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Broadening the frame

A package of films on gender and sexuality is part of this year's Open Frame festival

A still from Navdeep Sharma’s ‘A Safe Person To Talk To’.
A still from Navdeep Sharma’s ‘A Safe Person To Talk To’.

Of the hundreds of stories in the 41 films at this year’s Open Frame Film Festival, there are two that take a surprising turn. One of these is from Mitali Trivedi and Gagandeep Singh’s Please Mind The Gap. Anshuman, a transman living in Delhi, narrates a strange encounter he had on the metro, when a man kept staring at him. Anshuman is used to people trying to figure if he’s a boy or a girl, but when the stranger placed a hand on his shoulder, he was startled. “Relax," the man said, “I’m just like you," before explaining the process of transitioning. “That was such a happy day," Anshuman says with a grin.

The other story is from Anindya Shankar Das’ Zara Nazar Utha Ke Dekho, in which unseen narrators across the gender spectrum talk about their experiences cruising. One of these narrators, a gay man, remembers a make-out session in a public park interrupted by a policeman. After his partner bolts, the narrator argues with the cop—who he suspects is gay. He ends up having a sexual encounter with the policeman. After that, he says, the same policeman caught him “getting into the park with other men quite a few times…he would look at me and smile".

These two films, and four others, are part of a package called “Engaging with sexualities", screening at Open Frame this year. The timing couldn’t be better. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court read down Section 377, effectively decriminalizing homosexuality in the country. These films show how arduous the path to LBGTQ+ equality has been.

This is the 18th edition of the festival organized by Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT). Twenty-seven of the films are PSBT productions, 13 are Mini-INPUT (films shown on public TV across the world), and the international showcase is Last Men In Aleppo, the Oscar-winning 2017 documentary about the Syrian rescue force the White Helmets. The screenings will be held from 13-18 September at India International Centre in Delhi.

Please Mind The Gap is arguably the pick of the package. It has, in Anshuman, the kind of protagonist documentarians pray for—camera-friendly, funny, frank. The title derives not only from the warning periodically given to passengers on the Delhi Metro, but also from the gap that Anshuman experiences, and sometimes has to maintain, in his life. He says he often stands or sits in the portion connecting two Metro coaches (“It’s a great place if you don’t want to touch anybody"). He stands in the men’s queue for the security check at the metro station but because he’s still transitioning, he has to watch for the frisking techniques of the guards—whether it’s up the front, or just a distracted hand on either side.

The directors have a deft touch with visual storytelling. We see Anshuman board the coach reserved for women and then move over to a general coach: a simple, effective metaphor for someone who grew up a girl but now identifies as a man. The film is largely shot in the Delhi metro, and the details captured are specific and charming. In one scene, a pair of feet moving to the tune of a harmonica is replaced, after the person gets off at a station, by another jigging pair.

While Anshuman is a cheerful presence in front of the camera, the central figure in A Safe Person To Talk To is only heard, and observed from the back. Navdeep Sharma’s documentary follows a student in South Delhi’s Tagore International School, who’s never felt like “a part of either group (boys or girls)". “Gender is… like a name," the mellifluous-voiced “Y.V." reasons. “If you tell me your name is Y, not X, I can’t argue with that." Over images of other children at work and play, the narrator admits that although the internet provided a safe space and an opportunity for true expression, a similar niche had to be carved out in the real world as well. Y.V., happily, found this at school, through the support of the student counsellor, principal and the more supportive students.

The world of A Safe Person To Talk To—with its sensitized educators and gender binaries—is a welcome but rarefied one. Zara Nazar Utha Ke Dekho is probably closer to how many LGBTQ+ people in India have to live their lives. The film is a series of vignettes about cruising in various Indian cities. You have an English-speaking gay man talking about how gentrification has changed the old pickup spots; a Punjabi driver who takes partners back to his truck; the trans sex worker whose customers don’t “know about apps" and who must therefore frequent visible public places; a Bengali man who terms the encounters he had in a dark cinema hall a “powerful addiction".

Ajita Banerjie’s I’m Not There, about gender’s links to different kinds of migration, is intriguing but, at 13 minutes, perhaps shorter than the subject merited. Rounding out the package are Madhuri Mohindar and Anushka Shivdasani Rovshen’s Breathe, which draws parallels between sexuality and mental health, and Rituparna Borah and Ritambhara Mehta’s Ishq, Dosti And All That, in which a transman and a lesbian look back at their past relationships. And, of course, there’s plenty more for non-fiction film enthusiasts, including Lubdhak Chatterjee’s elegant Vaikhari, Priyanka Chhabra’s Partition-themed Pichla Varka, recent works by Avijit Mukul Kishore, Anupama Srinivasan and Vipin Vijay, and more.

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