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A Film On Queer Love + A Super Director Who Says It Like It Is: Meet The Maker Of ‘LOEV’

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Some of the best loved films about LGBTQ people have had terrible endings.

You had an assassination in ‘Milk,’ and a devastating break up in ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour.’ Who could forget how tinged-with-sorrow ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was? And did we mention the ‘bury-your-gays’ trope in most mainstream media? For up-and-coming filmmaker Sudhanshu Saria, all of this just isn’t going to cut it. “Ugh!” He cringes, “Why would anyone come out of the closet if all they see is this? People need to see positive examples of love!” And that’s why he made ‘LOEV’ – a film about two friends, Sahil and Jai, who take a weekend trip to Mahabaleshwar – which promises to be a complex exploration of friendship and love. The film came from heartbreak, Saria said. “Instead of going drinking, or to a strip club, or seeing a therapist – I wrote about it.

Born and raised here in India, Saria has spent the last 12 years abroad, first as a student in New York, and then as a filmmaker. ‘LOEV,’ his first feature film, has travelled to over a dozen countries, and even bagged the Audience Award at the Tel Aviv LGBT Film Festival. While he was back in India, Cake caught up with him for a quick Skype chat about all things fair in ‘LOEV’ and war.

It’s one of my pet peeves,” he said, referring to the victim narrative that’s employed all too often with LGBTQ characters. “When I started writing my script, I decided there would be no suicide, no dad beating his kids. There are powerful films that go a long way, but shit man, every Jewish film need not be about the Holocaust! Why can’t we get a little Sarah Jessica Parker walking on Fifth Avenue? Let’s make some meaningless shit. That’s what I’ve done, I’ve made some meaningless shit.”

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A still from ‘LOEV’ (2015)

Of course, we think Saria’s just being modest here, because the film is pretty symbolic right down to its name. “People ask me how to pronounce it – is it ‘Lo-ev,’ or ‘louve’? It looks different, but it’s just ‘love.’ Just because it doesn’t resemble something you’re used to, doesn’t make it not love.”

Love is such an integral part of mainstream Indian cinema, but, as Saria explains, “there’s a certain image we associate with love – a man and a woman, wine dinners, popcorn and the movies and holding hands. When it doesn’t fit that conventional image, people call it ‘something else.’ The only kind of love I’ve experienced is that ‘something else.’ Maybe that Yash Chopra love doesn’t exist. Part of the film acknowledges that – that we’re going to celebrate other kinds of love.”

When Indian laws and culture-custodians are constantly trying to erase the fact that love is a spectrum, a film like this feels like a bold move. But really, it’s just about trying to tell a story well. And Saria found an advantage to working in a restrictive environment. “I was absolutely confident that no one would want to make it,” he said, “so I could be as honest and uninhibited while writing the script. I think self-censorship may be the biggest tragedy of this Section 377 climate. The government doesn’t even have to do anything, we do their job for them, by not choosing to make things outside their ‘curriculum.’

External censorship, on the other hand, is very different. “It’s not a cakewalk. Real films get stuck all the time,” he says. But Saria describes himself as a ‘glass half-full kinda guy,’ so when we asked him about running into trouble with the censor board, he humourously responded with “I hope so. How else do we publicise the film?

Even with the recent furore over Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Udta Punjab,’ things are not all that bleak, especially not in film, whether it’s Bollywood or art-house and alternative cinema. And Saria agrees: “I’m very fortunate that I’m working now at a time when smarter, better, more hard working people than me have made massive dents or several cracks in that ceiling. I can see a lot of senior members of the industry are changing the paradigm for the next lot. Anurag Kashyap has to take time out of his freaking life and risk a lot of hot water to win his fight on ‘Udta Punjab,’ and there are judicial precedents in place now. I’m grateful that films like ‘Shaitan,’ ‘English Vinglish,’ ‘Margarita with a Straw,’ ‘Queen’ and ‘Aligarh’ exist because they’ve broadened our audience’s understanding of what film is, and created an appetite. In India, it’s all about the conversation. If I never made a dime here, it would be okay as long as people see and engage and talk about it.

And perhaps the time really is ripe to talk about all these issues. Apart from the regressive 2013 ruling on Section 377, there have been several positive developments, especially for trans people in India. Some of the biggest conflicts for the LGBTQ movement are culture- or religion-based, and Saria’s film also offers a very deliberate nudge in this direction by setting the story in Mahabaleshwar, a recognizably religious site, rather than a city like Bombay, where a different kind of morality operates.

