June is the month for celebrating unions of every stripe, but recent exciting events make us want to celebrate gay civil rights more than anything else. This past week's Congressional steps toward the eventual repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell military exclusion policy of gays is a great thing, but things have been cooking on other continents as well. Last summer the Delhi High Court in India repealed Penal Code 377, decriminalizing private consensual sex between adults of the same gender and overturning a nearly 150-year-old colonial-era law.
So South Asians have cause to celebrate queer heritage too. Whether they live here in Diasporaland or over there in the Motherland, they have news to report and films to show. San Francisco's South Asian independent film impresarios 3rd i—approaching their 10th year in the business—have gotten busy compiling such films into a one-night program ushering in Gay Pride Month. They have plenty of works to choose from. According to 3rd i's press release, "A surge of LGBT films and film festivals are popping up all over India; and even mainstream movies are boldly taking on queer themes (the first full-on male-on-male kiss arrives this summer in Bollywood!)."
While we wait for that Bollywood production to wash ashore, we could do a lot worse than to catch 3rd i's offerings on Sunday, June 6 at Japantown's VIZ Cinema, currently my favorite place to see films in San Francisco. The evening—co-presented with Frameline—begins with a program of six Queer South Asian Shorts. The Calcutta-shot documentary Are We Talking Straight? (Anindya Shankar Das, Prachi Tulshan, Anirban Ghosh, O. Sircar, D. Dutta, India, 2009, 30 mins) is the obligatory person-on-the-street poll of views toward the imminent repeal of Penal Code 377, exposing a wild spectrum of attitudes toward homosexuality. Two of my favorites are parody/inversions of Hollywood and Bollywood: Mr. and Mrs. Singh (Punam S., USA, 2009, 12 mins) views some of the tropes of the Brangelina Mr. and Mrs. Smith through a same-sex lens, and Chingari Chumma, or Stinging Kiss, (Tejal Shah, Anuj Vaidya, India/USA, 2002, 8 mins) forces the clichés of 1980s Indian action films into the realm of queer fantasy. While hero Amitabh Bachchan plunges up and down hills in his car trying to reach his damsel in distress, the bandit has the damsel bound, gagged and caged . . . leading to a most unexpected (but graphic and satisfying!) conclusion. Unexpectedly and beautifully moving also are the final moments of The Bath (Sachin Kundalkar, India, 2005, 16 mins), a film project initiated by a Mumbai-based organization supporting male sex workers.
The feature-presentation program is the San Francisco premiere of the soon-to-be-released 2010 director's cut of Rudi Dolezal's 2000 documentary Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story. The first five minutes are a montage (over Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury's rendition of "The Great Pretender") of characterizations by an impressive roster of informants—Dave Clark calls him "the Eighties' Edith Piaf"—concluding with Sir Elton John's, "Quite simply, he was one of the most important figures in rock 'n' roll of the last 20 years."
Not really interested in proving this importance except by saying so, The Untold Story instead wants to provide a geographical and historical context for the enigma of Farrokh Bulsara, born on the island of Zanzibar in East Africa of Gujarati parents and schooled in Mumbai and later London, where he achieved global fame. Perhaps to explain Mercury's flamboyant zest for life, a priest at Zanzibar's Parsee Fire Temple, where the singer was confirmed into the faith of Zoroastrianism, says that the difference between Zoroastrianism and other faiths is "that, for us, life is a celebration."
At St. Peter's, a rigidly authoritarian boarding school in Mumbai, Farrokh formed a band called the Hectics. Even then he had a coterie of fans who considered him more important than Elvis—and they seemed to love him despite his outrageous penchant for calling other boys "darling." A school friend says, "He didn't have a stage fright, otherwise he would be a shy boy. When he went on the keyboard, he would be in a bliss playing, and like—I would put it crudely—like getting multiple orgasm!" It's comments like these that make you grateful for this film. It's no pedestrian Biography-network profile of the operatic rocker that focuses only on his flamboyant performances and then solemnly switches to his death from AIDS. It narrates the indignant letters he wrote to his parents, his adoration for his little sister, his musical influences from Lata Mangeshkar to Liza Minnelli, his global awareness, his profoundly loving relationship with Mary Austin.
Six years into that relationship Freddie came out to her, and from then on they were lifelong friends. You might expect a film stressing his South Asian roots to be conservative about his gayness, but it's as forthcoming as Freddie's interviews and his associates allow it to be. There's footage of his outrageous 39th birthday party in Munich. Informants include his personal assistant Peter Freestone and the late Jim Hutton, the man who lived with Freddie for the last six years of his life and nursed him through his final illness. It's his female professional associates who reveal the most about him—costume designers Diana Moseley and Zandra Rhodes and, most movingly, opera star Montserrat Caballé, whose duets with Freddie are the peak of his non-Queen career.
Tickets are $10 for each program or $16 for both. Complete program information, including show times, ticket prices and other events, can be found here.
Cross-published on Twitch.