Where do I begin? I grew up in a boarding school called The Doon School, Dehradun. One of the most prestigious (all boys) boarding schools in our country. We lived what they called, “The Spartan Way of Life” so that meant that we would grow up to be independent, hard-working and most of all super masculine men.
But, the concept of masculinity was flawed since emotional maturity and the ability to express them freely didn’t fit into that definition. Don’t get me wrong, I love everything I learnt at school but its also the place I turned homophobic. None of us really knew what homosexuality was all about but we were taught by our all mighty seniors that homosexuality is a sin and that any kind of feminine behaviour meant the kid was a homosexual. Most of these teachings were passed on to us when they mocked and bullied some of my classmates for being a little feminine. Words like Chakka, Hijara, Sixer, Gay, Ladki, Homosexual, Homo all meant the same thing to them and in turn to us. We couldn’t tell a transgendered person from a homosexual person and grew up misusing these terms and mocking each other.
I never actually met a homosexual person in my life until I went to college in 2014. I studied films at Symbiosis Centre for Media and Communication, Pune where I met the first openly gay person ever. He was a year senior, extremely popular at college and that really confused me. When I finally spoke to him for the first time I understood why everyone loved him so much. He was amazing! Confident, creative, loving, genuine and as real as anyone I ever met and that’s when my idea of homosexuals began to change. I read up a little and understood the basic differences but still wasn’t really well informed.
By my second year, I had acted in a bunch of our college films. The first one I ever did, titled ‘Abr’ (Urdu for ‘cloud’,) was made by my best friends and I. Within 14 days of its release and just two days before my semester end exams, Faraz got in touch with me over Facebook. My friend, Ish Raheja commented my name on Faraz’s post searching for an actor and by the end of that day, Faraz texted me.
I knew it was a gay film but somehow that didn’t stop me from driving down to Mumbai for the audition. I met Faraz at Starbucks where he never really took an audition but rather sat me down to talk about films, life and everything else under the roof. He was really smart, sweet and made me feel very comfortable. As far as the audition goes the only thing he made me do was read a book at the beginning and that was it! By the end of that meeting, I had bagged the lead role in India’s First Silent LGBTQ Film but it still hadn’t sunk in. I was still scared and sceptical and didn’t know whether I should do the film or not. The next morning, I took a bus back to Pune when I read the script for the first time. It was flawless, it was poetry! In a time-span of 5 hours I read it 4 times and by the time I got off the bus at Pune, I knew I was going to do the film because I was in love with the script. That was it and I didn’t care what anybody would say after that! I knew I would have to change the minds of my family and friends and make them see the topic the same way I did but now that seemed like a menial task.
My exams lasted for a week during which I studied along with preparing my character. Within an hour of my final exam ending, I was sitting on a bus to Mumbai and the next day we started shooting. The rest is history.
Looking back at it now, I realize that the day I left to audition for Sisak was the start of a journey which not only corrected my view of the LGBTQ community but also gave me an opportunity to correct the wrong belief system I grew up with in school. Moreover, I got to connect with one of the most endearing communities in the world. Its been nearly 3 years on this journey where I have made some of my closest friends and have actively spoken out about LGBTQ rights. To a lot of people, my efforts to help give a voice to the LGBTQ community in India seem pointless. Every time they ask me why I continue to do it I tell them about the day my younger brother confessed to me that he thought homosexuals were mythical creatures like unicorns even though he’s one of the most intelligent children his age. I know it’s not his fault. We grew up in a country where transparency is the real myth. I wanted to fix that. That’s the day I understood the need to speak up for the community. To open the eyes of my own family and friends was the task I gave myself, today I’ve talked about LGBTQ rights at top institutions like IIM, Kozhikode and our film has travelled across the globe and won 42 international film festivals and still counting.
I know even now people still question my sexuality for playing a gay character and they can’t digest the fact that a straight man is fighting for gay rights but to those people, I say, “wait and watch, the winds are changing!