It’s a bustling Sunday morning at a fish market in Delhi, where Lalit is out looking for the best rohu fish. He wants to prepare a meal of rice and Maacher Jhol — a traditional Bengali fish stew — for his father who is visiting. Over his dad’s favorite meal, Lalit plans to share a very significant part of his life, which he has kept hidden from his parents.
Lalit washes the rohu, fries the fish and then dips the pieces in curry before laying out a table for two. When his father arrives, the two of them sit down for a hearty meal. Shortly thereafter, Lalit's dad takes out photos of prospective brides for his 28-year-old son. Lalit nervously looks at the pictures and then makes a confession: He is in love with another man. His dad chokes on the food for a moment but says nothing. Upon returning home, he feeds his wife the fish curry his son has sent along.
This is how the story of “Maacher Jhol” (“Fish Curry”) — an award-winning, 12-minute film — unfolds. Written, produced and directed by Abhishek Verma, the hand-drawn animated movie has struck a chord within — and beyond — lndia’s LGBTQ community. The film, which is Hindi with English subtitles, has already won four domestic awards and two international prizes, and it will be traveling to several other festivals around the world.
Indian filmmaker Sridhar Rangayan, founder of the Kashish Mumbai Queer Film Festival, where “Maacher Jhol” won the award for best short film of the year, said he believes people took to the film because it is “understated without the usual coming out drama.”
“The way ‘Maacher Jhol’ has integrated the acceptance of sexuality with food is amazing,” Debendra Nath Sanyal, a Mumbai-based digital marketing manager, told NBC News. “Just like coming out, acceptance is a process. The climax of the film indicates that the father is ready to make that journey.”
Prachi Naik, a counselor at Humsafar Trust (HST), one of the oldest LGBTQ rights organizations in India, said “parental validation of a person’s sexuality is huge” in an Indian setting. “Many of my clients say that half their battle is won if their parents accept them,” Naik added.
Parental approval is also considered critical because of the Indian tradition of close-knit families and the support and safety net parents extend to their children. Many LGBTQ people fear coming out to their parents could translate to the severing of these familial ties.
“There is also a perpetual fear that someone else will tell your parents,” according to Sanyal. “Once I told them, I felt confident enough to handle questions from anyone else.”
Bangalore-based Sachin, who did not want to share his surname to protect his privacy, said he disliked the idea of hiding a vital part of his identity from his parents. Despite his religion not being supportive of homosexuality, the 39-year-old Catholic came out to his parents six years ago.
“I wanted them to know that I wasn’t alone, and that I had found love and a family," said Sachin, who married his same-sex partner in Europe.
Many Indian parents like to see their children married and settled by their late 20s or early 30s. Sometimes the pressure to get married motivates people to finally come out of the closet. This was the case for Ashok Row Kavi, now 70, who is the founder of HST and editor-in-chief of Bombay Dost, India’s first registered gay magazine.
"I was out to a lot of people but not to my mother," Kavi said," but she was supportive when she found out."
In India, same-sex sexual activity is criminalized under the colonial-era Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits sexual acts considered “against the order of nature.” In 2009, the Delhi High Court had repealed the provision, but four years later, the Supreme Court of India overturned the lower court’s decision.
The lack of legal protection and the prevalence of social stigma have led many in the country to hide in the closet or lead a dual life. This, according to Naik, could have severe mental health implications. Naik, who counsels 25 to 35 LGBTQ people in their 20s and 30s per month, said at least 10 percent of her patients had contemplated suicide during their coming out process.
And an HST survey of 348 gay men below 50 years old who frequent cruising sites in Mumbai, revealed some surprising findings, according to Kavi. “They found that almost 30 percent were married to women but regularly had sexual relationships with other men,” he said.
Despite the less-than-ideal current environment for LGBTQ people in India, Kavi said urban millennials are better off than the men of his generation, for whom cruising in public parks, beaches and train stations was the only option to meet other gay men.
“In my younger days, I used to feel really alone until I started cruising,” he said. Now, he noted, LGBTQ-specific events, social meeting spaces, dating apps and organizations have become an intrinsic part of the metropolitan landscape. This, according to Kavi, not only empowers the community but also makes the coming out process less daunting.
Koninika Roy, a Mumbai-based 23-year-old who works with Kavi at HST, agreed. “It took me just two months to find support when I came out to myself as bisexual.”
While things have gotten easier than they were when Kavi and his contemporaries were coming of age, most LGBTQ people in India will acknowledge that the country has much further to go.
Sanyal said more positive representations of LGBTQ people in media could considerably improve the perception of the community held by society — and parents in particular.
“Most films with LGBTIQ themes I’ve seen depict hardships, suicides and killings,” he said. In a heteronormative world, he added, more films like “Maacher Jhol” could strike the right chord.