A treasure trove of short queer cinema – and one feature – from cultures where creating it can be a criminal act
Despite its status as one of the world’s great cultures, India retains brainless anti-queer laws on the books: specifically, section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which categorizes “the act of homosexuality” – sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus – as punishable by life imprisonment. Of course, determined queers can’t be stopped by mere law; it’s believed that 50 million Indians have sex with other men, and of those 12.5 million are exclusively homosexual. These little tidbits come from Riyad Wadia’s Bomgay, one of the standout works in Trikone’s enticingly brief film fest QFilmistan.
This San Francisco event, billed as the first South Asian LGBT film festival in North America, is mostly a shorts showcase, but includes one outstanding feature. The shorts cover a bracingly wide range of subjects and styles. Riyad Vinci Wadia’s Bomgay is the most ambitious of the ones screened. Structured around six poems by R. Raj Rao, this stylized tour of the gay male underground samples many a classic queer space, or transforms those that aren’t already queer: the breakfast table, a Warholesque nude library, a grimy tearoom. Rao and Wadia’s approach is both celebratory and satirical, the latter taking an amusingly scatological turn in lines like “Constipation is an occupational hazard!” (They also thoughtfully reassure us that all’s soon right: “Next day the bowels are loosened and you are redeemed by noisy shit jets!”) The library scene, in which nude hunks eat eggs off each other’s tits, should assure limited release of this work in India.
Another knockout short is Nishit Saran’s reality doc Summer in My Veins. Nishit lives in America, and is gay but closeted to his relatives. When his mother and two aunts come to visit from India, he decides to come out to them. But there’s a complication. He’s also recently had sex with an HIV-positive man and is awaiting the results of his test. Summer in My Veins follows Saran’s double struggle, but the real stars are his mother and aunts, a randy, sophisticated trio who must translate their open, life-loving attitude into an embrace for their gay son and nephew. The mother’s reaction scene, particularly, is a subtly riveting “performance” of a kind that can’t be coached.
Lest it seem the fest is an all-male event, there are also plenty of lesbian, tranny, bi, and general genderfuck works here. In Sheila James and Melina Young’s Lakme Takes Flight, for example, a prop plane provides the perfect locale for a hot dyke tryst. All travel agents could take a lesson in literal customer relations from the one here as she climbs on board and on top of her comely passenger. Their operatic serenading of each other adds a wonderful touch. Another worthy effort is Sonali’s Sum Total, which dazzlingly deploys advertising conventions – isolated body parts, words onscreen – to show the lesbian identity as literally self-constructed. Punam Sawhney’s The Goddess Method opens with a young queen assailed by parental bitching – “Where did we go wrong!” – but offers an unexpected solution. The beleaguered boy becomes a drag queen, a cool dancing tranny who taps the inner goddess to fight the evil forces of parent and society. In a dazzling swirl, the queen’s wild dance collapses the voices of disapproval into a mélange of harmless chatter.
American pop culture, never far from the common consciousness and always accommodating to queer sensibilities, provides fodder for several of the films. Gitta Reddy and David Kalal’s Hindustan takes the ‘50s Bing Crosby/Rosemary Clooney title tune and has Hindi actors mouth the words of the “wrong” sex. David Kalal’s Love Song for Persis is a sweet paean to the androgynous pleasures of Persis Khambatta, the otherworldly actress of Star Trek fame. Sexy Sabu of 1940s Hollywood jungle boy fame gets the icon treatment in Ian Iqbal Rashid’s Surviving Sabu.
Some of Bollywood’s secrets are unearthed in the Desi Dykes and Divas: Hindi Film Clips show, compiled by Gayatri Gopinath and Javid Syed. The task of wading through thousands of old Bollywood musical melodramas in search of the occasional evil village queen or butch bulldagger must have been daunting indeed, given the pressures not to acknowledge such millennia-old staples of folklore. The rewards are evident in bizarrely intriguing clips with sarcastic titles (gleefully imposed by the presenters) like “Two Dykes Sing to a Piano Queen About the Joys of Khush Love” – a startlingly accurate précis of what happens onscreen as the women alternate between drooling over each and sending bemused glances to the queen, who haplessly hammers away.
The lone feature here, Waris Hussein’s Sixth Happiness, has been shown at previous festivals but seems to be hard to find on video (despite an alleged release; see “Access” below). A pity, too, because the film is a wonderfully satisfying double portrait of the tragicomic details of middle-class Parsee life and of Brit, a four-foot-tall “boy” (we see him from birth to his thirties) with brittle bone disease, withered legs, and an undisguised lust for both a hunky young boarder and the latter’s girlfriend. That the film visualizes these scenes without sentimentality is practically miraculous given the usual approach to sex among the disabled, and one of many reasons to check out this festival.