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Ian McKellen used his first visit to India to bring attention to gay rights in a country where homosexuality is a criminal offense under a law that dates back to British colonial times.
In an interview with online magazine Scroll, the actor said: “You have a repressive law in place for which I should apologize, because it’s not an Indian law, it’s a British law that we left behind. You should have got rid of it, and you tried to, and it’s come back, but it will go again, I’m sure.”
The comments were about India’s Section 377 law, introduced in 1862 under British rule, which criminalized sexual activity defined as “against the order of nature” and which can award a maximum life sentence.
McKellen’s India visit is part of his global tour as ambassador for the British Film Institute’s Shakespeare on Film program to mark 400 years since William Shakespeare’s death. The tour also takes him to the Shanghai Film Festival in June, among others.
McKellen on Monday addressed the law in an onstage discussion with Bollywood star Aamir Khan at the event co-presented by the British Council India and the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images, which organize the annual Mumbai Film Festival.
When Khan pointed out that the law was drafted by the British, McKellen drew parallels with his home country. “We changed [our laws] long back in England, but you are holding on to it to protect yourselves from Western culture,” he said, according to the Indian Express.
The 76-year-old actor also addressed how being gay affected his career. “It did inhibit me if I had a love scene with a girl as I couldn’t fake it,” he said. “I did try to avoid romantic parts.”
India’s gay-rights crusaders have been fighting an ongoing battle against Section 377. In what appeared to be a breakthrough, the Delhi High Court in 2009 decriminalized consensual homosexual intercourse, but in 2013 the verdict was reversed by the Supreme Court, which said that it was for India’s Parliament to decide how to amend the law. In December, India’s lower house of Parliament voted against the introduction of a bill to decriminalize homosexuality, proposed by member of parliament Shashi Tharoor of the Congress Party.
McKellen has been actively involved in LGBT rights since he came out at the age of 49 in an interview with BBC radio in 1988. He also told Khan that it wasn’t difficult coming out: “I was well-established and confident.”
In various interviews with Indian media outlets, McKellen slammed the country’s stance on homosexuality, telling the Mumbai Mirror that “India needs to grow up,” and adding that the country was going through “what the U.K. went through 30 years ago.”
While he may be more famous as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings series and Magneto in some of the X-Men films, the star in his chat with Khan discussed his Shakespeare experience. The audience included such celebrities as filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra and actresses Sonam Kapoor and Kangana Ranaut.
“Shakespeare is a modern writer. There is nothing old-fashioned about the way he thinks,” McKellen said at the event. The actor’s career includes a long list of Shakespeare projects for the stage, film and television. In 1995, he starred in and co-adapted Richard III with director Richard Loncraine, with the cast also including Annette Bening, Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Kristen Scott Thomas, Robert Downey Jr. and Dominic West.
McKellen also was scheduled to attend the opening ceremony Wednesday as chief guest of the Kashish Mumbai International Queer festival, India’s only mainstream LGBT film festival. Now in its seventh year, the event’s opening film is lesbian drama Carol, starring Cate Blanchett.
The 182-title strong program also includes Indian films such as Hansal Mehta’s acclaimed Aligarh, based on the true story of a university professor who loses everything, including his life, when he is discovered to be gay. Despite India’s conservative environment, some Indian filmmakers are beginning to push the envelope with more realistic depictions of onscreen homosexuality.
“Increasingly, in India too, the film industry has matured, treating gay people with the same seriousness as straight characters,” McKellen said in a statement, adding, “I look forward at Kashish to discovering more about Bollywood’s filmmakers who reject fantasy for the truth about gay people.”
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