Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Queer Theatre & Short Films - DIQTFF

Theatre and films are wonderful ways to create awareness and understanding about GLBT issues. At the same time, cultural events are opportunities for persons to come out, to have fun and to be with persons who understand their issues and dilemmas. Recently I had the opportunity to witness some of the short films and theatre events organised during the Delhi International Queer Theatre and Film Festival (DIQTFF).

This post is about my experiences on the first day of DIQTFF. Let me start with some of the theatre performances of this festival before talking about the short films. The image above is from a performance by the Sangwari theatre group.


I had already heard about the Asmita Theatre Group of Delhi, which was founded  in 1993 by the well known theatre personality Arvind Gaur. During DIQTFF, Asmita presented different performances. I saw only one of these - Pehchan (Identity). It was led by Shilpi Marwaha.

Using a street-theatre approach, actors wearing dark blue kurtas appeared on the stage accompanied by a few drums. Short interactions between the actors followed one another in quick succession, weaving a tapestry of dialogues from daily lives around the GLBT issues. Parents talking about an effeminate child, young men talking about a gay classmate, a young woman wondering about her attraction to another woman, fears of the parents of a gay son, people commenting about transgender persons on the street, and so on. Usual casual prejudices and discriminations.

There was little time to think about the things said on the stage, as one verbal exchange led to another, signaled by a brief beat of drums. The culmination of the performance was in two moments of violence. In the first episode, a young girl had been sent to her married sister's house where her brother-in-law raped her to "cure" her attraction for another girl. In the second episode, a young man was sexually abused by his friends because he was gay and needed to be taught a lesson, while one "friend" recorded the violence on his mobile phone.

Most of the exchanges and episodes of the performance were allowed to sink in without any explanations while a few times, one of the actors provided the context and a brief explanation. For example, as the young girl was raped, another actor informed that a large number of lesbian girls face sexual violence to "cure" them of their attraction for their own sex.

It was a very effective performance, leaving me stunned and shocked. It deserved the huge appreciation and standing ovation given to it by the audience. The direct language used in the performance was very effective. I wish it can be seen by the students of all high schools and colleges.


Oxana and Layla are two artists from Berlin, Germany who are a couple in real life and complement each other in a wonderful dance and music performance. Both of them are German but have immigrants among their ancestors (One of Oxana's great grandfathers was from India).

The performance has Oxana's contemporary dance and Layla's music. Apart from a saxophone and some strange looking string instruments, Layla also uses some objects from daily life to create her music including some old newspapers and a cup of rice grains.

The performance was like a dream in slow motion expressing different emotions through sounds and body movements. A few years ago, during the world dance festival in Bologna (Italy) I had seen a group of Italian dancers express mental illness through their dance. Oxana and Layla's performance reminded me of that experience. Usually dance and music are seen as motion, dynamism and rhythm. However, appreciating their performance required a slowing down and focusing of attention, almost like being in meditation.


Sangwari theatre group from Delhi was started in 1994. Their performance at DIQTFF focused on spaces given to transgender persons in India. Through dances, questions and role plays it looked at the kind of visibility and space given to lives of transgender persons in the Hindu scared books, in the school books and in the classrooms, in science and in livelihood opportunities. It concluded that the spaces given to transgender persons are almost non-existent and when they are given, they are demeaning to the dignity of persons.

Through the loud claps and brazen gestures commonly adopted by traditional transgender persons (hijra and kinnars) in the streets in India, the performance touched on different issues by laughing at them and making the audience laugh with them, even when it talked about brutality and violence. This made the performance more poignant and effective.

Like the performance by Asmita group, their performance was very powerful, leaving questions in my mind about human insensitivity that allows such brutal exploitation of other human beings without questioning the social norms.


Compared to the theatre performances, the short films presented on the first day of DIQTFF were less powerful and effective. Most of the short films were not made by professionals. Some of them had very poor sound quality. A few were not very exciting visually, limiting themselves to a fixed shots. Here is a brief introduction to the films shown in the festival:

Darwaze (Doors) by Aditya Joshi is about two young guys, Shashank and Komal, who come to live in a flat. Their landlord's brother Mr Kale and his wife, Mrs Sujata Kale (Sanyogita Bhave), live next door. Sujata becomes friends with the boys. One day Mr Kale discovers that the two guys are gay and live as a couple. Angry, he asks them to vacate the flat. Sujata tries to reason with her husband saying that the boys are nice guys, but Kale does not relent. "In our family we don't have such perversions," he says. (Below, a still from the film with the actors playing Sujata and Shashank).

Few months later, Kale's son comes back from the hostel and has a secret to share with his parents. Kale is shocked and unable to say a word. Sujata laughs. It is a short and sweet film. The image above shows Sujata and Shashank from the film.

