India thrives on Bollywood. Bollywood is a sobriquet for India’s Hindi language film industry. Derived from ‘Bombay’ (now Mumbai), the home of Hindi Cinema, and Hollywood, Bollywood is largest film industry in the world, with its American counterpart coming third. In 2016 alone, 225 Bollywood films were released. The intensity of this phenomenon and its impact runs in the nooks and nerves of India.
However, Bollywood isn’t the most diverse when it comes to representation. Homosexuality is an important issue that the Hindi Film Industry has failed to deal with. Homosexual representation is hidden in the sidelines in the form of best friends, dance choreographers and wedding planners, bound by false rigid stereotypes and talked about in whispers.
Faraz Arif Ansari, a filmmaker and conscious writer, on a mission to breakout of the stigmatized representation of homosexuality in India, directed India’s first silent LGBTQ+ short film, Sisak, which, when translated from Urdu to English means ‘a sob’. This silent movie is the story of a love that dare not speak.
Meet Faraz, the man who has initiated a healthy widespread conversation about homosexuality in Indian media by challenging Bollywood archetypes. In conversation with Faraz, he talks about the knows and hows of his latest movie and portrayal of homosexuality in mainstream Indian media.
Q. Sisak is India’s first silent LGBTQ+ movie and has stirred a healthy large-scale conversation in just a month and a half of the trailer release. How does the positive reception make you feel?
To be honest, I did expect a good reaction but what is happening with Sisak is truly overwhelming. There is so much love and affection pouring in from every corner of the world. It is very humbling. Everyday, I have about 30 messages from random strangers who just want to send me love and wishes for making Sisak. It truly makes me realise the power of honest cinema.
Q. Given the regressive disposition of the Indian society, did you ever rethink the making of Sisak? Did you give the inevitable backlash a thought?
I am a very positive & optimistic person, by default. I like to dream of a happy and peaceful world. Having said that, I am no escapist too. When the idea of Sisak got into my being in 2013, The Supreme Court of India had just rolled back its decision on decriminalizing homosexuality (Section 377 of The Indian Penal Code). I wasn’t ready to direct my anger because I felt too vulnerable. It required more life experiences, more gravity and more growth on my part as a filmmaker. Writing & directing are two very different aspects. But then, in 2016, I woke up one morning and knew it was the time to make Sisak. So I put together a team of friends who are reputed professionals from the film industry and we went ahead to make India’s First Silent LGBTQ Love Story. Obviously, the fear is always looming, given the scenario and law in India but then, if art won’t come to rescue, what will? So I put the negatives aside and went ahead to shoot Sisak. Good, bad – it’s all a part of life. What truly matters is that if you believe in something with every pore of your being, there is no other option but to go out and make it happen.
Q. When I first saw the trailer, I sobbed and I think that justifies the title of the film. I couldn’t help but think, is the silence of the movie an allegory to the fight that people of the LGBTQ+ community put up every single day just to be able to love?
You are absolutely right. It is an allegory to the fight of homosexual people across the world, wherever a law as inhumane as not allowing someone to love who they want to, exists. In Sisak, they don’t talk, there is no physical intimacy – I mean, they don’t even shake hands. That is the gruesome truth. An entire section of the population has been denied the most humane emotion – love. And that is what I want to showcase with Sisak. Yes, a law won’t allow you to express what you feel, how you feel.
Yes, a law will also make you a criminal for being intimate with the person you love only because of their gender but how can any law in this whole wide world take away the love that nestles in one’s heart? That love is yours to keep and that love is yours to cherish. No goddamn law can take that away from anyone and that is what Sisak celebrates.
Q. How challenging was it to encapsulate the magnificent emotions of love, longing, dread and despair in a silent movie?
Nobody teaches you to make a silent film! The first exercise back in film-school was a dialogue exercise. So yes, while I was writing Sisak, I realised that writing it and executing it were going to be two totally different universes. When I sent the screenplay to my DOP, Saurabh Goswami & my Editor, Akshara Prabhakar – they both called me and told me, ‘the script is like poetry, so lyrical. How will you manage to shoot it and that too without permission?’(Without permission because we didn’t have the funds to get permissions to shoot in the Mumbai Local Trains [a suburban railway system of 3000 trains running all across Mumbai and carrying about 8,000,000 passengers everyday] because it is way too expensive).
But then, obviously, I had a plan in my mind and a will in my heart to make Sisak happen. Six long months of intense preparation went into the making of a 20 minute short film. I storyboarded each and every frame. My team researched on the best routes to take so that shooting would be easier. A lot of planning, plotting and hard work went into bringing Sisak to life. I also conducted intensive workshops with both my actors, Jitin Gulati & Dhruv Singhal. Sometimes, we would just board the train and soak in the silences. Sometimes, I would ask them to just sit and read a book until the last station arrived. We sort of created a structure and worked around it. Sometimes, a filmmaker hides behind dialogues, great locations, stunning costumes, outlandish camera movements and what not. In Sisak, we had nothing to hide behind. We were naked, stripped to our bones. All we had was rousing passion and tremendous emotions to make the film happen. And we did. The rest is history.
