Cheers, wolf whistles and applause greeted documentaries screened at the country's first gay film festival this weekend, as part of the Indian gay community's tentative coming out campaign in a nation where homosexuality is a crime.
Hundreds of people, including lesbian and gay activists, their parents, relatives and college students packed into a small Bombay auditorium on Friday to watch films that delved into the angst of being homosexual in tradition-bound India.
Indian law allows sentences from 10 years to life imprisonment for people caught indulging in what it terms sexual relations that are "against the order of nature."
Gay and lesbian groups exist across the country, but their members rarely gather publicly.
"Homosexuality is abnormal, it's an illness," said a frowning, unnamed police officer in a documentary screened Friday, day one of the three-day festival titled "Larzish," an Urdu-language word that means "tremors of a revolution."
The ridicule and discrimination faced by same-sex couples and their overwhelming need for secrecy was pictured in many Indian-language films.
One film, Manjuben, Truck Driver, focused on the life of a lesbian cross-dressing truck driver from a western Indian village who said economic independence helped her lead life on her own terms.
Another documentary showed an elderly homosexual couple who refer to each other as "my friend," admit to being gay, lovingly feed each other on New Delhi's streets but have not yet come out to their wives, children or grandchildren.
Filmmakers such as Sherna Dastur, who directed the truck driver film, said small audiences at film festivals make people unafraid of telling their real-life stories on camera.
The Indian news media published articles announcing the festival, but photography was banned because organizers said audience members were "in various stages of coming out."
The festival features more than 40 films, including documentaries and experimental films from 16 countries, including the US, Britain, Germany, South Korea and France.
"We need to create public awareness and confront prejudice," said Chatura, who uses only one name, an activist with Humjinsi, a Bombay-based lesbian support group. "We hope the film festival will dispel ignorance about us and our lives and spark debate."
The festival's theme made it difficult for organizers to find a venue. A suburban Bombay college finally allowed use of its auditorium.
Many of the films criticize Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which makes both homosexuality and bestiality illegal.
Two years ago, the New Delhi-based Naz Foundation, which works with HIV/AIDS sufferers, filed a petition to amend the law. The case is being heard by the Delhi High Court.
"We have asked that acts which are adult, private and consensual should be decriminalized, whether heterosexual or homosexual," said Shaleen Rakesh, a Naz program manager.
In its reply last month, the federal government said homosexuality goes "against public morality." It said society's disapproval of homosexuality was "strong enough to justify it being treated as a criminal offense, even when adults indulge in it in private."
Homosexual groups are increasingly becoming vocal. In June there was a gay pride parade in Calcutta, in eastern India.
In August, gay rights groups in Bombay held a rare press conference to criticize a Vatican document that urged lawmakers and religious leaders to campaign against gay marriages.
Most homosexuals in India live at home with their parents, meet their partners at private parties and invite them home as "friends" for fear of being disowned by their families.
Filmmaker Natasha Mendonca said the film festival would open people's minds.
"Most Indian films are about marriages. They don't reflect my reality or that of many other people," Mendonca said. "This one does.''
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