At this year’s Brixton Reel, Too Desi Too Queer showcased a number of shorts from both India and Britain, exploring the queer experience in South Asia and diasporic desi communities. LGBTQIA+ desis are still persecuted and stigmatised at home and in the diaspora, and we are hugely underrepresented in pop culture. Too Desi Too Queer challenges desi norms around love, gender, and identity, and it offers hope for the future of queer South Asia.
The screening begins with Maacher Jhol, an animation about a gay man coming out to his father in India. The pencilled, shimmering style gives a sense of constant movement. This effect is paired with the loud sounds of daily Indian life, designed to transport and immerse us. The quiet domesticity of Lalit’s life is offset by the cacophony of India: flies buzzing and people chatting in the market, the lulling snip of barber’s scissors, the sizzle of fish in a pan.
At the barber’s, Lalit daydreams of himself with a lover, both mermaids, free to be with one another in the safety of a fantasy underwater world. The fish motif continues when Lalit returns home to cook a fish curry for a dinner with his father.
Cooking is a staple of South Asian culture and community. Lalit cooks for his father as a form of intimacy and as a way to bond. This scene resonates deeply with me, conjuring memories of my mum and aunt cooking for our family. It’s calming, a communal tradition for desis around the world. When Lalit’s father arrives, he eats slowly and savouringly. We’re waiting for Lalit to come out and for the inevitable negative reaction, but while they eat, everything is peaceful. His father gives him photos of potential brides and the audience laughs. It’s an all-too-familiar heteronormative pressure; it’s funny because we know it, and yet it’s not funny at all.
In the end, we don’t get a resolution. Lalit’s coming out is quiet, domestic. His life carries on and so does his father’s. Home remains a place for respite and cooking and small, meaningful moments. It’s a theme in many of the films at Too Desi Too Queer. Home is supposed to be a place of stability and safety, but this is often impossible for queer people living under oppressive social and legal structures, such as in South Asia. Desi homes are also far more communal than western ones, providing space for extended family and neighbours alike. Desi homes are rarely private but they can offer comfort, warmth, and security. It’s this kind of home that queer desis still seek, and are often turned away from.
This kind of rejection lies at the core of Wajood, a light-hearted film that deals with the discrimination that Hijras face across South Asia. Hijra is a culturally-specific gender identity within South Asia, and one that still faces social stigma and marginalisation. Like trans women all over the world, Hijras are at disproportionate risk of violence. Wajood follows a young Hijra as she seeks acceptance for who she is.
The film opens with our unnamed protagonist putting on makeup and dressing up to a Bollywood-style soundtrack. She looks on shyly at her crush, who doesn’t seem to know she exists. An elder Hijra berates her for being so romantic; her elder knows the pain of being transgender in India. As our protagonist goes out into the world, we see the rejection and disgust she faces. The film feels like a throwaway Bollywood comedy, but it deals with the painful theme of discrimination instead.
At the end of the film, a man stares at our protagonist on a train. She avoids eye contact and there is tension: is he going to say or do something aggressive? Instead, he tells her she is beautiful, and there is hope for acceptance after all.
Hope in Too Desi Too Queer is bittersweet. Many of the films on the bill look to the future to be a more inclusive and accepting place, but they all acknowledge that our current, modern world isn’t there yet. Little Elephant is the first British film we see; an animation full of tea-stained desi imagery, all nature and bright colours and sprawling inks. We hear a British woman narrating, explaining that she hasn’t spoken to her father since her partnership with another woman. They have a daughter who hasn’t yet met her grandfather.
Little Elephant draws parallels between the queerphobia that the narrator faces from her brown, immigrant father, and the racism they both faced while she was growing up. Despite facing bigotry since moving to England, he still perpetuates bigotry of his own. There is an inter-generational gap here, something that many second- and third-generation immigrants understand too well. Her father tries to justify his attitudes. He comes from a different culture to his British daughter, with different values. Both characters are trying to find their place in modern-day Britain, working out what it means to be brown, to be queer, and to be a parent. The film ends with the woman wondering about the future for her own child. She wants her daughter to grow up in a society that will accept her, whoever she grows up to be.
But modern society is still racist and it’s still not safe for queer people. Gay Superhero, an experimental piece, recognises this in its haphazard, loud images piled onto the screen. We see a CGI queer-coded superhero dancing in front of queer imagery, desi pop culture, and Internet memes. It’s a representation of modern India: the Internet has connected us all, including the children and grandchildren of migrants from South Asia to those back home. It’s a flashy, noisy piece. Interspersed with video of brown women kissing and dancing, we see headlines and snapshots of violence against Dalits in India. We’re reminded that India’s modernity has only gotten so far.
The caste system still manifests violently against those deemed less-than. We see dark-skinned, lower-caste women and men toiling hard in the sun. We see headlines of murder and bodily harm against the same people. There are also clips of violent acts against brown and black people in the US and Britain. It’s a reminder of bigotry and exclusion around the world. In the west, we’re told that we are better, more evolved, kinder than nations in South Asia and the Middle East; Gay Superhero knows that we aren’t.
The blaring electronic music and visual riot of Gay Superhero is followed up with Sisak, a quiet short featuring no dialogue whatsoever. Though the soft poignancy of Sisak is a tonal contrast to Gay Superhero, the message remains the same: being queer and desi means constantly fighting.
