The conversation about queer performers not bagging queer roles is not new, or specific to Indian cinema. Eddie Redmayne, a cisgender and heterosexual man, recently confessed that he wouldn’t take on the role of transgender Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl (2015) if the film was made today. But while Western cinema has managed to make significant strides in improving queer representation on screen, Indian cinema is seriously lacking. Internationally, queer actors are able to pull both mainstream and independent films. That is not the case at home where on-screen queer stories are rarely performed by the members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
As a straight woman myself, the conversation was never as stark as when I happened to watch a queer film in the presence of a queer audience. At the KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival 2022, which was held in the picturesque premises of Mumbai’s Liberty Cinema, I spent a whole day catching showings of queer cinema with the out and proud community members. At a particular panel discussion, which followed the Mumbai premiere of Sheer Qorma (2021), its queer, non-binary director addressed the question of their leads not from the queer community (yet!). In a tête-à-tête with Faraz Arif Ansari, the director further elaborates on why filmmakers currently struggle with casting queer actors for queer roles.
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ELLE: Does the onus of the lack of casting queer actors in Indian cinema fall on casting directors?
Faraz: I feel this isn’t about the casting directors wanting to cast cishet actors for queer or trans characters. It is always about who the producers want to cast. Most of the casting in India is box-office collection centric which means producers want big names headlining the film to have bigger openings and bigger collections. That is how we work as a country when it comes to cinema — we want big names. The question about representation does not even arise most of the time. As a director, I often find myself walking on this thin line between getting the proper representation on screen, and delivering to the producer’s needs that actually stem from the audience’s needs and what the script demands.
When Sisak (2017) became the first-ever Indian film to win 60 International Awards, many in India did not even know about it because it starred two lesser-known actors. Most of the producers did not even take me seriously until I announced Sheer Qorma with Shabana Azmi, Divya Dutta and Swara Bhasker as leads.
However, what people don’t know is that before casting Divya and Swara, I actively looked for queer actors for almost six months. As luck would have it, none of them fit the role and responsibilities that came with playing Saira and Sitara–two very nuanced characters with performance-heavy roles. I reached out to Divya and Swara as actors who would be a great fit for the role and what it demands. I didn’t ask them about their sexuality or gender identity. Also, what I did consciously was to make sure that most of my crew identifies on the queer spectrum so that we have powerful representation behind the camera–a narrative that is often amiss when it comes to representation. Everyone wants to talk about on-camera representation but what about the representation behind it?
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ELLE: During the panel discussion at Kashish, you mentioned the challenges that you faced in finding queer actors to play the role; elaborate on that further.
Faraz: After writing Sheer Qorma, I told Marijke deSouza, the producer of the film that I would want to cast queer actors for both roles. She gave me all the freedom to do as I want. We received over 500 auditions from South Asian queer actors from across the globe. Most of them were either too young or did not fit the brief of the character sketches. I was even open to relook at the characters given the queer actors that I liked. Still, due to many factors like actors not being in the same country, budget restrictions, visa issues, we were unable to work with them given that Sheer Qorma is an independent film and our budgets were very limited. We tried and we learned. Hence, in 2018, I started free acting workshops for the Indian transgender and queer community associated with Keshav Suri Foundation. So far, we have had three successful editions in Mumbai and Delhi, with over 600 participants. We plan to do our next edition sometime this year.
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ELLE: Many believe that there is a dichotomy in the concept of only queer actors playing queer roles. Since openly-queer actors play straight characters as well. As a filmmaker, do you think it helps if the actor has a lived experience of its queer character or, as performers, their sexuality doesn’t really affect how they bring their characters to life on screen?
Faraz: Our universe exists in duality, trying to seek oneness. While making Sheer Qorma, I got Divya Dutta and Swara Bhasker to meet many folks from the queer community in Mumbai so that they could interact with them. But in the end, Divya asked me something simple and moving — “My love for Sitara will be like what love always is, right?” Of course, lived experiences will always trump research. Still, when it comes to brilliant actors like Divya and Swara, being directed by a queer, non-binary filmmaker and most of the crew being queer, we knew that their representation will come from a deep place of honesty and authenticity because they are seeing, breathing and living in a universe that has been written and is being directed by a queer filmmaker. Hence, I feel it is imperative to have queer representation behind the camera so that our stories are told with authenticity and a queer gaze.
ELLE: We are seeing more LGBTQIA+ stories see the light of day today. As a filmmaker, what do you hope for the next generation of queer actors to bring to the table?
Faraz: As queer storytellers, we need more opportunities to tell our stories, be visible, and have a spotlight in the mainstream. Why is almost every mainstream queer film that has come out in India in recent times has been written and directed by a cishet filmmaker? We, as an industry, need to be more inclusive. How wonderful would it be when queer filmmakers are given opportunities to make films about queer narratives.