Meet the gay man taking LGBTQ Indians from the closet to the kitchen
When India’s Supreme Court overturned the country’s ban on gay sex last September, it was a momentous step forward for LGBTQ rights.
With around 1.4 billion inhabitants, India is the second most-populated country in the world. Its LGBTQ population is somewhere between 7-10 million.
The repeal of Section 377 means gay and bisexual people can live their lives more free from the fear of prosecution and blackmail. Although societal attitudes lag behind legislative change and there remain battles on the road to full equality, the decriminalisation of gay sex was a crucial step.
The law change has also enabled other changes. TV shows, such as MTV’s Elevator Pitch, have begun to feature gay participants. Corporates feel more enabled to demonstrate their support for LGBTQ rights, taking part in the India’s first LGBTQ job fair last month. And we’re even beginning to see the rise of the Indian queer influencer.
Falling into the latter camp is actor and filmmaker Nakshatra Bagwe. With over 33,000 Instagram followers and a similar number subscribing to his YouTube channel, he tells me that his LGBTQ advocacy has suddenly ramped up a gear.
‘Brands never really considered queer Indians as a segment to target but after Section 377 was scrapped, I was approached by many brands for collaborations to promote their brands to the Indian queer segment and I ended up signing with 22 brands in just two months!’
Bagwe, 28, was born and raised primarily in Mumbai, and currently lives in the coastal town of Virar. He enjoys a portfolio career, earning recognition not only for his film work but also as the owner of BackPack Travels, a travel company catering to gay and bisexual men.
He says he realised he was gay at 14, after developing a crush on a classmate.
‘I came out to my family at 17-18 and they didn’t accept it.’
Although living under the same roof for the next five years, ‘emotionally we walked far away from each other.’
Things began to change when Bagwe turned 21. His debut film, Logging Out, won an international award, and his family’s attitude towards him began to change.
‘They realized that I am enjoying my life and freedom so they decided to support me.’
Bagwe knows how other queer people in India struggle to be accepted by their families. Many feel pressured by parents to settle down and marry a member of the opposite sex. His latest project explores the coming out stories of others in a novel way.
Closet to Kitchen with Nakshatra Bagwe finds him interviewing people about their experiences while they demonstrate how to prepare a favourite dish. For some, cooking was a skill they needed to pick up quickly after they found themselves homeless.
Food is a central part of Indian culture. Bagwe himself has plenty of experience in this area, having helped his late mother run her own food business. Living on the coast, he says his own speciality is seafood – ‘Prawns kadhai masala, prawns biryani, Goan prawn curry’.
‘My mother was an amazing cook … I encouraged her to consider cooking as a profession. Her food was in demand in our neighbourhood.
Bagwe’s mother came to fully accept her son, even accompanying him to Pride festivals.
‘We hosted several gay house parties and cooked for all my friends. She loved all my queer friends equally and gave them the love of a mother which they lacked, since they were not open to their families.’
Bagwe’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016. She passed away in 2017. He says that interviewing other queer people about their relationships with their mothers has proved an emotional experience for him.
The idea for Closet to Kitchen came from Bahwe’s travel work, both as a writer and tour operator.
‘When I watched any show on FOX Traveler about cooking, life and visiting new people and places, there was this itch in my mind – why not a show dedicated to the queer community? We have a lot of stories to tell – stories of happiness, sorrows, struggles and aspirations.’
He pitched the idea to streaming service Swagdeal.in and Paramplay, who have picked up the series – the first two episodes will also be on YouTube. Bagwe’s is promoting it as ‘India’s First Queer Lifestyle & Cookery Show.’
Does he have any advice for those struggling to come out?
‘Many young guys want to stop leading a secret life. They tell me they want a life like me! They don’t understand that coming out is a process and not a moment. They must wait until they get a good job and are in a position to live an independent life, in case the coming out goes the wrong way and they need to walk away.’
‘I ask them to focus on their education because when the base is strong they can live life happily on their own terms. So take some time and explore yourself more. Before you expect others to accept you, you need to accept yourself unconditionally.’
The repeal of Section 377 has helped.
‘Things are changing. A lot of young people are now coming out openly. The institutes, the press and laws are getting better and the situation is more relaxed compared to the past few years. Mobile and network connectivity has brought the queer community of smaller towns and villages to the mainstream of the community. But of course, there is still a lot of work required.’
Closet to Kitchen is a sign of changing times. It features 10 individuals as unique as the dishes they create.
‘Each one offers a specific message about fighting back, surviving with respect and showing their true colours to the world,’ says Bagwe. ‘This is a dream project for me.’
Closet to Kitchen with Nakshatra Bagwe airs via swagdeal.in and paramplay.com.