The choice of city is my way of inserting my politics into the movie. It was absolutely intentional. You may be an atheist or a believer, and it has nothing to do with your sexual identity. Excluding people from the mainstream and not allowing them that spirituality, it outs itself in different ways. We saw it in Orlando. The perpetrator was brought up in marginalization, someone who didn’t feel like he belonged. But our culture is moving forward: We’ve seen statements from the Pope about the new reformed attitudes towards the LGBT+ community. In Toronto, Canada, we see groups are bringing in the next generation of Sikh men and women into the fray by embracing their LGBT+ identity and marching in the gay pride parade with them. These stories are extremely important to put out, so people don’t feel they have to choose between their sexual identity and their faith.

Saria hopes that his film will bring audiences to think about these things, and he shared with us his own journey of coming to these issues in college. “It was the first time I came across bulimia, and body image issues and seasonal affective disorder. I had no concept of the LGBT+ movement then. I became much more informed and my ignorance was revealed to me.”

Like so many others, Saria began to critically examine the movement as well. And it wasn’t always cheerful stuff. “I was really shocked by the sense of priorities,” he said, talking about his experience with LGBTQ circles in Bombay. “As long as I can find someone to hook up with, as long as my little love story is not affected, it’s okay. And I just kept thinking, isn’t it harder for you to be legitimized by your own family when your government tells you you’re a criminal? But I guess that’s just human behaviour, we’re like the frogs, you keep adjusting the temperature and we’re like ‘okay, this is the new normal.’ It’s not just gay politics, it’s happening everywhere.

Sometimes it takes a new environment, sometimes it takes a piece of literature or a film to push people to think more deeply about things. Often, people make careless homophobic jokes not out of malice but simply habit, and Saria noticed this while living with his aunt and uncle, which is partially what catalysed ‘LOEV.’

I don’t want to preach to the choir. I was trying to aim my gun elsewhere. I made it for my unintentionally homophobic aunt and uncle so they understand that two men holding hands, or two women being affectionate with each other is not a radioactive nuclear bomb!

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A still from ‘LOEV’ (2015)

And it can happen. Saria mentions how his mother flew out to a London screening of ‘LOEV’ and purchased her own ticket. Later, his sister too drove down from Baltimore for a screening in San Francisco. Saria has a strict policy about not asking them if they liked it. “I don’t think the function of art is to be likeable. It’s more important to be compelling and provocative. I think the worst case scenario for a filmmaker is a ‘meh’ reaction from their audience.

But even before a film can get to that stage, casting itself can be quite the challenge. Especially when there’s this bizarre but popular belief in India that playing a gay character ruins an actor’s career. In response to that charge, Saria does not mince his words. “Any actor that’s not concerned with their brand image when doing a gay role isn’t the brightest. This isn’t a fairy tale, we live in the real world. You do get stereotyped but I also believe that it happens to mediocre actors. The great ones always break out. I don’t think Ranbir Kapoor’s image will be affected one bit if he does a gay part. I know he’s a Casanova, this has been taught to me by his movies and his press.

But for ‘LOEV,’ Saria feels things went mostly without a hitch. “The actor who ended up playing the lead was very hesitant, and I wasn’t trying to convince him because I don’t want him calling me six years later saying ‘tumne meri dukaan band kar di!’ The gay part was the least of his worries. It’s a tough role, and I’m uncompromising and we never cut the camera. When you see the film hopefully you’ll agree this is not an easy performance.” But the actors, Shiv Pandit, Dhruv Ganesh and Siddharth Menon, were among the select few who met the film’s requirements, and they finally came on board to make it happen.

After hitting film festivals in almost every continent, Saria says “I’m dying to put it out In India! I’m very grateful for all the validation it has gotten around the world, but the only opinion I’m really desperate for is what my fellow countrymen and community thinks of it. I’m really excited to be embraced or rejected or challenged.” But for that to happen, he says he’s trying to play his cards right. “Look, if you’re born a Karan Johar then you get to make a ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ with stars and start your career. But for the rest of us, that first strike of the iron has to be from the left side, or you don’t get into the game!” Nobody will pay attention without building some consensus and he hopes to do that before ‘LOEV’ releases in India.

India has come a long way since ‘Fire’ or ‘Bomgay,’ and is poised to really take this conversation forward, and that’s what Saria seems to want as well. In his closing comment, he said “the best thing to come out of ‘LOEV’ would be if other filmmakers decided to tell more LGBT+ stories, and do it better than I have.”

For more information on the film, click hereFeatured image source: YouTube.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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