My week of volunteering with KASHISH.

South Asia’s Largest LGBTQ Film Festival.

After attending Mumbai Pride 2017 in January, I knew that I wanted to get involved with LGBTQ activism here. As an ally, it’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while, especially because I have extended family members who are gay, and apart from just a few of us who know, they’re still not able to confidently come out. The rest of the family would just not have it, accept it nor acknowledge it. So in some way, this is an attempt at reaching out to anyone with families such as mine. Do share it with them.

One of my friends in our Pride group told me about KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, an LGBTQ film festival that’s held every year in Mumbai and I was automatically piqued. I was already impressed that even with the continued battle against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, Indian LGBTQ citizens could still exercise their rights to freedom of expression and congregation and individuality, something that’s still very much denied in my country of Malaysia, and many others because yes, homosexuality is also considered a crime there.

We have our own Section 377. In fact here’s a link to all 42 ex British colonies that still have this law in place, with the exception of Australia, Fiji, Hong Kong and New Zealand who have all since repealed this invasive law. Good for them. Now why are the rest of us still hanging on to the relics of colonisation? The Brits have long since repealed their own law that they’ve imposed on everyone else and same sex marriages were officially legal in the U.K. since 2014. What are the rest of us waiting for?

I applied for as a volunteer and got accepted as a Social Media Intern for the film festival. I was beyond excited, a brand new face, and a foreigner, in a diverse team of people, many of whom were already part of what they call the KASHISH family as this was its 8th year running. And when I say diverse group, there were folks from a mad variety of professions and places. There were techies, people in the banking sector, film makers, journalists, students, one of whom actually travelled 36 hours by train to Mumbai just to volunteer for the film festival. There was even a masseuse.

From the get go, the fervent anticipation of the event was physically palpable for everyone there. The few volunteer meet ups that happened were in basement rooms of small hotels. It is still society’s way of saying, yes, feel free to practice your invidual rights, but not in our faces please. Even though KASHISH has become legitimately successful as a mainstream film festival, growing exponentially over the years to the scale it is now.

This year, 147 films, documentaries and short stories from 45 different countries were screened. I mean come on, that’s an immense line up. And the quality of movies that were picked from over 1200 entries, were overwhelmingly impressive. These were not your regular angsty, morose coming out stories that is such an overplayed narrative in mainstream movies. These were beautiful and heart breaking stories of real people from all over the world.

They were raw, heart wrenching and eye opening with an insane poignancy that put me on a roller coaster of emotions. I mean idiotically, I’ve always felt like I knew so much about what it’s like to not be straight in our heteronormative societies, just because I’m an ally, but after watching a couple of the movies and documentaries, I’ve come to the mind numbing conclusion that I know absolutely nothing. For every straight person that is reading this, trust me, you know nothing of what it’s like to be born gay or trans on this planet. Even if you’re strong supporter of the LGBT community.

One of the documentaries that was in the running for the Best Documentary Short Award, completely shook me to my core.

It was a 30 minute Malayalam movie called Naked Wheels, set in the state of Kerala, directed by this gentle, unassuming and brilliant human being called Rajesh James, and this was his Mumbai premiere.

It gave me a glimpse into the actual psychological state of a Trans person, and what they are forced to go through. One of the main protagonists -a Trans woman- while talking about her life experiences, mentioned that every little thing that she has to buy- from food to personal effects to even a box of matches- basically anything that she has to spend money on to survive, has a tax on it. And she, just like every other human being, is forced to contribute to the country’s coffers by the taxes she pays as a citizen. And as tax paying citizens, we all get to question our governments as to how our money is being spent in benefit to our societies don’t we? But not them. They’re not allowed to even get employment anywhere let alone experience basic rights that the heteros have. Like the right to exist, work, play, fall in love, have a family.

She tearfully spoke about how she was trying to push a new bill within her local political senate along with other Trans people. She wants to propose that the government allow mercy euthanasia for the Trans community. Because they’re not allowed to live like anyone else, they’d rather be given the choice of ending their lives with dignity rather than being forced into begging or sex work, like most Trans women are pushed into in this country. Not to mention how their lives are under constant threat of abuse or even death. Hearing that broke me to pieces. I sat in that old theatre hall and sobbed for our lack humanity and how most of this world strives to maintain our blissful yet dangerous ignorance and anti gay rhetoric under the mighty umbrella of religion.

Naked Wheels won Best Documentary Short at KASHISH.

Apart from the films, there were workshops and really insightful panel discussions concerning the LGBTQ movement here in India including support group discussions for parents and family members. A play reading of the Indian version of Eve Ensler’s award winning play- The Vagina Monologues, that showcased the formidable talents of actresses Mona Ambegaonkar and Ghazal Dhaliwal- who is Trans- and the powerful delivery of their lines that made every single hair on my body stand in mesmerised awe.

Aside from being a safe space where the LGBTQ community can come enjoy themselves, events like KASHISH, to me, is the exact kind of education we all need. Because for how much longer are we going watch this marginalisation from afar? Just because we don’t understand it. That’s just not a feasible excuse anymore when the exact people we are discriminating against are literally trying to teach us and show us what it’s like for them to live in our world. And it’s not their job to do that! It’s our job to want to learn, and change our current social structures that do not promote inclusivity and equality.

No matter what religion you believe in, your belief system should not impede the basic human rights of others, and how they wish to love and be loved. I still have family members who are unable to grasp the very fundamental idea of consent and equate homosexuality to paedophilia. Just like racism, homophobia is taught, and we are all in dire need of re-education.

KASHISH was an experience that I will be forever grateful for, just because of how much I learned throughout the 5 days of the festival. The whole team from our Festival Director (Sridhar Rangayan- award winning filmmaker) right down to us volunteers, worked tirelessly during those 5 days. It was exhausting, exhilarating and emotional, but every day was filled with so much amazing energy and focus. Even from the delegates who came to enjoy the films. It felt just like Pride. The outpouring of love that I experienced there is something that I can’t even put into words.

But I will say this- equality and acceptance do not come with a price at all, but fear does. And we’ve all been paying the price of fear for far too long.

Photo credit: KASHISH MIQFF