Exclusive: Film producer Neeraj talks about LGBTQ movies, Section 377, same-sex marriages, and more
"I came out around 25 years ago. The initial response was that of shock and sadness. That slowly changed through a continuous dialogue," says Neeraj, who promotes South Asian queer cinema and helps his community.
Neeraj began making movies with the express intention of making and promoting South Asian LGBTQ+ films throughout the world after learning how few possibilities the community had to tell its experiences on the big screen. In India and the UK, he has made fiction and documentary movies. He supports the Kashish QDrishti film grant through his organisation, Lotus Visual Productions, to assist emerging filmmakers in bringing their LGBTQ+ screenplays to the big screen.
By planning theatre screenings in the UK, curating film festivals, and organising corporate screenings, he promotes South Asian gay cinema. His debut feature film was just chosen as a part of NFDC Goes to Cannes at the Cannes Film Market. He attended the New York Film Academy before. He is the owner of Lotus Visual Productions, a production company.
What would you want to tell society about acceptance?
Much like we accept people with different eye colours or hair colours or those with left-handedness, society must understand and accept the gender and sexuality spectrum. Acceptance is a two-way street. When we in the LGBT community accept you as our parents, siblings, friends, and co-workers, it is just as natural for you to understand and accept us. Plenty of resources are available to educate oneself to be a better ally.
As parents, siblings, or friends, you may realise about us. Please don't wait for us to come out to you; you are always welcome to create a safe space and ask us instead. You will reduce much coming-out anxiety we face as LGBT individuals.
Can you recall a perfect experience till now?
Coming out is a continuous process as one needs to come out to new people, friends, and co-workers we meet daily. Coming out to my parents and sibling was a challenging process. But the part I dreaded the most was coming out to my 16-year-old nephew, to whom I was close. So one fine day, I told him the truth and was heartened by his positive response and acceptance. He said it felt cool having a gay uncle.
How are you doing today regarding your career and personal growth?
I have been blessed with good support from my partner of 25 years. We both have been supporters and anchors for each other. Both of us started our journeys from humble beginnings. After meeting each other, we encouraged and supported each out to pursue higher education and opt for better career prospects. I have supported his endeavours in baking, and he has wholeheartedly supported my foray into the production of LGBT films. We went through several ups and downs, but we persevered.
How are you helping your community people?
My community had limited opportunities to tell stories about their experiences and struggles. There were very few opportunities to get funding and find avenues to release the films on LGBT topics. LGBT characters in mainstream cinema were often stereotyped and ridiculed. Realising this, I started sponsoring grants for up-and-coming filmmakers to make LGBT-themed short films. A few years later, we find that while the media representation has improved, the community has not been allowed to tell its stories firsthand. We are trying to change the discourse by giving the community members a chance to be in front and behind the camera. We are eager to empower the trans community to have their voices and stories heard.
Tell us about yourself when you come out with the reality in front of your parents?
I came out around 25 years ago. The initial response was that of shock and sadness. That slowly changed through a continuous dialog. My mother was mainly worried about the health implications; my father was concerned about my safety and possible impact on my job. At no stage did they ever express shame, guilt, or concern about what society would say. Over a period of time, they learned about the changes in perception and decided to support me wholeheartedly in my decisions.
Tell us about your journey from Mumbai to the US?
My journey has taken me from Mumbai to the US and now to the UK. I started as a software engineer working with an IT company in Mumbai and then went to the USA for education and better opportunities. Moving to the UK resulted from a job transfer that was followed by discovering the passion for giving the LGBT community a voice through movies. During my time in the US, I was fortunate to be able to volunteer my time for South Asian LGBT Support groups in NYC. After moving to the UK, I got a chance to renew my ties to the LGBT community back in India due to the proximity. Overall, in living and working in three continents, I have been blessed with some close friendships and connections with community members all over.
Which problems are LGBTQ Community facing apart from Section 377?
With the reading down of 377, the legal challenges to being a part of the LGBT community have reduced. However, social acceptance and societal understanding of the community have yet to catch up.
Same-sex marriages in India are yet to gain legal status and still impact the couples living together. Despite the approval/acceptance, many in the community find it hard to get joint bank accounts and home loans. The right to make health-related decisions for the spouses, the right to survivorship, and the right to adopt are some challenges same-sex couples in India are navigating.
Your first movie and your best film?
The first movie that started my journey was Sisak. Through Faraz Ansari, I understood filmmakers' hardships in telling LGBTQ stories.
I have loved every film I have been a part of. Being part of each filmmaker's journey is a humbling experience. Each film is unique in its subject and covers different aspects of the Indian lgbtq+ experience. As they say in the Indian Film Industry, "Yeh to trailer hai, picture Abhi Baki hai"
How are you managing funds for your production house?
The initiative has been primarily self-funded. It is my way of giving back to the community. We do have some benevolent like-minded people who have helped us in our journey from time to time. We do hope more will join us.
A message to society.....
There is more that joins us than that separates us. Life is short to hold hatred and prejudices. Learning to understand each other and co-exist is the way forward.