Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The genre and the specific”

Posted on July 25, 2014

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“Gay movie.” “AIDS movie.” “Chick flick.” Thoughts on the informal tags we slap on films…

By the time you read this, the Chennai International Queer Film Festival (or to call it by its proper name, Reel Desires: Chennai International Queer Film Festival) will be on its last day. And if things go according to plan, I would have inaugurated it a couple of days earlier. The press release informs me that the three-day event will screen “shorts, documentary and feature film submissions that explore the intersections among sexuality/gender identity and other forms of marginalization, including those based on gender, disability, immigrant/refugee status, caste, religion, socio-economic class, age, and race/ethnicity.”

So there’s no question about it. This is a vital and very necessary event – a corrective to the sad and inadequate representation of gays (and immigrants and refugees and the disabled and everyone else in that list above) in mainstream cinema. Just one question, though: Isn’t this festival itself a kind of marginalization? Doesn’t it also ghettoize the films being shown as “queer films”? Yes, these are “queer films,” in the sense that these are films that deal with queer issues. But if one of the purposes of this festival is sensitise the non-queer population to queer issues, then does the tag of “queer cinema” help or hinder in bringing in non-queer viewers? And if they don’t come, aren’t these festivals essentially just preaching to the congregation?

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I’m looking at this from the angle of cinema, where genres exist simply to define what kind of movie awaits us. When we hear about a Western, for instance, we know it’s most likely going to be a story set in the frontier, with lots of cowboys and Indians shooting at each other. (I’m being deliberately reductionist here.) So a potential viewer is going to have one of the following responses. “Great! I love Westerns. I can’t wait to see this film.” Or, “Crap! I can’t stand Westerns. There’s no way I’m wasting two hours of my life on this.” Or, “Hmmm… I neither love nor hate Westerns. If it appears to be a good movie, then I’d like to watch it.”

But it gets trickier when you get into loosely defined sub-genres – the “chick flick,” say, or “the gay movie,” or the “AIDS movie,” which, like it or not, carry a bit of taint among some sections of the audience. If I label Notting Hill a “romance,” then you may not have a problem watching it, but if I call it a “chick flick” (which it certainly is, seen one way), then you may find yourself dithering.

That’s where I’m coming from. In my opinion, The English Patient is the story of two people who want to be together but are unable to do so because of societal restrictions – and so they have to meet secretly. The exact same description could be applied to Brokeback Mountain as well – so, in theory, if you consider yourself the target audience for The English Patient, then you are also the target audience for Brokeback Mountain. But it doesn’t quite work that way. Nobody takes the trouble to call The English Patient a “heterosexual romance,” but Brokeback Mountain is almost always described as a “gay romance.” Doesn’t the “gay” tag end up making the movie sound somehow more… different or marginalized than it needs to be? Is Dallas Buyer’s Club a life-affirming movie about an ordinary individual bucking the System – very much like the crowd-pleasing Erin Brockovich – or is it an “AIDS movie”? If the latter, then don’t the numbers of its potential audience drop instantly?

I’m not sure if the assumption I’m operating under is true – namely, if you remove the taint, the tag, then large numbers of audiences will rush to embrace the film in question. But doesn’t it help even if a few extra people who may not have seen the film end up seeing it now? Maybe you’ll call it cheating. But if you are able to get someone to see something under slightly false pretences (and calling Brokeback Mountain a “tragic love story,” like The English Patient, certainly isn’t a lie), and if that someone slowly warms up to the film and is able to come away with a different worldview, then isn’t it worthwhile?

And yet, at another level, when you see films not just as cinema but as mirrors to society, these tags do become important. Because they show that movies are being made about specific cultures and sub-cultures, many of whom remain voiceless until a big movie is made about them. And let’s face it, whether Hollywood or Bollywood, there’s nothing like a big movie to shine a big light on a big issue. Just look at how common discussions about dyslexia became after Taare Zameen Par. So with these thoughts swirling in my mind, I turned to Deepan Kannan from Orinam, one of the organisers of the film festival, for some clarification.

This is what he said: “I feel labelling or tagging films a certain way is a challenge for all movies that deal with important social issues. It is not limited only to queer films. For example, a movie that has a female central character, even if it has only commercial elements, continues to carry labels such as ‘women-centric’ or ‘feminist.’ Kahaani had to bear that tag and was celebrated for being a box-office hit ‘despite being women-centred’. Fandry, the critically acclaimed Marathi movie, had a coming-of-age love story at its core (at least partly). But this was projected as a “Dalit” movie, because it dealt with the issues of the marginalized community. That could have been the choice of the filmmaker. But such a tag could restrict the film from reaching a large audience due to two reasons. One, because of the tag, these movies come to be viewed as ‘alternative’ and ‘offbeat’ (when, in reality, the film could be a very commercial prospect) and may be avoided by mainstream moviegoers.”

“The other reason is that people entrenched in bigotry may largely tend to avoid it. For the second reason alone, these tags are important. They are an affirmation of the silenced voices, and they represent a fight against such bigotry. Such a tag for any art form, not necessarily movies alone, will help communities create a space for themselves, which is otherwise denied. That way, these labels become very important. And at least in Indian cinema, stories based on sexual and gender minorities have seldom been told. So, in a way, giving a tag to these films will help create a platform to tell these untold stories. As a movie buff, I definitely feel that labels, in some cases, may give a very reductionist view of the movie. But at the same time, as a ‘feminist’ (yes, that’s a label I’ve given myself), I believe that these labels definitely help marginalized communities to rightfully demand that their voices are not silenced by the privileged and mainstreamers.”

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.