In the Mood for Love: An Inclusive Look at Love In India Today
The re-criminalisation of homosexuality with the Supreme Court judgement on Section 377 in 2013 was a veritable blow to the population of our country, a regressive step that clamped down on liberties that every citizen deserves. While there’s been much discourse about the legal part of the debate, with their documentary In the Mood for Love, TISS alumni Sandeep Singh and Aakriti Kohli approach the topic in a wholly human way: by exploring the inherent universality of love.
The independent filmmakers joined forces in the production of the PSBT-backed documentary that was recently screened in Delhi, and has been making waves across the board. We caught up with the duo to find out more about the exciting project:
How did the idea for the documentary originate, and how did you develop it?
In looking at same-sex relationships, we thought that love can be used as a productive category for understanding homosexual relationships — and even homophobia, for that matter. We also wondered whether, as a social system, we were having the right conversation about love.
The idea was – How can we perhaps expand the range of meanings associated with the idea of love, so that the dominant understanding (which is very limited) becomes more inclusive in including multiple forms of it (love)?
Tell us a little bit about both your backgrounds, and why you that thought this was an important issue to highlight.
As research and media practitioners who have been writing and reflecting on the ideas of sexuality, love and togetherness, we were compelled to examine this issue. Especially with the SC judgment on the Section 377 which re-criminalized homosexuality and deeply affected a lot of friends and colleagues. We feel that the idea of heterosexuality has been so normalized in popular discourse, backed by religious fundamentalism, that we need as many alternative voices as possible in the form of writing as well as films. There are many prevalent stereotypes, misconceptions and negative attitudes, which continue to stigmatize and ridicule the LGBTQ community. Through the film we want to make an attempt to dispel some of these notions.
Additionally, as feminists, we realize and believe that the suppression of homosexuality and the oppression of homosexuals is a product of the same system, whose rules and relations oppress women and perpetuate a hegemonic patriarchal discourse around gender, sexuality and marriage.
Indian documentary films around this issue have done phenomenal work in documenting stories of oppression and struggle, describing the historic on-going struggle of seeking legal recognition and battling injustices of various kinds. However, we also felt that the there was a space for discussing the idea of love, the many interpretations of it, and the various ways in which we live it. It was a conscious decision on our part to look for stories of hope and triumph.
We also felt that it was important for our subjects to reflect on the LGBTQ movement in India, how it had shaped up, the roles they played in it, exclusionary or inclusionary practices within the movement, and the conflicts and challenges the movement was facing, since it is not a monolith.
In your opinion, what is missing today in the conversation surrounding Section 377?
A lot actually. There is no conversation on love. No talk of emotions and affective relationships. No human element to the lives that are severely affected by this restrictive and repressive legislation.
We felt that, in thinking about homosexuality in India, there was no imagination of couples or partners living together, and going about their lives in a routine way.
Initially, the idea was to document the lives of couples/partners, their views on love, and partnership, everyday relationship issues, and their negotiation within the social system. However, over time, our understanding of the film also evolved; we realized that there are multiple iterations of love, which are experienced and lived differently by different people. This is when we decided to also feature subjects who were not in a relationship at the moment but still deliberated on their idea of love.
There are as many things a film can hope to achieve through its narrative and we wanted to show the ordinariness of our subject’s lives vis-à-vis how the community is also fetishized in the media. We wanted the film to be a comfortable and candid experience for our subjects, and the audience, which is why we decided to feature people who were open about their sexuality.
Please elaborate on your association with PSBT, and how they came on board as producers eventually.
PSBT sent out a call for film proposals in 2014, in collaboration with Doordarshan. We had been thinking this film over for some time, and felt that it was the right time to finally make it. We pitched a detailed proposal in terms of the storyline, narrative structure, treatment and style of the film and received a good feedback. After a few rounds of talks, they came on board and showed immense trust in us and our ability to bring the film to life.
PSBT has been funding films which deal with the exploration of gender and sexuality and are extremely supportive of independent filmmakers. As a producer, they provide feedback at the appropriate stage, but leave complete creative freedom to the directors, which is extremely encouraging.
What is the change that you hope the documentary will bring about?