Khunnas (Estrangement) by Nasir Ahmed is a short film in Bengali. It is about the relationship between a man and his young son, who likes to dress up as a girl. The man does not like it when his son wants to put on make-up and dress like girls but he is also loving to the child. His girlfriend does not like the young boy and says that such boys are not accepted in the society. She tells the man that as long as he has the boy, she will not marry him. One day the man takes his son to a far away place and abandons him in a market. An eunuch takes away the crying boy. Later the man repents and goes to look for his child but can not find him.

The film is a little melodramatic, looking at the child's abandonment from father's point of view, but still makes an impact.

Satrangi by Ankit Tiwari is about homosexuality and GLBT rights as seen by different religions. Made by a group of students, it asks Hindu and Christian priests their views about GLBT issues and uses a Newslaundry video about an Islamic leader about these issues.

"In the Mood for Love" by ?? - I didn't see the tile of this film when it was shown. I am not even sure about its title, which could have been "Love My Way". I searched but could not find more information about this film. However it was one of the better films of the festival.

This film explored the personal meanings given to love in the lives of different GLBT couples. For example, one story was about a gay couple, Rishi and Bijoy. Another story was about a trans-woman Pradipta Ray who wants to be a film maker.

Tanishq by Naveen Tokas is an autobiographical film. Naveen talks about his feminine side, his desires, the difficulties with his classmates in school and college and his challenges with relationships, leading to a gradual self-acceptance and self-confidence. It is an honest film with a moving testimony.

Five Questions by Mohit Arora is about the TV interview of a gay celebrity and the questions asked to him to explain his life choices and the secret of the mask covering his face. The image below has Mohit Arora and some other members of his team.

I have an advice for the young film-makers - when you are sending a film to a festival, make a Facebook page about your film, provide information about your crew and post a few images from your film. None of the films presented in DIQTFF had any Facebook page and I could not find any online information about the works of their film-makers. The only person for whom some online information was present was Aditya Joshi, the director of Darwaze.


Though the quality of short films shown at DIQTFF was uneven, it was compensated by the high level of the three theatre performances. Among the performances, my vote for the most impressive performance goes to Asmita Theatre Group.

So many beautiful films on Queer themes are available on Youtube. I think that curators of DIQTFF should select and show a couple of those films in their festival. This will inspire persons in the audience as well as the young film makers to improve their work.

During DIQTFF, Sahil Verma also presented the Harmless Hugs anthology of short stories. The festival was also an occasion to present a photo-exhibition of Alok Johri, "No Conditions Apply".

Later in the evening, well known Bollywood writer, singer and actor Piyush Mishra presented some of his poems and songs, including my personal favourite from Gangs of Wasseypur, "Ik bagal mein chand hoga".

The festival organised by Harmless Hugs was supported by Love Matters India, Impulse AIDS Health Care Foundation and many other organisations.


Saturday, 10 December 2016

Writers and Celebrities: Times Lit Fest

I was back in Mehboob studios in Mumbai after forty years. This time it was for the Times Literary Festival. It was a day of listening to writers and journalists as well as to two Bollywood celebrities - Kangana Ranaut and Karan Johar.

Nothing looked the same at the Mehboob Studios, starting from the entrance gate. Forty years ago, we had been stopped at the gate by the guard wanting to know who were we meeting. Inside we had been wide-eyed with wonder as we had seen the Bollywood stars of that era - Ashok Kumar, Jitendra, Navin Nischol and Prema Narayan. Except for Jitendra, who is known as father of Ekta Kapoor, probably people today won't even know the names of those other persons. For the Lit Fest, the studio halls were converted into discussion rooms and though there were a film actor and a film director, there were no film sets or shootings going on.

I had come to Mumbai for the launch of the new film of Sujoy Ghosh - Kahaani 2. Along with the well known Vidya Balan and Arjun Rampal, the film also has the film debut of my niece Manini Chadha, who plays the wife of Arjun Rampal in the film. If you have seen the film, do tell me if you remember Manini and how did you like her!

My Mumbai days were hectic - apart from the literary festival and the launch of Kahaani 2, it was a time for family reunions, as well as, some work meetings related to a research project. However, this post is only about my impressions from the Times Lit Fest.

Arguing About Politics - State of Democracy in India

My morning started with the two well known journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai and Tavleen Singh. It was good to see both of them in person but in terms of what they were saying, both seemed to reiterate what they write every day in their columns. Which means that Sardesai was more critical of Modi while Singh was more critical of the liberal-left.

Talking about the state of democracy in India, Singh said that it was a democracy without justice as even serious criminal cases of murder and rape dragged for twenty years. She also felt that the inability to ensure decent education for the children and minimal health services for the citizens were failures of the Indian democracy.