Q. Was the audition process gruelling?
The casting process of Sisak was the most taxing process. Most actors are so used to having a script with dialogues that when they came for auditions that has caused a lot of damage. When I was casting for Sisak, in the auditions, all the actors had to do was sit and read a book and at some point, look at someone who is staring at them and that’s about it. After auditioning more than 300 actors and not finding anyone who was even remotely close to how I wanted the portrayal to be in Sisak, I was rethinking the movie until I auditioned Jitin and Dhruv. They came to the audition without any preconceived notions or baggage. They surrendered to my brief and I was extremely surprised to see how true to real life their portrayals were. The kind of cinema that I believe in – slice-of-life, was so effortlessly crafted by them that I was pleasantly surprised. Obviously, we did a lot of workshops in the trains, sessions with other homosexual men talking to these two about their own experiences and journeys, etc. After that, we just went on to shoot the film in five hours, spread over two nights. I guess, the workshop and the discussions and interactions with the homosexual community brought in a lot of gravity to their performances.
Q. In India, we tend to do what Bollywood tells us to. How important do you think it is, in this sense, to have homosexual representation in mainstream cinema?
The message of Sisak is simple and very universal – Let us love. Recently, at a private screening, which was attended by homophic people struggling with acceptance, one of them walked up to me after the screening and told me, “Your film is a slap across the face! And I just want to say, I am sorry. I have been a homophobe, when I shouldn’t have been and for no reasons. I am sorry, I am sorry, I am so sorry” and then he hugged me and wept. I guess, that is the message. When you come full circle with your own homophobia and see what we as a nation, as a generation, as a civilization have done to our own brothers, sisters, sons & daughters who have longed to love. I hope that with Sisak, people see that helplessness.
The other thing that I have heard from a lot of people is that, they don’t see these two men as men but as individuals who are yearning to love, to be together but because of the society, the law, because of them, because of us, they are unable to. I guess, when that happens, you know that as a filmmaker, you’ve done something right.
10 years down the line, if one looks back at 2017, Sisak will be one of the most talked about films and not any other generic Bollywood flick. The key point is to start a conversation, to open a dialogue about homosexuality. My effort as a filmmaker is to bring it into mainstream cinema without the sad stereotypical portrayal that Indian cinema has been doing. We all talk about the need for change but then all these filmmakers keep going out there and creating regressive portrayal of homosexuals. That is why Sisak is so important.
Q.* What was your take on Fawad Khan’s character in Kapoor and Sons? Do you believe it was an initiative to breakout of the stereotypes that surround homosexuality in India?
To be honest, I haven’t seen Kapoor and Sons. But my Mom did. When she got back home, I asked her the same question that you are asking me and she looked at me and said, “But he isn’t gay in the film, is he?” And therein lies the problem. I know many people who have seen Kapoor and Sons and share the same sentiments. Sometimes, being way too subtle is not the best way to go about something that needs solid mainstream exposure and dialogue and especially when you have such a huge canvas, platform, actors & production house backing you. Homosexuality can’t be dealt in whispers anymore because there is nothing wrong with it. You need to talk about it. Openly. Celebrate it. And let people see it. Only then will they open their hearts and minds and more towards acceptance and love.
Q. And lastly, given YouTube’s new update, the ‘restricted mode’, hides all videos with LGBTQ+ content,including the trailer of Sisak and blocks out openly LGBTQ+ YouTubers from suggestions. Would you describe this as blatant homophobia on part of an otherwise very accepting community?
They rather have their children grow up singing and watching sleazy item songs rather than inculcating acceptance at an early stage. Tell me, what is sleazy or adult or ‘restricted’’ about Sisak or any other LGBTQ+ content? NOTHING! And that is my fight with this so called ‘very accepting community’
Sisak will premiere at the Wicked Queer: The Boston LGBT Film Festival on 5th April 2017 as a closing film. Sisak has also been officially selected at Thessaloniki International L.G.B.T.Q Film Festival, Greece & Queer International Film Festival Playa del carmen, México Playa Pride. The movie has been submitted for The Cannes Film Festival, 2017 and is awaiting approval. You can follow Faraz Arif Ansari on twitter @futterwacknening to know about his future projects and keep your eyes out for the hashtag #SisakTheFilm to accompany Sisak on an incredible journey throughout the world.
*Kapoor and Sons is an Indian Hindi-language comedy-drama film, directed by Shakun Batra and produced by Karan Johar, Hiroo Yash Johar, and Apoorva Mehta under the banners of Dharma Productions and Fox Star Studios. In the movie, seasoned Pakistani actor Fawad Khan plays the role of homosexual man. This move was applauded by many as it was a great step towards unbiased and progressive homosexual representation in mainstream Indian cinema, breaking free of stereotypes. However, this representation was played out so subtly that a large part of the audience could not catch on with it. For the majority of the movie, Fawad’s character appears straight- he is made to kiss a girl without any follow up scenes that give away his sexuality. Fawad’s character does not come out as gay until the very end of the movie and despite the character being in a committed relationship, no parts of it are shown or explicitly talked about in the movie.