MUMBAI (Reuters Life!) - A gay-and-lesbian themed film festival, said to be the biggest of its kind in India, opens on Thursday in an attempt to improve the image of gays in a nation where homosexuality still carries a heavy social stigma.
Organizers say they hope the four-day "Kashish" festival in Mumbai will create more open dialogue on gay and lesbian issues in the mostly conservative country that just less than a year ago scrapped a law criminalizing gay sex.
"Our main purpose of the festival is that queer issues should be mainstreamed," said festival director Sridhar Rangayan.
The festival comes less than a year after the Delhi High Court ruled that homosexual sex among consenting adults was not a crime, boosting an increasingly vocal pro-gay lobby in India that says the British-era law was a violation of human rights and an impediment to fighting HIV/AIDS in a country blighted by it.
But the change in the law appears to have done little to alter society's dominant anti-gay views.
In a country where hugging and kissing in public even among heterosexuals often triggers lewd remarks and the occasional beating, gay sex has been a taboo subject for filmmakers in the world's most prolific movie industry.
Bollywood has generally shied away from openly gay themes, preferring to occasionally use homosexuality as a comic tool, and even then at the risk of inviting the wrath of right-wing fundamentalists.
"Our main aim is to entertain and start a debate," said Vivek Anand, CEO of Humsafar Trust, an NGO which deals with homosexual rights and is one of the Organizers of the festival.
"We don't want to offend anyone's sensibilities," he said.
The festival will feature 110 films from 25 countries, including 27 from India, most of them short films in regional languages.
The festival will close with what could be termed Bollywood's first mainstream gay film, "Dunno Y Na Jaane Kyon," whose makers are hoping for wider audience acceptance.
"When we started the film, a lot of people told us that a theme like this wouldn't work in India, but I personally think the audiences are far more open now than they were five years ago," said Kapil Sharma, the script writer.
"You just have to treat this subject with sensitivity, rather than reducing it to a comedy," he said.
Editing by Rina Chandran and Miral Fahmy