Sardesai said that there were limited choices for the democracy in India as we are only asked to choose between Congress, a family-owned private limited party, or a street populist like Kejriwal or a demagogue like Modi. He also felt that over the past few years, media has also failed to stand up to the Government.

Singh felt that media had been co-opted by the Government immediately after independence of India when Nehru had offered government houses and other perks to big journalists who had accepted those perks. When you are taking benefits from the government, how can you criticise anything, she asked.

In another session in the afternoon, I listened once again to Sardesai and Singh. This time they were accompanied by two more journalists - Jyoti Malhotra and Kumar Kekar. In this session, Sardesai became more emotional, complaining about the pressure of the Modi government on the media houses and how this is affecting journalism.

Kekar also joined in the criticism of Modi by raising the issue of 2002 Gujarat riots and claiming that Modi Government has suppressed the new book "Gujarat files" of Rana Ayyub. (I am not sure about the suppression of Ayyub's book as I saw it displayed in a book shop at the Mumbai airport. It seems to be a best seller.)

Singh asked why media continues to focus only on Modi, forgetting the other riots in India such as the riots against Sikhs in 1984 and the infamous Maliana killing of 42 youth.

Overall, this session was like listening to one of the debates that they have on the Indian TV channels on most evenings, without anything new in it.

Equality, Liberty and Sexuality

I was looking forward to this session on alternate sexualities and it did not disappoint. The session had three well known persons - French author Charles Dantzig, Isreali author Gil Hovav and Indo-German artist Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar. It was moderated by Vikram Doctor.

Vikram Doctor started the session by talking about the rise of nationalism and the power gained by conservative right wing persons/parties in different parts of the world, asking if this is going to create new challenges for persons of alternate sexualities.

Charles Dantzig explained that it is not correct to equate political right wing persons with sexual conservatives. For example, Marine Le Pen has many gay friends and many French gays support right wing parties in France because they are afraid of Arab immigrants. Even the other rising figure of French right, Francois Fillon had started his career with support from an important gay parliamentarian.

He felt that perhaps more public hypocrisy and restraint was needed and that he had been shocked by the kind of backward things said by people against same-sex marriage law in France.

Gil Hovav supported Dantzig's position by explaining that in Israel, in spite of the right conservative parties which are in power and gay marriages are not legal, the government and society are very accepting towards alternate sexualities. He lives with his companion, his former commander in the department of Israeli intelligence, with their daughter, who is biological daughter of his companion with a Lesbian friend. The Israeli society is very accepting and they have not faced any kind of prejudices.

Being a gay or a lesbian is also not a issue in the Israeli armed forces where all are expected to do service, while in France, the army is more anti-gay.

Gil also spoke about the Palestinian issue by saying that he completely supports the right to freedom of the Palestinians. He agreed that the persons with alternate sexualities face a lot of difficulties in the Palestinian society and many of them prefer to live in Israel, but he feels that right to sexual freedom is less important than the right to freedom of the Palestinian people.

Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar said that like gays and lesbians, even for the women, it is difficult to say if they are margainlised by conservative regimes since many women play an active role in these right wing parties. It is the same in India, where women play an active role in the oppression of other women, for example, mothers-in-law in the families. It is more about patriarchal mindsets then about the parties and more dialogues are needed on these issues starting from the schools.

Katharina also said that expressing love in public by persons of same sex is threatening to public because it forces them to confront their own sexuality. The changing society threatens notions of masculinity and patriarchy and thus there is rage among young men. While she feels that the percentage of rapes is higher in Europe than it is in India, here the rapes are more vicious and violent because there is much more rage among young men in India than there is in Europe.

I enjoyed this session very much, it was very thought-provoking. My only complaint was that for the one hour or shorter sessions, they should not have more than 2 speakers since it is difficult to give sufficient time to more persons.

Jonathan Clements, Pallavi Aiyar and Kangana Ranaut

Both Clements and Aiyar are travel writers, writing about Asia. Clements has written exclusively about China and he feels that knowing the local language and a deep knowledge of local culture is necessary to write about a country. His interest in China came at an early age since his father was part of a band, which played in a Chinese restaurant. "Whichever place in the world I visit, I always stay in the Chinatowns", he explained.

Aiyar, on the other hand, writes from a more external point of view without getting too much mixed up with local cultures. She was in the US when she first went to visit her Spanish husband in China and it hooked her, resulting in her first book. Since then she has written about other Asian countries.

Aiyar raised up the issue of the country stereotypes that dominate media. For example, in 2008 during the Olympics in Beijing, the foreign media wrote extensively about the pollution in the city. Two years later, in 2010 when the commonwealth games were held in Delhi, though the city's pollution was as bad as in Beijing, no one ever wrote about it, focusing instead on women oppression and rapes.

