LGBTQ and diversity stories at the Indian Film Festival

Celebrating its 20th anniversary in the German city of Stuttgart, the festival offers mixed themes from animal rights to empowerment to love in all forms

The festival is highly regarded throughout the Indian film industry (Photo: DW)
The festival is highly regarded throughout the Indian film industry (Photo: DW)


Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the Indian Film Festival Stuttgart runs from July 19 to 23 this year, and will feature some 60 recent films that go beyond the colorful and extravagant, underscoring social debates.

As Europe's largest Indian film festival, the event has built a reputation for screening films that highlight pertinent social issues such as environmental protection, women's rights, child labor, LGBTQ issues or sexual abuse.

Since its inception in 2004, the festival has evolved from featuring mainstream Hindi-language films — commonly known as Bollywood films — to screening more representative fare in diverse languages from across the sub-continent. It even underwent a name change from "Bollywood and Beyond" to its current moniker.

The festival is highly regarded throughout the Indian film industry. Its coveted awards, the German Stars of India, are given out in six categories, including for best feature, short and documentary films.

Referring to the diverse themes awaiting Indian film fans at this year's festival, program and festival director Oliver Mahn believes that it's "the mix that counts." He developed the event together with the festival's two curators, Uma da Cunha, based in Mumbai, and Therese Hayes, from Palm Springs.

Love is love — gay or otherwise

Through his semi-autobiographical film "Pine Cone," Indian National Award-winning director and gay activist Onir highlights three stages in the life of a gay man — with feeling, emotion, pathos and, most importantly, joy. A person is a person, and love is love.

"Pine Cone" also has the distinction of being one of the first mainstream Hindi-language films to have an openly queer actor, Vidhur Sethi from Delhi, playing a gay role.

"The film celebrates the queer gaze, queer people and queer desire. I also want to show the audience that there's nothing dirty about depicting queer intimacy or desire," says Onir in the festival's press release, adding that it wasn't easy to finance the film.

"The independent film production was shot with the help of a few friends as partners and a minimal crew of 17 people. I didn't find a platform or studio to support me as most find the story 'too gay' and not suitable for a wider audience as gay marriage is not legally recognized in India," adds Onir.

Other offerings that focus on LGBTQ issues include the Marathi-language documentary film "Parlingi" by Suraj Uddhav Madhale, which accompanies a trans person trying to eke out a living as a security guard, as their alternatives would be sex work or begging.

The Tamil-language short film "Kannagi," by Ezhil Vinod Selvan, tells the story of two best friends trying to make their way through puberty while attempting to comprehend their own gender and the people around them.

Of endangered kites and kitties playing Cupid

Animals also play central roles in some of the featured films this year.

The Hindi-language documentary "All that Breathes" by Shaunak Sen tells the story of brothers Nadeem and Saud, who are trying to protect the endangered black kites of New Delhi. Cinematographer Ben Bernhard from Germany's Allgäu region has masterfully captured the effects of increasing pollutionand social tensions in India's capital.

"All That Breathes" has already won Best Documentary at both the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and the 2022 Cannes International Film Festival, besides being nominated in the Best Documentary category at the 2023 Academy Awards. It is in the running at the Stuttgart festival too.

Another contender for the feature film award is "Max, Min and Meowzaki," a heartwarming story about Max, who is dumped by his girlfriend Min, who leaves behind her cat Meowzaki, which Max must care for despite having a fur allergy. Throw in a female cat-sitter and aging, ailing grandparents, and the film promises surprises, laughter, unlikely romances, and bridges across generations. The feline's unusual name, by the way, was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary Japanese filmmaker and anime artist.

Reflecting the conflicts of a changing society

Shikha Makan's "Being Equal" features three popular Indian cricket players and asks why female cricket players in India aren't as celebrated as their male counterparts.

Shubham Yogi's "Kacchey Limbu" (Unripe Lemons) looks at the sibling rivalry between a cricket-loving brother and his sister, and explores the theme of parental expectations versus individual dreams.

When Ana, a US-raised girl from India, attempts to start a library in her ancestral hometown in central India, it unleashes a political and bureaucratic storm. Praveen Morchhale's satirical film "Behind Veils" plays on the fact that books are eyed with suspicion for a prevailing system in India.

Meanwhile "Hello Guyzz!", a documentary film by Samiksha Mathur, explores the life of a mother, wife and daughter who is also a TikTok and social media influencer. Based in a small town in West Bengal, it aims to highlight how the influencer life impacts the protagonist's own reality.

Bollywood junkies will also get their fill: The festival's opening film, "Gulmohar," by German Star of India-winner Rahul V. Chittella, is a bittersweet and profound family dramedy starring Bollywood bigwigs Manoj Bajpai and 1970s heroine Sharmila Tagore.

And no mention of Bollywood would be complete without reference to its still bankable superstar, 57-year-old Shah Rukh Khan, whose box office record-breaking hit "Pathaan" will enjoy its German-language premiere at the festival too.

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