In Sisak, two men take the same train at the end of the day. The first time, they make hesitant eye contact. One of them slips off his wedding ring. The other looks nervous, conflicted, pained. Each evening, they do this dance and each time, they get slightly closer. The younger man cries one night, hugging himself, and the audience feels his need for comfort, his longing, too. We are reminded of the toll this kind of hiding can take on queer folk’s mental health.
With its lack of dialogue, Sisak evokes emotion in the audience through visual moments: the body language of each man, the glances, the conflict revealed on their faces, their almost palpable desire. We become acutely aware of each facial expression, of how close the men are to one another – will they finally reach out? Will they kiss?
The film ends with a single line on a black screen: “homosexuality is a crime in India.” The film is dedicated to voiceless love stories all across South Asia, the queer ones that are smothered before they can breathe. There remains hope for this couple – perhaps they will find somewhere secret to be together, perhaps desi attitudes towards sexuality will shift – but still we know there’s a long way to go before real freedom is possible.
More Love Less Prepackaged Bullshit takes a different, more wholehearted approach to hope than the rest of Too Desi Too Queer. It’s a three-minute British film that offers pure slice-of-life sweetness. Under a gentle purple filter, we see three people – one black, one brown, one white – in a study of intimacy and love. The partnership is interracial, polyamorous, and queer. It’s a straightforward film: there’s kissing, hand-holding, someone stroking hair, someone stroking a thigh, black and brown bodies portrayed without judgement.
It’s refreshing to see queer, dark-skinned bodies normalised in this way—no melodrama, no suffering, no complications. Just three people, affectionate and in love. It’s a reminder that happiness is possible, even when you’re a queer person of colour. It’s a reminder of what we’re fighting for. It’s not all pain, after all.
The beginning of Devi lies in stark contrast to this celebratory warmth: the film opens on a scene of violence, with a young woman in an altercation in the middle of a street in India. Queerphobic and misogynist slurs are screamed at her, she is assaulted. She fights back.
Her mother comes to pick her up, berating her for getting into trouble. Tara has a sharp tongue and she dresses in western clothes; Tara is the face of the new India, a modern young woman. She is learning how to be queer in a country where male homosexuality is illegal but lesbians aren’t acknowledged at all.
We meet the family servant, Devi, who has a close relationship with Tara. It becomes clear very quickly that there’s more between them but we remain unsure about Devi’s true feelings. The film’s intersectional approach to oppression made this my stand-out favourite at the event. Throughout these shorts, I wanted to see our queer protagonists succeed and find happiness, and that was no different in Devi. I wanted to see these two women find solace in one another, but I also saw the precariousness in Devi’s situation.
In South Asia, it’s still common for middle-class households to hire servants. Servants often become a part of the family—except they aren’t really part of the family. They are usually lower-caste, lower class, and certainly poorer than the people employing them. In Devi, we do get a rare kiss between two brown women, but it’s Devi who is punished for a mutual transgression.
Devi acknowledges that power structures can take many forms; Tara’s queerness does not diminish her middle-class status and subsequent power over her lover. Similarly, it’s vital for real-world relationships to address unequal power dynamics in order to challenge structural oppression and marginalisation.
Most of Devi takes place at home. It’s a theme we’ve seen in Maacher Jhol and Wajood too, and one that reminds us of the struggle for queer desis—especially femmes and lower class desis—to find a place we can belong and be safe. The final film on the bill, Chariot Riders, also looks at what home can mean, this time for brown British boys.
Chariot Riders is an animation in a similar style to Little Elephant, with a desi teenager narrating. He doesn’t like being Indian or brown, suggesting the internalised racism that many brown and black kids in Britain experience. Nonetheless, it’s a charming short with lots of humour. The kid goes home with one of his mates, another brown boy, and they sit watching TV together. Our protagonist daydreams about holding and kissing his friend—the kind of adolescent queer desires you have when you’re still working out who you are, what you want, and how all of it works.
The audience laughs at the boy’s ridiculous musings on whether to touch his friend’s face-fuzz, and whilst there’s no coming out this time, the film ends on a positive, hopeful note. Maybe our boy doesn’t yet understand sex and sexuality, but queerness isn’t the confusing part, for once. As with More Love Less Prepackaged Bullshit, we have a few short minutes of seeing queerness as just another experience. The focus in Chariot Riders is on working out feelings of physical and romantic attraction. Who those feelings are aimed at is less important; these queer brown kids are allowed to explore and learn at their own pace.
I came away from Too Desi Too Queer feeling more positive about the future for our young brown queer community. Whilst South Asia and Britain alike still don’t provide an inclusive, safe environment for brown queers, there are movements working towards change and these films represent a shift in attitudes towards queerness. Queer filmmakers are fighting for their right to be heard and respected. In one event alone, we see a diverse range of queer experiences and identities, helping desi communities and the wider world to see that queerness comes in many flavours.
Most importantly, for me, Too Desi Too Queer was a reminder that I’m not alone as a brown queer living in the diaspora. Being in a room full of desis and other queer people of colour, watching films from queer brown creators, was inspiring and empowering—and a reminder to continue to fight for the brighter, more inclusive future that we all deserve.