“We need not just tolerance, but total acceptance” – Sridhar Rangayan On His Journey as an LGBT Activist & Filmmaker

Posted on 20 May, 2016 by Team Wishberry

Sridhar-Rangayan Sridhar Rangayan is a name to reckon with and respect in the LGBT community, not just in India but internationally as well. His journey is fourteen years long and filled with commendable efforts, events, upheavals and milestones alike. The most recent one being a National Award win for his film Breaking Free. He has constantly rallied for the rights and acceptance of the queer community, made some of the most memorable and insightful films on homosexuality and has been at the helm of South Asia’s largest LGBT film festival. We managed to steal him for a moment, and learn all about his story so far. Immensely insightful and inspiring in equal parts, read on and see for yourself!

As one of the most influential activists for the LGBT community, what made you step up, take the baton and give the community a voice?

Sridhar: My life has not been straight (all pun intended)! I have taken the curves and turns life has offered, and just journeyed along. I was a late bloomer who became comfortable with my own sexuality only when I was around 28. I was filled with doubt and anxiety for years. When I came out, I was fortunate to meet some amazing gay men who offered me the support system that is so necessary for one to be comfortable and make that journey of coming out easier. I felt it was important for me to do my bit by offering that comfort space to other younger people who need re-assurance that they are not the only person who feel ‘that way’, that it is alright to love someone of the same sex and not feel conflicted about it. Whether it was offering that reassurance through personal interaction or through my films, talks and writings, the only aim is to just reach out and touch those who are struggling with their identity and orientation.

Tell us about your journey, where and how did it all begin?

Sridhar: It was a funny incident. I freaked out when I saw the first copy of Bombay Dost, India’s first gay magazine launched in 1990, which my friend had designed. I couldn’t imagine that we could have an openly registered gay magazine out there in India in the public domain. But when I read the magazine, I realized the importance of what the magazine was trying to do. From the next issue onwards, I was onboard, working on designing and editing the magazine! The magazine reached out far and wide, even to prison inmates! One copy of the magazine was read by almost 30 people – at friend’s places - because they couldn’t keep it in their own house. Then we started a gay support group which grew in number very soon. We founded The Humsafar Trust in 1994, which was India’s first registered gay organization. There was no looking back after that, my personal journey had become politicized!

How did your foray into filmmaking come about?

Sridhar: I was always fascinated by cinema, being an ardent filmgoer from my teens, but I never had any aspirations to become a filmmaker. When I was doing my Masters in Visual Communication at IIT, Mumbai, a short course in filmmaking was part of the overall communication design program. The department acquired its first rudimentary low-band U-Matic camera and an analog editing system. The first exercise was to make a 60 second film with 60 cuts. And I made a kind of surreal thriller. That’s when I got hooked on to the magic of filmmaking. Then I went for the film appreciation course at FTII where I was exposed to the masters of international and Indian cinema. That’s when I decided, this is what I wanted to do – make films. I was working as a designer for an export company then, but I quit my job and joined as assistant director to Sai Paranjpye. Since then it has been an interesting journey as a filmmaker. I am glad that I have been able to make films in all genres and formats – corporate films, ads, serials, telefilms, short films, documentaries, features in comedy, thriller and drama. After a four year stint with mainstream television, when I felt there was no space for alternative voices. So, Saagar Gupta and I, started our own production company Solaris Pictures to make films on issues that we cared about. Since then we have been committed to give a cinematic voice to the community through the films we have produced/co-produced – ‘Gulabi Aaina’, ‘Yours Emotionally!’, ‘68 Pages’, ‘Project Bolo’, ‘Purple Skies’ and ‘Breaking Free’.

How did Kashish MIQFF come into the picture?

