Mumbai based filmmaker Sridhar Rangayan is a renowned LGBT activist in his native India, and has spent the majority of his career making documentaries and feature films capturing the effects the country’s Section 377 law has on the sizeable LGBT population. With the exception of a brief four year period between 2009 and 2013, homosexuality is illegal in India, with the Supreme Court recently ruling that it was not unconstitutional to prohibit the actions of two consenting adults – although the law is expected to come under review again in the near future.
Homosexuality is a taboo subject in India, with Rangayan’s gay-themed films only receiving acclaim outside of his home country – where he is still more known as a human rights activist than a director. Evening Shadows feels like the film that could change that. Although produced via crowd-funding due to the subject matter, here he sticks closely to the classic Bollywood filmmaking formula to provide a heartwarming, empathetic story designed to gain the affection of India’s mainstream cinema audiences. It’s a timely film for India, and even though it may feel quaint to Western audiences, it still feels refreshing to see a mainstream film on this subject coming from a society that is considerably conservative towards LGBT issues.
Kartik (Devansh Doshi) is a Mumbai-based photographer living with his boyfriend, a happy life he hides from his family. On a rare visit back to the Conservative backwaters of Southern India to stay with them, he finds his parents determined to marry him off within a year. As he feels increased pressure from his family, he makes the decision to come out to his religious mother Vasudha (Mona Ambegaonkar) – which presents itself with serious ramifications that could wreck not just their relationship, but his position in the family as a whole.
In a film working with as many contemporary Bollywood dramatic conventions as possible (think of an update on the social issue melodramas produced under the Hays Code during the 40’s and 50’s), director Sridhar Rangayan deserves plaudits for managing to get believable performances out of his core cast members. Bollywood films aren’t subtle, they are designed to give audiences an immediate emotional response – but working outside India’s studio system has allowed him to maintain an element of restraint when directing his performers. Of the cast, Mona Ambegaonkar shines the brightest, managing to avoid turning a religious mother into a caricature. Upon hearing her son is gay for the first time, her emotional breakdown feels oddly empathetic; coming from a background with no context for gay individuals, you quickly feel sorry for her due to being brought up with a lack of understanding.
On the other side of the mother/son relationship, Devansh Doshi embodies the role of Kartik with a sense of warm, humane humour that makes the portrayal of his relationship with his family an easier pill to swallow. It acts as the perfect counterpoint to the weightier dramatic themes, giving Indian audiences the laughs expected from a mainstream production before setting out to explore the central topic deeper.
In addition to dealing with parental disapproval, including overblown condemnation from his father long before he steps out of the closet, he also returns home to a closeted uncle who he slept with when he was younger – a man who has been hiding his true identity so long, his sexual desires have turned self-destructive (Kartik believes the experience was consensual, but it’s more than implied that it was statutory rape). This subject is dealt with a lightness of touch, pitched between melodramatic hysteria and grim realism, ensuring it is deeply upsetting without being too visceral to upset the mainstream viewers Rangayan is trying to get this film to reach.
Evening Shadows is a successful attempt at informing mainstream Indian cinemagoers about the emotional trials and tribulations of LGBT life in the country. Thanks to a moving screenplay and a wealth of great performances, it never feels like a mere “issue movie”- even though the Bollywood style in which the story is told makes the subject matter stand out more than it would if this film were set in the west.
Read our interview with Sridhar Rangayan
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Sridhar Rangayan