Major studios should invest in coaching future trans actors through exclusive workshops
Neeraj Churi on LGBTQ+ shorts and documentaries | Exclusive: Neeraj Churi is an Indo-British producer based in the UK. His credits and collaborations include feature films like evening shadows (winner of 24 international awards) and other critically acclaimed films including Sisak (winner of 59 international awards), U Ushacha (winner of 8 international awards), The last letter (winner of 2 international awards) and Pure Qorma (2021) with Shabana Azmi, Divya Dutta and Swara Bhaskar in the lead roles (winner of 4 international awards). He talks about the challenges and taboos in finding investors for LGBTQ+ topics, casting Shabana Azmi and Swara Bhasker and more in an exclusive with India.com.Also Read – Lebanon’s LGBTQ community suffers setback amid wider crackdown
Your movie Sheer Qorma had talented actors like Shabana Azmi, Divya Dutta and Swara Bhasker. Shabana and Swara are known for their strong opinions on socio-political issues. Did their casting in Sheer Qorma also help raise awareness for the LGBTQ cause in India?
Casting decisions are often influenced by the story, the filmmaker, and how much emphasis you want to give to the issues the film covers. By choosing these powerhouse actors, we were able to incorporate conversations about the topics we wanted to highlight through our film. Not just in India, but all over the world. The story and direction trio of filmmaker Faraz Ansari and the talented cast helped Sheer Qorma become the first Indian film to win the People’s Choice Award at the prestigious Frameline Film Festival (one of the biggest LGBTQ+ film festivals around the world). We hope that the film’s popularity due to its screenplay, stellar star cast, and international awards will continue to attract global audiences, which will help us spread its message. Also Read – Shooting in Norway: Two dead, more than 20 injured at Oslo Pride festival in suspected terror attack
There is an ongoing debate in India. While films like Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, Badhaai Do and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan have highlighted the LGBTQ narrative. It is claimed to cast actors from the LGBTQ community instead of popular actors. In Bollywood, however, for commercial reasons and to reach a wider audience, big stars mostly play difficult roles. What is your opinion on that?
A nuanced distinction must be made here between gender conformity and sexuality conformity to a role. In a country like India, where many actors don’t have the privilege of stepping out without impacting their careers, we understand the casting decisions made for roles in movies like Bahai Do and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. However, for films such as Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, every effort should be made to recruit from the transgender talent pool in India today. The major studios certainly have the budget to invest in coaching future trans-actors by holding workshops. If casting trans actors is not possible for some reason, the team can at least provide opportunities for people from the trans community as apprentices in costume, makeup, art or any other department behind the camera to provide them with experience and skills. The studios behind these films could have donated part of the profits to trans and LGBTQ+ NGOs to help them carry out their work. Also Read – Bhumi Pednekar Slays In Hot Bodycon See-Through Dress, Fans Say, “Raise Bhums Temperature”
You have supported short films like Muhafiz, Queer Pariwar, Gair and Temple. They have all graced international film festivals. Any particular reason to focus on short films and target film festivals? Do you plan to support a feature film intended for a wider audience or theatrical releases?
Funding for short films is more manageable. But the most important reason is that funding an independent feature film on LGBTQ+ topics is still a taboo. Yet the moment they hear about LGBTQ+ topics, there is hesitation on the side of investors, either because they doubt these films will make money or because of inherent homophobia/transphobia. People need to realize that LGBTQ+ stories transcend borders and the films are loved by the LGBTQ+ community around the world.
We are in the process of releasing our first feature film in the post-production phase. The film was part of the Cannes Film Market (Marche Du Film) as part of 5 Indian Films selected under NFDC Goes to Cannes.
Films about LGBTQ or caste issues mostly fall under the category of auteur cinema and are restricted to film festivals. Do you think that in order to use cinema as a soft power medium, it is important to add a commercial infotainment aspect to films with social themes?
Many mainstream films such as Sairaat have covered caste, while films such as Badhaai Do cover sexuality. The post-pandemic taste for movies and OTT content has changed with people’s openness to foreign films and even arthouse films. All the films I’ve been a part of aim to infotainer without being preachy. We maintain a delicate balance between cinematic experience, content/messaging and entertainment. Ultimately, distributors and OTT platforms should take a chance on allowing these movies to be seen.
There is a new issue that is being taken seriously by privacy coordinators in the film industry. When making an LGBTQ film, some on-screen privacy is an essential aspect. Did you have an intimacy coordinator on the sets of one of your short films?
Making the actors feel comfortable on set is our main goal. Intimacy Co-ordination has picked up recently, but their fees and lack of sufficient co-ordinators can sometimes make it difficult for short film budgets to afford them. However, we have long discussions with the actors and their agents before even signing to make it clear on the stages. We put nudity and privacy clauses in the contract to make sure all parties are on the same page. All actors are empowered to change their minds even on set if they feel uncomfortable. Intimate scenes are shot with a skeletal team preserving the strictest privacy.
- Are there any other social themes that you would like to explore as a producer and support in the near future? Do you plan to also bring themes like MeToo, climate change, mental health, cyberbullying – sextortion, hate speech etc. ?
We are always looking for scenarios and ideas that push the boundaries of LGBT+ representation and intersectionality. Our current list focuses on issues related to housing and the transgender community, especially in smaller towns; finding love with a physical disability; barring through sexuality and schizophrenia; navigating gender dysmorphia; marriage equality, interfaith love, and more. We are in the early stages of developing a climate change project in an Indian diaspora community. Even film festivals and OTT platforms sometimes fail to provide the right platform accessible to a wider audience. Therefore, we started our YouTube channel to spark many such conversations that impact the community. We tackled the LGBT+ community and mental health through our short film Spirit Mera Spirit. Many multinationals have approached us to screen this film in their organizations to help drive conversations forward.
For more updates on Neeraj Churi and LGBTQ+ Film Festivals, check out this space on India.com.