I had worked closely with India’s first gay magazine Bombay Dost and had co-founded The Humsafar Trust. It all just led to Gulabi Aaina – we needed to make a film about ourselves! We wanted to create something we believed in,” he says.
Sridhar and his collaborator Saagar Gupta decided to make Gulabi Aaina, which portrayed drag queens as protagonists, completely different from the way they were portrayed in mainstream Bollywood cinema, where drag performers were often used as cinematic objects of ridicule.
Sridhar’s idea was simple. He wanted his audience to laugh with them, instead of at them. The film went on to win accolades as well as hearts on the festival circuit, but its tryst with Indian film authorities was a tricky one.
“My journey with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has been quite eventful per se,” says Sridhar. “There have been many ups and downs along the road. Gulabi Aaina faced the most stringency from the CBFC, I’d say. I applied for certification three times and each time my application was rejected stating that it was too ‘vulgar and offensive’, even when there were no lovemaking scenes in the film. But my next film Purple Skies not only received a U certificate, but it was also broadcast on Doordarshan! That was a precious moment for me. In a country where we are not ready to talk openly about homosexuality at all, the prospect of having my documentary being shown on DD was overwhelming. My recent documentary, Breaking Free received an A certificate, but managed to pass without a single cut! I feel that the rules need to be changed and I’d really appreciate if the government decides to accept the suggestions made by Shyam Benegal’s committee,” he says.
Sridhar has spoken out about homosexuality and sexually-oppressed minorities through documentary films as well as fiction films.
When asked which of the two is his favourite form, Sridhar says, “Each form has its own merits and demerits. Making a fiction film involves a lot of paraphernalia, but it also has a wider reach and complete freedom on the filmmaker’s part. In documentary filmmaking, I can only tell my story through other people’s lives. I enjoy working with both forms, but personally, narrative form gives more satisfaction.”
Sridhar thanks Gulabi Aaina for Kashish, admitting that without it, Kashish would never have happened.
Gulabi Aaina had been selected to screen at the Turin International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. The young filmmaker was overwhelmed by the response his film received and more so by the vibrant community that the festival had managed to bring together. That’s where Sridhar got the idea for Kashish.
“Before that, we only had small-scale festivals in colleges, institutes etc. What I wanted was to bring the large screen experience. Having an LGBT film festival at such a large scale was a way of throwing away the shame and guilt surrounding the topic. It also meant offering an exposure to the audience and familiarising them with queer cinema of the world. I feel that festivals help in removing barriers and help in clearing a lot of misunderstandings,” says Sridhar, adding that about 30% of the audience attending the screening of Kashish is were from outside the LGBTQ community, which proves that people are becoming more open.
Sridhar is currently working on an upcoming feature, Evening Shadows, which aims to explore what it’s like to be queer in a conservative, middle-class family. The film deals with the theme of parental acceptance, telling the story of a son’s coming out to his mother.
“The film is set in a small town. Usually, there’s no dialogue on topics like LGBTQ and there’s far less exposure in smaller towns. So my film deals with a family’s journey towards the acceptance of their son’s homosexuality,” says Sridhar.
While he admits that things have changed over the years, there’s still no guarantee to receive finances to make the next film on LGBTQ themes. Sridhar had been working on Evening Shadows for over seven years and he recently took to crowdfunding platform Wishberry to be able to complete his film. He is still struggling with finances for post-production and distribution.
“I have a dozen more scripts ready! I’m only wondering where the funding will come from. But that’s no reason to stop!” he concludes.