From one of the first Indian movies to portray a lesbian love story to a mainstream Hollywood story which opened up conversations about queer representation on screen, Ansari recommends an eclectic mix of cinema to enjoy this Pride Month
Flimmaker Faraz Arif Ansari. Photo Courtesy: Faraz Asif Ansari
Films are one of the most popular mediums which influence people’s opinion in India. Earlier, mainstream representations of the queer community in Indian films were typically as a source of comic relief and ridicule.
During the last few years, things have improved and commercial movies like ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ featuring Sonam Kapoor and the Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer ‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan’ have portrayed same-sex love stories with sensitivity. However, these films have only scratched the surfaced and there’s a lot left to be desired in terms of LGBTQIA+ representation in Hindi films.
Filmmaker Faraz Arif Ansari has been a strong advocate for realistic storytelling about the queer community in India. In 2017, Ansari directed the silent short film ‘Sisak’ which focused on queer love or rather the challenges of expressing it.
For your viewing pleasure this Pride month, we asked Ansari to recommend a mix of must-watch LGBTQIA+ titles — both Indian and international — which he feels are a genuine representation of the community. “These films are important because of the authentic portrayals. It is important to see the sensitivity behind a queer person, and it is important to understand that the life of a queer person is the same as that of anyone else,” Ansari says. The filmmaker further emphasises that the way a queer person loves is no different than anyone else in this world. They believe that these movies bring out the humanity behind queer portrayals.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
“What a celebration this film is,” says Ansari. Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce play two drag queens in this Australian comedy, and Terence Stamp a transgender woman, who are journeying across the Australian Outback on a tour bus called ‘Priscilla’. They encounter a variety of individuals and groups along the way – ranging from friendly to homophobic. Ansari adds, “Two drag queens and a transwoman in a road trip adventure unlike one has ever seen before but at the same time the film is tender in its narrative and makes one ever so sympathetic to these quirk characters that are unabashedly queer.”
Directed by Deepa Mehta and starring two powerful actors – Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das – this film was loosely based on Ismat Chughtai’s story, ‘Lihaaf’. One of the first Hindi movies to showcase a lesbian relationship, its release in the country was met with a slew of protests and theatres where it was played were vandalised. However, the film started a conversation around homosexuality in India. “This was the first queer representation on screen for me. I grew up in the 90s, so until then the portrayals were very bad and regressive,” says Ansari. For them, ‘Fire’ will always hold a special place in their heart because of the delicate portrayal of women. “The film was done with great dignity, without making a caricature out of it,” says Ansari.
Happy Together (1997)
A couple — Lai (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and his boyfriend, Ho (Leslie Cheung) – move to Argentina from Hong Kong, in search of a better life. Their already rocky relationship turns abusive and results in a cycle of breaking up and making up. The film is a journey of these two characters – both individually and in terms of their relationship. Ansari opines, “This intimate and deeply affecting portrait of a failing relationship is a queer cinema classic. [Director] Wong Kar-wai’s aesthetic flashiness in this dynamic spectacle not only overwhelms the audiences but also challenges them.”
My Brother Nikhil (2005)
This film was based on the life of AIDS activist Dominic d’Souza. Directed by Onir and starring Sanjay Suri as the protagonist, the film was set in a time period – late 80s to early 90s – when the awareness about AIDS in India was considerably low. ‘My Brother Nikhil’ showcased the discrimination and stigma a HIV positive patient had to go through at that time. As per Ansari, ‘My Brother Nikhil’ opened up a larger conversation on acceptance and HIV. “It had a very progressive representation. As someone from the queer community, one can see the sensitivity in the approach and that needs to be applauded.”
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
“What this film did, with its casting, was open a massive conversation in mainstream Hollywood about queer identities, the harassment and violence faced for being queer and how one has to hide away their true sexuality and live a life of pretence and lies,” shares Ansari. The story is adapted from a short story of the same name by Annie Proulx. It delves into the complex emotional and sexual relationship between two American cowboys played by actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. The film’s loss at the 78th Academy Awards in the Best Picture category is debated to this day. Some feel that the conservative attitude of the jury robbed the film of a deserving win.
Memories of March (2010)
The film had a strong cast which included Deepti Naval, Rituparno Ghosh and Raima Sen. It follows the journey of a mother who finds out, following his tragic death, that her son was gay. The rest of the film is about how she goes through denial, reconciles with her son’s lover, and finally accepts the sexual identity of her late son. “Most of the time audiences do not identify with the queer spectrum. For them to be able to get a glimpse of the sensitivity and humanity behind being queer – it is not just about loving someone of the same sex, it is about family, friendships etc – the film touches upon those notes and portray it quite astutely,” notes the Mumbai-based filmmaker.
Super Deluxe (2019)
The Tamil film features four stories about different people stuck in difficult situations. Their experiences somehow connect them. It garnered a lot of international accolades including Equality in Cinema Award at the 2019 Indian Film Festival of Melbourne. Actor Vijay Sethupathi, who portrays the character of a trans-woman Shilpa, was appreciated by critics and audiences alike for the nuanced and sensitive representation of a transgender person. “Hats off to the film for representation, storytelling with so much dignity and at the same time keeping it entertaining,” says Ansari.
“I have been very narcissistic and added two of my own films to the list,” quips Ansari. Their 20-minute silent film is set in a Mumbai local train compartment. It is about two men and the attraction, dismay and the pain of not being able to express love to each other, which comes across organically through the expressions and glances of the two actors – Dhruv Singhal and Jitin Gulati. “What I really wanted to do with ‘Sisak’ was to keep it to the point. It was to show that two people fall in love with each other and then to let them think how can this be wrong?,” says Ansari. They feel seeing two same-sex people in love, most of the time, makes people uncomfortable. Through this film – which has no physical intimacy or dialogue – he wanted people to question how can this be inappropriate and wanted it to be a conversation starter.
Sheer Qorma (2021)
“My reason for making ‘Sheer Qorma’ was that I wanted to have a very sensitive dialogue in the mainstream space. Brilliant actors like Shabana Azmi, Swara Bhaskar and Divya Dutta, who have been strong allies of the queer community, came forward to tell this gentle and sublime story in a mainstream fashion,” explains Ansari. The film, according to the director, also sparks a discussion about gender identity, something which has not been common in Hindi films. The film is a love story between a woman and a non-binary person.