Sridhar: Being a filmmaker and having traveled to film festivals around the world, I felt it was important for a film festival where everyone could watch LGBT cinema on the big-screen without shame, guilt or anxiety. KASHISH has become a celebratory space for the LGBT community to come together with pride to celebrate diversity of experiences. It is also a window to non-LGBT audiences / mainstream audiences, to have a window to understanding LGBT lives around the world. It helps dispel myths and misconceptions. KASHISH gets more than 30% of non-LGBT audience and that is a considerable number, who come to KASHISH either to understand more about LGBT lives, or to see good global cinema. Over the years, the issue has become secondary and the aesthetics have taken more importance. From a 123 seater theater in PVR cinema in 2010 to a 1400 seater theater Liberty Cinema since 2014, the festival has grown with its popularity and importance as a cultural event in Mumbai. Over the years, KASHISH has also become an important platform that nurtures young Indian filmmakers with its KASHISH Global and KASHISH Forward programs – screenings of Indian LGBT films worldwide and at colleges in India, respectively. This year, apart from the Rs. 1 lakh cash awards we give out at the festival, we are also launching QGrant Film Grant which offers Rs. 1 lakh to a filmmaker to make his/her next film, mentored by KASHISH Advisory Board members. But the happiest moments are when young filmmakers whose films are shown at KASHISH come up to you and say what a life-changing moment it has been for them to showcase their film on the big-screen to such a large audience. It felt exactly like when I screened my first film at a festival in Italy. The joy has come a full-circle.

What have your experiences and learnings been, as a filmmaker who speaks about subjects that mainstream Bollywood is otherwise afraid of?

Sridhar: There has to be more mainstream films dealing with the subject. While there has been an increasing openness in dealing with gay, lesbian and transgender characters, I still feel that there is a barrier, a shroud, a certain hesitation in offering positive portrayals. When will we see a happy gay film in mainstream cinema? I see more hope in the documentaries, short films and independent films, where there is not only diversity of content and filmmaking form, there is also greater sensitivity in handling the subject. The day hopefully should come soon where the independent and alternative become the mainstream – and that’s what film festivals and online content distribution are doing.

What challenges did you face in your journey so far as a filmmaker and a festival director?

Sridhar: I think there is a tendency to box and cocoon. You are labeled as a ‘gay filmmaker’ instead of a filmmaker who makes films on gay issues. That is very limiting – both in terms of opportunities and creativity. Also, there are very little resources – either through the government or through mainstream cinema – to make truthful honest films on the subject, without distorting or sensationalizing facts. That’s where I think crowdfunding platforms like Wishberry are very helpful. Our latest film ‘Breaking Free’ was partly crowdfunded and partly self-funded. While KASHISH has grown in numbers, stature and importance, it is still a huge challenge to bring together resources – both financial and manpower – to make the festival happen every year. It seems like a humungous uphill task and that has to change. There has to be greater support and recognition of the festival, as not just a LGBT festival, but a cinematic cultural event in Mumbai.

What has been the highlight of your journey as a filmmaker representative of LGBT stories, and as an activist?

Sridhar: Two of my recent films have given me immense satisfaction, in terms of reaching across barriers. ‘Purple Skies’ which was produced by PSBT and was the first film on lesbian issues to be telecast on Doordarshan. Also I have been able to screen at more than 25 film festivals and over 30 community screenings. At every screening, the reactions and interactions have been very interesting, as people came up and said that the film shed light on a very important subject (lesbian lives) in an entertaining and touching way. Our film ‘Breaking Free’, about Section 377 and the LGBT community’s journey from invisibility to empowerment, took us 7 years to make with over 400 hours of footage. But we were thrilled when the film was selected to be a part of the prestigious Indian Panorama 2015 and then won the National Award for Best Editing (non-fiction). It was a glorious moment for LGBT cinema to be a part of the larger Indian cinematic mainstream and recognized by the government. The joy was not just mine, but also that of the community. They felt that this award was a recognition of their struggles. Cherry on the cake was receiving the award from the President of India, with my entire family present! It was the final casting away of all shrouds of shame, guilt and anxiety of making films on LGBT issues. It was complete acceptance.

What motivates you to keep doing what you do?

Sridhar: I am like a Baul singer traveling on his own journey singing his songs. I will continue to making films, organizing events and writing about issues. There will be new roads, new journeys, new people, new experiences – but the joy of doing always what one believes in is the best gratification.

What hopes do you have from the Indian system towards safeguarding and normalizing the rights and lives of the LGBT community? How do you think this will be achieved?

Sridhar: We need not just tolerance, but total acceptance. It is time the judiciary, the government and the society come together to unequivocally advocate for equal rights for everyone, irrespective of their gender identity and sexual orientation. LGBT rights are human rights, and it is the responsibility of not just the LGBT community, but that of everyone. It requires participation from all sectors. From it being the LGBT community’s movement, it has to become a national movement. Don’t miss some of the best LGBT stories from India and around the world at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival 2016 from 25th May to 29th May! REGISTER HERE.

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