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.”
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!”
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.”