The 76-year-old actor was in India this week to promote the British Film Industry’s Shakespeare on Film series coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.
He also dined with Bollywood stars, and was planning to open the regional LGBT-themed Kashish Film Festival today.
In an interview with the Mumbai Mirror, the openly gay actor spoke candidly about Britain’s social and political evolution towards equal rights for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and reportedly said that “India is going through what the UK went through 30 years ago”.
He took issue with a colonial-era law — Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code — that makes sex between people of the same gender punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
While actual criminal prosecutions are rare, the law is frequently used to harass people.
“It is appalling and ironical that India would use a colonial law to oppress its homosexuals,” he is quoted as saying in the interview.
“India needs to grow up. India needs to realise that it doesn’t need to follow British laws anymore.”
A New Delhi court declared the law unconstitutional in 2009, but that ruling was overturned four years later when the Supreme Court decided politicians should make the decision.
Earlier this year, the top court agreed to re-examine the issue, but has not said when it might decide on repealing the 1861 law.
McKellen — known for playing Gandalf in the Lord Of The Rings film franchise and Magneto in the X-Men series — noted that there were positive developments for the LGBT community in India, such as the Kashish festival.
Over the past decade, gay people have gained a degree of acceptance in parts of deeply conservative India, especially in big cities.
Many bars have gay nights, and some high-profile Bollywood films have dealt with gay issues.
But being gay remains deeply taboo in most of India and many homosexuals hide their sexual orientation from friends and families.