The Federal curates this list of 15 films, which portray the struggles and triumphs of the LGBTQ+ community, challenging gender and sexual norms

1. Badnam Basti (Infamous Neighbourhood, 1971): A social drama, directed by Prem Kapoor, who also made Rakhwala (1971) and Kshitij (1974), and Kaam Shastra (1975); the last one was on sex education, a bold theme in those times. Touted to be India’s first gay movie, Badnam Basti was part of the politically engaged Parallel Cinema that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Set in Mainpuri (Uttar Pradesh), it challenges the gender and sexual norms through the story of Sarnam Singh (Nitin Sethi), a bus driver-cum bandit, who is torn between his longing for Bansuri (Nadnita Thakur) — she falls in love with him after he saves her from being raped by another bandit — and his love for Shivraj, the bus cleaner, with whom he had become physically and emotionally intimate. Based on a novel by Kamleshwar, it triggered debates about the boundary between artistic expression and censorship.

2. Fire (1996): A romantic drama written and directed by Deepa Mehta, it had sparked protests across India for its portrayal of a same-sex love story. The film — erotic and subversive — explores how women seek companionship and solidarity when faced with patriarchal oppression and neglect through the relationship between Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das), controversially named after the Hindu goddesses. While Sita is trapped in an arranged relationship with her cruel and unfaithful husband, Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi), Radha is married to his brother, Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), a religious zealot who believes in suppressing desire. As Radha and Sita recognise their similar situations, they grow closer, and their relationship becomes far more involved than either of them could have anticipated.

3. My Brother… Nikhil (2005): Based on the life of the AIDS activist Dominic D’Souza, this Hindi film, directed by Onir and set in Goa in the 1990s, was one of the first films to deal with HIV/AIDS and with the ostracization that HIV-positive patients were subjected to. Nikhil Kapoor, a swimming champion, finds his life falling apart after he’s diagnosed with HIV. His parents throw him out of the house, he loses his place on the swimming team, and is arrested as per the law then. In his troubled times, he finds the support of his sister, Anamika (Juhi Chawla), and his boyfriend, Nigel (Purab Kohli). Despite facing threats from the community, Anamika and Nigel are able to secure his release with the help of a lawyer. Nikhil becomes a music teacher. As Nikhil develops AIDS, he is reconciled with his mother and finally his father. After Nikhil’s death, his parents begin to treat Nigel like a son.

4. Memories in March (2010): Directed by Sanjoy Nag, this English-language film was written by prominent Bengali filmmaker, and a gay Indian icon, Rituparno Ghosh, who died of a heart attack at 49. The film centres on Arati Mishra (Deepti Naval), a grieving mother who visits Calcutta for her only son’s funeral and learns about his secret existence. Blaming her son’s office workers for letting her son drive under the influence, she does not realize that she will be in for more shocks and surprises. Later, she accuses her son’s partner, Ornob Mitra (Ghosh), of seducing her son into this but soon realizes her son’s love for him. By challenging her middle-class thinking and unconscious hypocrisies, Mitra helps her (as a stand-in for the audience) on her road toward acceptance of his homosexuality.

5. Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012): Written and directed by Rituparno Ghosh, this Bengali-language film tells the story of a choreographer Rudra Khokon Chatterjee (Ghosh), who is struggling with his gender identity. As Chatterjee prepares with his team to stage Rabindranath Tagore’s play Chitra — his take on the story of Chitrangada, a character from the Mahabharata Tagore's Chitrangada — he meets Partho (Jisshu Sengupta), a drug-addict-percussionist. Soon, Chatterjee and Partho are deep into a passionate love affair. During the course of their relationship, they decide to adopt a child. But there is one problem: same-sex couples are not permitted to adopt children. He goes for gender reassignment surgery, but love eludes him. The film — which examines the search for gender identity, the class differences that can affect acceptance of one’s sexuality, and the lessons learned for self-acceptance — had its world premiere at the New York Indian Film Festival.

6. Margarita with a Straw (2014): This Hindi-language film, directed by Shonali Bose (of Amu, Chittagong and The Sky is Pink fame), examines sexuality through the lens of disability. It tells the coming-of-age story of Laila Kapoor (Kalki Koechlin), a queer woman with cerebral palsy and a student of Delhi University, who decides to study in New York on a scholarship. At DU, she composes music for an indie band and develops feelings for the lead singer, but is heartbroken when she is rejected. When she moves to NYC, she begins a life-changing same-sex relationship with a firebrand activist Khanum (Sayani Gupta), a visually-impaired woman while also having an affair with a man. Co-written by Bose and Nilesh Maniyar, the film deals with the challenging notions of inclusion, self-love, and self-acceptance.

7. Aligarh (2015): This Hindi-language biopic, directed by Hansal Mehta, is based on the true story of Ramchandra Siras, a professor of Marathi and the head of the Classical Modern Indian Languages Faculty at the famed Aligarh Muslim University, who was suspended on grounds of morality after someone secretly filmed him while he was having sex with a man. A journalist befriends the professor, and his case is heard in court. The court rules in his favour and Siras’ suspension is revoked, but before he can return to work, he is found dead. Written by Apurva Asrani, the film — which had its world premiere at the 20th Busan International Film Festival — features Manoj Bajpayee as Prof. Ramchandra Siras and Rajkummar Rao as journalist Deepu Sebastian.