I found this session a little boring. My disinterest was probably also because I have not read either of them. So I left their session half-way to go and listen to the bollywood star Kangana Ranaut.

Kangana, being a Bollywood celebrity, had her own session in a big hall, full of people. She was being interviewed by journalist Manu Joseph. She is very articulate. However, the hall was too crowded and I thought that I had already read so much about her views in the newspaper and magazine interviews, so after five minutes, I decided to give it a miss.

The Ethical Slut

This was another session related to sexuality, asking if polyamory is the answer to our promiscuous instinct. The short answer to this question was "No", though the different persons present in this session came to that conclusion very differently.

There were 3 persons in this session – Dossie Easton, Barbara Ascher and Hoshang Merchant. It was moderated by Pragya Tiwari. Both Dossie and Barbara were a kind of therapist-counsellor-spiritual writers kind of persons while Hoshang, is a more rebel poet, looking from his role as a gay activist.

It was not a good combination of persons, because Hoshang clearly did not agree with many of things the other two were saying and came out a bit too strongly. The other two seemed a bit unsure of how to deal with him. Each of them had a lot of interesting things to share and merited their own separate sessions, grouping them together like that did not allow enough space for any of them. It was not a dialogue between them but rather a conflict, till Hoshang decided to leave the stage.

The discussions touched on ideas of romantic love and how these initiated in Europe in medieval period and later came to be seen as universal. Hoshang felt that the ideas of romantic love originated among gay poets and was later taken over by heterosexuals, who began to question if gays can experience romantic love or if they are just sexually promiscuous.

Another area of discussion was instinct versus culture and the possibilities of learning new ways of thinking and controlling the instincts. Regarding polyamory and the ideas of having multiple romantic/sexual partners, the discussions also touched on the role played by jealousy.

I was not satisfied with this session because it did not give me enough time to listen to the views of the three speakers. However, after the Lit Fest, I looked for and bought Dossie Easton’s book “The ethical slut”, because I want to read more about her ideas. I have already read some of the works of Hoshang.

Devi and Demon

I was really looking forward to this session, hoping to hear some stimulating discussion. Arshia Sattar has translated Ramayan while Amruta Patil had done a graphic novel on Mahabharat. Thus the session was organised to focus on the figures of goddesses and demons in these two books and was coordinated by Devdutt Pattanaik.

Pattanaik started the session by talking about the contraposition between the ideas of hermit versus householder in the Indian philosophy and how these two books look at these two ideas.

The session was a little disappointing since both Arshia and Amruta were unable to point towards any new facets of the Devi/Demon characters from the two books. Amruta did talk about a relatively unknown character of Mahabharat, Satyawati, but she was not able to express it in an interesting way. Similarly, Arshia talked about the Shakuntala story but it lacked the spark. The most interesting part of their discussion was about the figures of Mriga (deer) hunting in the two epics.

Both Arshia and Amruta emphasised the need to look at the context of the two epics rather than jumping to conclusions about the motivations and actions of specific characters. For example, Arshia talked about Ram and the difficult choices he makes throughout his life, while grappling with the responsibilities of his public role leading to the negation of his personal desires.

Compared to Arshia and Amruta, Pattanaik was a much more interesting and articulate speaker, but his role in the session was limited.

Loneliness of Men and Women

Before leaving the Lit Fest, I also went to the session of Karan Johar who was interviewed by Jitesh Pillai. Like the Kangana Ranaut session, this was also in the big hall and was full of people. As usual, Johar was very articulate and also seemed sincere in sharing his thoughts and angst. However, most of it was not new since he had already spoken about these things in his numerous interviews in magazines and newspapers.


Among others, I also saw William Dalrymple, Ramchandra Guha and Sudhir Kakkar.

I briefly listened to an Australian Aboriginal poet, Lionel Fogarty, in a session moderated by Ranjit Hoskote.


Overall the festival was a good occasion to see many persons whose works I have read and admired. In terms of new ideas and discussions, there was not so much and the quality was uneven, however that is inevitable in the events of this kind.

It was a bit sad to think that the literature festival organised by one of the most important publication groups of India had not even one big Indian literature figure and no one from the world of Indian languages. Probably after Mahashweta Devi, we do not have any towering literary figures in India any more. Is it because our society today is all about superficial fun-and-having-a-good-time, and there is no time to stop and worry about literature which does not bring any money or power?

It was not possible to participate in all the sessions. For example, I would have loved to attend Devdutt Pattanaik’s session “Is God a boy or a girl? And what about Devil?” I would have also loved to listen to Ram Chandra Guha on history as it happens and history in hindsight. But these sessions were planned too late in the afternoon for me, as I had some other engagements.

However, as a result of the festival, I am planning to read the works of two authors that I have not read before, Gil Hovav and Dossie Easton. So I can say that it was a worthwhile experience.

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