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India's first mainstream gay film festival kicked off this week, with organisers hailing it as a sign of progress after years of prejudice and discrimination.
The four-day "Kashish" Mumbai International Queer Film Festival 2010, which began on Thursday, is showing 110 films from 25 countries at leading multiplex chain PVR Cinemas and the Alliance Francaise cultural organisation.
Such events have been an established part of the cultural scene in Western countries for many years but in socially conservative India, where gay sex was outlawed until last year, it has been largely an underground activity.
"There have been gay film festivals before...
but this is the first gay film festival in the mainstream," organiser Vivek Raj Anand told AFP.
"We've got partners to work with us and we found that it wasn't so difficult," added Anand, who is chief executive of The Humsafar Trust, a gay and transgender sexual health charity based in Mumbai.
The festival comes less than a year after a landmark ruling at the Delhi High Court, when judges said that a ban on homosexual acts, in place since British colonial times in 1860, was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Although hailed by gay advocacy and human rights groups as a major step forward, the ruling triggered protests from Hindu, Muslim and Christian groups, who jointly denounced same-sex relationships as "against God and creation".
Homosexuality still carries a stigma, particularly in more traditional, family-orientated rural areas.
But in a sign of changing attitudes, India's Information and Broadcasting Ministry, which regularly cuts Bollywood films for sex and nudity, gave its approval for the festival and the uncensored showing of the films.
"That's a big thing," said Rajan Ramchandani, an openly gay former investment banker attending the festival.
The 57-year-old said he has seen a sea change in attitudes in recent years, even in Mumbai, India's cosmopolitan financial and entertainment capital which often prides itself on its "anything goes" atmosphere.
"Five to seven years ago people wouldn't have been talking about homosexuality. It was a huge taboo. But now, through the media and other forms of communication, it's much easier for people to accept," he said.
"We used to have to go to very secluded places and be very discreet and quiet. Now there are so many platforms for them to interact, not necessarily physically but mentally.
"It's positive for the new generation growing up."
Among the films being screened is "I Am", which follows the lives of four people, including a gay man who lives in fear of blackmail because of his sexuality.
The film is directed by Onir, who made the critically acclaimed 2005 film "My Brother... Nikhil", about the stigma surrounding HIV and prejudice towards homosexuality in India in the 1990s.
One of the stars of "I Am," arthouse actor Rahul Bose, said the festival was part of the "new history" of India and an important means of breaking down barriers.
"It would have been inconceivable for a mainstream cinema to do this five years ago. The rock is moving," he said.
For its part, PVR Cinemas said its decision to back the festival was simply based on its support for "good cinema".
Yet despite decriminalisation and the high-profile film festival, Anand said India still has a long way to go before homosexuality gains widespread acceptance.
"The Delhi High Court judgement has many positives. But the more open a society gets, you make some friends and some enemies," he said.
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