8. Iratta Jeevitham (Double Life, 2017): This Malayalam-language film, directed by Suresh Narayanan — known for Chaitrada Premanjali (2018) and Mathi (2020) — revolves around a woman named Amina, who runs away from home and returns years later as a man to confront his childhood sweetheart, and his village. After Amina disappears, Sainu is reluctantly married off to a local man. But, almost ten years later, a strange man, Adraman, appears. He is none other than Amina who had undergone a sex change surgery to release the man inside her. The old love is kindled, but it’s a taboo. Adraman is shunned by the villagers, and is unable to find work. Treated as a sex object by some men, who are intrigued by his vague gender, Amina becomes an object of ridicule. Sainu and Amina/Adraman and their love reach a predictable dead end. Based on a short story, the film explores the difficulties of obtaining social acceptance for homosexual partnerships in rural areas.

9. Nagarkirtan (The Eunuch and the Fluteplayer, 2017): Directed by Kaushik Ganguly, this Bengali film — an unsentimental tale of love between Parimal (Riddhi Sen), a trans woman from rural Bengal, and Madhu (Ritwick Chakraborty), a flute player from the Kirtaniya town of Nabadwip — explores the estrangement experienced by the trans community. Parimal’s desire for sex reassignment surgery remains unattainable, complicated by economic barriers. Narrating the story in a non-linear structure with flashbacks, Nagarkirtan portrays the ‘kinnar’ community in a dignified manner, shining light on the history of the third gender, which traces its roots to both Hinduism and Islam. The film, which maps the complex struggles of transgender individuals in contemporary India, aligns with Ganguly’s recurring exploration of sexuality and gender in their body of work.

10. Moothon (The Elder One 2019): In this Malayalam and Hindi-language film, directed by Geetu Mohandas, two small-town siblings escape to the maximum city, each with their own reason. Like her impressive debut feature Liar’s Dice, The Elder One is an urgent drama that reflects on gender, sexuality, violence, and tolerance. 14-year-old Mulla leaves his island home of Lakshadweep and goes to Mumbai to search for his missing older brother, Akbar (Nivin Pauly). In the midst of Mulla’s story, Mohandas takes us back to the days leading up to Akbar’s departure from Lakshadweep, when he met a charismatic mute sent to the island for an unwanted arranged marriage. Their friendship will alter the course of both of their lives. In Mumbai’s underbelly, Mulla is thrown into an abusive orphanage, seeks help from a prostitute and is almost sold into child slavery. He finds the brother who is a gangster and has a relationship with a deaf gay man, subverting the tropes of the usual gangster film.

11. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019): A Hindi teen comedy-drama, produced by Shaili Chopra Dhar, it is based on P. G. Woodhouse’s 1919 novel A Damsel in Distress. It stars Anil Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor, Rajkummar Rao and Juhi Chawla in lead roles and Seema Pahwa , Brijendra Kala , Alka Kaushal, Akshay Oberoi and Regina Cassandra in supporting roles. It is centered on a closeted lesbian Sweety Chaudhary (Sonam Kapoor), who wants to live her truth in front of her conservative Punjabi family. The film marks Anil Kapoor and Sonam’s first film together and Regina Cassandra’s first Bollywood film. It was included in the Core Collection of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

12. Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020): Presenting the life of two gay men who are in love, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (Be extra careful of marriage), a Hindi-language romantic comedy directed by Hitesh Kewalya, depicts their struggle to convince their families to accept the relationship. Produced by Aanand L. Rai, Himanshu Sharma, Bhushan Kumar and Krishan Kumar under the banners Colour Yellow Productions and T-Series, it is a spiritual successor to the 2017 film Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, whose script was also written by Kewalya, it stars Ayushmann Khurrana, alongside Jitendra Kumar (of Panchayat fame), Neena Gupta, Gajraj Rao and Maanvi Gagroo.

13. Sheer Qorma (2021): Starring Shabana Azmi, Divya Dutta and Swara Bhasker, this short film — written and directed by Faraz Arif Ansari of Sisak fame and produced by Marijke Desouza — revolves around a woman and a non-binary person (played by Dutta and Bhasker) in love with each other. Produced by Futterwacken Films, it is a story of belonging and acceptance, identity and family told through courageous, queer women who choose to embrace love that exists beyond their personal beliefs and social moralities. It won the Best Short Film Audience Award at the Frameline Film Festival and also qualified for the British Academy Film Awards 2021.

14. Geeli Pucchi (Sloppy Kisses, 2021): In his award-winning debut, Masaan (Crematorium, 2015), director Neeraj Ghaywan deconstructed the caste system. Part of an anthology film Ajeeb Daastaans (Strange Stories) — which explores the underlying sadness of broken relationships — ‘Geeli Pucchi’ shows how sexuality and caste are intertwined but are rarely represented on screen together. Bharti Mandal (Konkona Sen Sharma), is a Dalit worker, who falls in love with Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari), a Brahmin data operator. However, it soon becomes clear that Priya privileges her caste status over her queerness. A stark commentary and unapologetic gaze on gender and sexuality, and the ways in which caste regulates the choices many people make; often, it entails suppressing sexuality and love.

15. Ek Jagah Apni (A Place of Our Own, 2022): This film produced by Bhopal-based Ektara Collective — an independent, autonomous, non-funded group of people who seek to combine creative efforts and imagination, known for Turup (Checkmate) (2017) and Jaadui Machchi (2013) — is the story of two trans women, Laila and Roshni (Manisha Soni and Muskan), who are evicted and looking for a new home. Laila is torn between being true to herself and preserving links with the family she was born into. Meanwhile, Roshni treads a fine line between concealing her identity and living the life that she wants but it is not without its dangers. As the search for a home continues, it transcends physical spaces and biological bonds. It was screened at the Cannes Film Market, and later premiered at the International Film Festival of Kerala.

Compiled by Nawaid Anjum

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