To Tell a Story: In Conversation With Paras Borgohain

To say that LBGT+ writers from India fight an uphill battle in trying to make their stories heard would be an understatement. Add to it a landslide or two, freezing temperatures, plus a healthy dose of pre-existing stigma and misrepresentation in media, and perhaps we would have a more accurate metaphor. But habitual cynicism aside, in the last few years we have witnessed LGBT+ stories and characters slowly carve their spaces in mainstream entertainment, through Bollywood or through celebrated web series – spaces which have been denied to them for far too long. Parallel to this, the creators of said stories too find themselves facing an optimistic future. One such creator is Paras Borgohain.

Currently working as a co-producer for upcoming projects with Emmy award nominee Kit Williamson (known for Eastsiders and Mad Men), Paras marks his time working for Cartoon Network and Pogo as an integral part of his journey.  As a screenwriter, he worked on Galli Galli Sim Sim (the Indian edition of Sesame Street) for eight broadcast seasons. He was also involved in the series Roll No. 21, having written the screenplay for the television feature Kris Aur Aflatoon Africa.

Speaking on his experiences, Paras observes, “My first job was as a writer’s assistant on a daily soap and it was a very straight world, except maybe the odd servant character who had a lisp or a swish and whose entrance was announced with a comic theme. It was always something to laugh at, but no one even acknowledged the ‘it’. Working on children’s shows in the following years, especially on Sesame Street, it was actually reaffirming to find people that were entrusted with the mission of pushing differences.”

But even as Paras continued to work on multiple non-fiction projects- such as the The 80’s India (a national geographic special on the 1980’s), Oranges and Mangoes (tracing the effects of climate change on agrarian workers in four states), and Fat Chance (on the body dysphoria faced by teenagers) – the yearning to be able to tell LGBT+ stories remained strong and persistent.

Paras notes, “…there was a resistance toward telling stories that featured LGBTQ protagonists and all the commissioned work was just that- in some ways, just being a scribe for someone else’s vision.”

In 2016, Paras was awarded the Roshan Award of the BlueCat International Screenplay Contest. Out of 4,500 submissions, his screenplay titled Deepest, Darkest or How Not To Lie put him in contact with notable agents and talent managers in Hollywood. The screenplay, which follows a public relations executive searching for the answers behind the untimely death of her best friend, and her subsequent discovery of his long distance relationship with a man, also made the list of 12 recommended international screenwriters for the California based Scriptapalooza Screenwriting Fellowship.

To further study professional screenwriting, Paras went to the University of California, Los Angeles, where his final submission for the program titled The Crash of ’14, was picked up for production by an independent Brazilian producer in LA. The Crash of ’14 traces the turbulent relationship between an artist and a legal advisor during the lead up to the striking down of Section 377.

“I now spend my year split between Los Angeles and New Delhi, working on screenplays, shorts and series, almost all of them focused on narratives around the ‘queer’ experience, with LGBTQ protagonists.” Paras says. He adds that he is especially looking forward to creating indie movies and shows with Kit Williamson via a forum for independent filmmakers.

Perhaps the most significant challenge still faced by those wanting to write stories with LGBTQ protagonists is the issue of raising funds. While there has been significant progress, Paras points out that when it comes to covering funds for LGBTQ stories, there remains an ‘undue consciousness about the phobic audience’. For creators in India or perhaps just creators in general, Paras stresses the importance of the ‘initial push’ needed to create something. “Once you’re sure of the story you want to tell for the right reasons, it is very important to put in the work. It will pay off eventually, even if it seems inconsequential in that moment. Some of us have to be prepared to be ‘late bloomers’, if that’s what it comes to, given the system we’re part of.”

He further adds, “One of the projects I’m looking forward to the most is an official screen adaptation of American queer author, critic and activist Stan Leventhal’s novel Skydiving on Christopher Street. I was sixteen (and very closeted) when I first read that book and it became my bedside companion for years…So I wrote about him on my blog: thoughts on the novel and the time that he lived in – the AIDS crisis and sexual revolution of the 80s. This was in 2013.

“It was only in summer 2019 that it paid off. I was in L.A, moping hopelessly in bed, when I suddenly heard on Facebook from Michele Karlsberg, one of Stan’s closest friends, who also happened to be his literary executor …Michelle also set me up with his very kind brother Gary, who happened to be living in California. We met over lunch and since then, we’ve pledged to make this movie happen. But to get there, everyone’s counting on the first draft.”

When the discussion turned towards the treatment of LGBT+ representation in media, Paras notes, “Since I’ve been writing professionally, I’ve observed that what used to make most people in the industry very visibly uncomfortable about the representation of LGBT+ community has been sublimated in other ways, just like during the Hays Code in Hollywood (during which time, lesbian characters were written as vampires, for example). Most LGBT+ protagonists look outward for redemption, meaning, and in some ways, still needing a rescuer, or to fall back on the crutches of validation. The messaging often seems to be, Yeah, he’s gay but he’s a good man, for instance, or The ‘gays’ are so sensitive and creative and nurturing. There are still many who aren’t! They still aren’t terrible and still make for interesting stories.”

Evidently, it is crucial for LGBT+ creators to be able tell their own stories, or as Elmo very aptly puts it: Meri apni awaaz, mera apna andaaz!
FAT CHANCE:  A short film on body image disorder in teenagers produced by NDTV Red Dot
SESAME STREET, INDIA (Galli Galli Sim Sim): Staff Writer for skits and episodes  for 8 seasons, for characters designed by Jim Henson’s globally cherished Sesame Workshop muppets (in Hindi and English)
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Trying to get my master's degree. Venting on gender and sexuality whenever possible. Sometimes I draw.

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