By Shambhavi Saxena for Youth Ki Awaaz:
When Rituparna Borah took a brief trip to Puri, Orissa, it was quite by accident that she ran into one of the subjects of the upcoming film, “Ishq, Dosti, And All That”. He introduced himself as Rups, a trans man with a long list of unread WhatsApp messages from multiple girlfriends, stories of flings with a Russian woman, and a never-ending stream of phone calls from admirers. Borah, who is a founding member of Nazariya: A Queer-Feminist Resource Group, immediately rang up her colleague Ritambara Mehta, and the pair of them got to work.
Following Rups in his home state, and Priyam, labelled an “infamous lesbian” in her South Delhi university, the two debuting filmmakers weaved together a story very unlike most in its genre.
“Few films about queer people and lives do not talk about violence, or identity, or romantic relationships,” Mehta tells YKA, over a cup of tea at the Nazariya office. To that, Borah adds, “We were tired of seeing the same narrative, of ‘coming out’, and rona dhona (sob story).”
The idea for an alternative came to them during a discussion about how queer people found ways to meet in India’s pre-internet days. Or rather, the ways in which queer interactions were circumscribed. As Borah says, “It seems like the identity of a queer person is only within the frames of coupledom, and not friendships.”
So does friendship hold a lesser position in queer lives? Absolutely not! But it looks like most films about queer subjects missed the memo.
“We specifically didn’t want ex-lovers, or current lovers, or future lovers,” says Mehta. “We wanted somebody who is queer but does not want to date and is happy in their own friends circle.”
And so, completely avoiding the slippery slope into a ‘love story’, the film delves into the idea of a “queer commune”, instead. Borah explains it as “a sort of togetherness, which is not romantic”, shown through Priyam’s banter with her flatmates, or when Rups and his friend sing beachside songs in Puri. These friendships are, in themselves, a challenge to traditional notions of family. And for many, the family home can be particularly unwelcoming of queerness. But does a ‘queer friendship’ arise only out of a shared feeling of being unwelcome? Borah says it might be true to a certain extent, but there’s a positive aspect we all need to consider: solidarity. Speaking about her own circle, she says, “In 2014, some of us became thick friends, because of a certain betrayal in the political system. And this is also how queer friendships are built.”
Apart from male-dominated buddy films, friendship is a rare theme. but it’s equally rare to find these stories about people who are assigned female at birth. And that’s almost the entire cast of “Ishq, Dosti, And All That”. When I bring this up, Borah says it was intentional. When asked why, she and Mehta laugh, “Because we are an LBT group!”
How many of us actually do get to see lesbian, bisexual and trans women represented well (or even at all!) in the vast majority of media we consume? A GLAAD report from 2011 found that of all queer characters on US television (and there are so few to begin with), only 34% were women. Now consider this: Autostraddle released a list of 198 lesbian and bisexual women characters that were killed off in their respective TV shows.
In Indian media, the numbers are too abysmal to even report! But let’s forget about the numbers for a moment, and focus on the stories themselves. When I ask Borah and Mehta what they think of the general state of LGBTQ media representation, they sit in a knowing silence for a stiff few seconds.
Borah is the first to speak: “It’ll be ‘Mai itne saal ka tha, mujhe yeh mehsoos hua, mujhe ghutan aati hai’ (I was so many years old, this is how it felt, I was suffocating)’. I’m not saying ghutan nahi hota hai, but this is 2018.”
“Ghutan ke alava aur kuch bhi hota hai (there’s more to it than just feeling suffocated),” adds Mehta. And it’s true that across regions, and time, and means of expressing queerness in pop media, nuance is the needle in the haystack. But something has got to give, right? That’s where “Ishq, Dosti, And All That” comes into the picture.
While Nazariya does want to carry it to schools and colleges, it won’t go as an educational film, or a tool to understand the individual components of an acronym like LGBT*QIA+. There’s plenty of films (good or bad, that’s up to you) and studies and blogs for all that. Many films thrive on tragic story arcs, on emotions that run high. But Borah says, it’s the sense of everydayness in this film that she hopes will stand out for audiences.
Catch “Ishq, Dosti, And All That” at 2.30pm, September 16, at the India International Centre, on Max Müller Marg, New Delhi.