There is of course a bigger problem with the idea of sexuality itself, in our social system. Compounding this problem is also the denial of the right to love for those who do not subscribe to the template of hegemonic, compulsive and normative heterosexuality.
We think the most difficult challenge is the constant intrusion in their lives — which, one one hand, fetishizes them as a community, and on the other, subjects them to this derision and treats them as deviants. The biggest issue, of course, is the legal invisibility and the tag of illegality around consensual sex between same-sex persons.
As a democratic country, we need to extend these rights to the population. We hope the conversation around homosexuality becomes more sensitive, and thinks its idea of love through.
And how do you think can the movement be made more inclusive?
An important concern for us was some of the exclusionary practices within the larger movement, and our subjects reflect on the LGBTQ movement in India, how it has shaped up, the roles they played in it, exclusionary or inclusionary practices within the movement, and the conflicts and challenges the movement is facing.
For instance, one of the subjects in the film, Shabnam Shaikh, points out that the movement needs to be more representative, include not just English or Hindi-speaking populations, but other languages as well. Not just the urban educated, but those from smaller towns and villages, too. She points that sometimes, in a movement, a select few gain visibility and dominance whereas there should be an opportunity offered to others to take the lead as well. Another very important point that she makes is that the LGBT movement needs to lend itself to other social issues as well, including those of gender, domestic violence and patriarchy, as all these issues are inter-connected.
What were some of the ‘everyday realities’ that you discovered over the course of the filmmaking process that really stuck with you?
Since we were exploring their everyday lives, and highlighting the ordinary, the routineness of their lives offered some extraordinary moments, which are simple and subtle, yet powerful in what they refer to.
The act of making tea together in a small kitchen, where the partners also steal moments of love, or the fact that your parents might know of your sexual orientation and be okay with it, but you cease to be part of their immediate social circle and functions because the extended family and friends are homophobic. When one of the partners is asked in their respective offices about who plays the role of husband and wife, it really strikes you that the binaries that the world operates in can be so restrictive and limiting.
You would have surely faced several challenges while putting together this film. What were they and how did you manage to overcome them?
Representation is always a challenge, because it is essentially a construction — a construction which is informed by personal experiences and ideological leanings. The challenge is to represent your subjects in a way they would want themselves to be represented, to respect the trust they place in you, and to use your judgement in using conversations and moments which may pose ethical dilemma. There is an unequal power relationship between the filmmaker and the subject, and the challenge is to tread this dynamic carefully. As filmmakers, we have to be alert to the implication of how we choose to represent and frame our subjects.
It was hard work for us to get to know our subjects, have us enter their lives, build a level of comfort, and have candid conversations with them where they poured their life out to us, and trusted us enough to believe we would represent them responsibly and sensitively.
What were your biggest learnings, personally, from working on this film?
Some of the important learnings for us were that the film helped us explore the idea of love in our own lives. The mainstream idea of love is all-pervasive and it was refreshing to look at it through the language of protest and solidarity, through the language of struggle, through the language of companionship and partnership. Also to recognize that love is born out of self-love, something which was very eloquently pointed out by one of the subjects in the film.
Tell us about one of your favourite moments of shooting the film.
While shooting a documentary, it is very difficult to pre-empt the surprise moments in the film, the unexpected, or the moments not in the script. During an interview in our subject’s house, their cat enters the frame unexpectedly, and our subject asks for a kiss. The cat of course takes her own sweet time, and finally relents after a while, plants a brief kiss, and scurries away out of the frame. That was a wonderful and intimate moment.
There was another time, during the Rainbow Walk in JNU, it felt great to be a part of so much energy, we could feel the pulse, the passion; the atmosphere was electric.
Until Section 377 is revoked, how do you suggest we keep our spirits up and the fight going strong?
The only way is to keep writing, singing, filming, and more importantly, loving.
[Sandeep and Aakriti are alumni of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and are trained in film and television production and have worked together on varied video, animation and design projects. Their previous work includes Breakin’ Mumbai, City’s Edge and Beep.
Sandeep is an independent filmmaker, who engages with issues of urban habitat, youth subcultures and identities and also teaches photography and filmmaking. Aakriti, on the other hand, is an Assistant Professor at the University of Delhi and teaches journalism, media and culture studies. As a research scholar and filmmaker, she is interested in exploring issues of gender and sexuality.]