Many queer films are haunted by tropes about the struggle of coming out, crushes on people who can’t reciprocate, and experiences with discrimination. The new film Loev, which premiered last week at Washington, D.C.’s “Reel Affirmations” festival, manages to bypass all of those tropes while offering a unique look at gay life in a country where gay culture is thriving but legal equality has not caught up: India.
In 2013, the Indian Supreme Court upheld Section 377, a law that criminalizes homosexuality. Despite national outcry at the injustice, conservative lawmakers have blocked attempts to repeal the law, and attempts to bring it before the court again are still pending. Though this context is never explicitly mentioned, it’s alluded to throughout Loev, “a story about love, no matter how you spell it.” It was also felt in the very making of the film, much of which had to be done in secret.
Alex (Siddharth Menon) is carefree — so much so that he forgot to pay the electric bill, and he doesn’t even care, despite the fact that it’s the weekend and it’s 40 °C (104 °F). His boyfriend Sahil (Dhruv Ganesh), the kind of guy who likes everything to be in its place, is not happy about it, and not endeared by the way Alex is laughing at himself about it either. But Sahil’s old friend Jai (Shiv Pandit), a successful businessman, is visiting from the U.S., and he seems all too happy to get away from the cloying Alex for the weekend to catch up with someone he adores.
Structurally similar to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, the film follows Sahil and Jai as they reconnect, subtly flirt, and even consider testing the waters of what might have been or what maybe could be. Sahil may like his ducks in a row, but he also likes adventures, some of which the very-put-together Jai only joins begrudgingly. As they explore some of India’s lavish landscapes, the likes of which are not often seen in portrayals of the country, their casual intimacy with each other elicits looks of disapproval from passers-by, a reminder that such displays are not condoned. Their constant time together leads to a growing tension, made particularly awkward when they reconnect with Alex and his companion Junior (Rishabh J. Chaddha) in a double date at the end of the weekend.
Unlike Weekend, there is almost no open discussion about being gay or gay culture. Loev is more subtle in its portrayal of same-sex affection, which not only makes the film more approachable to a wider audience, but also shines a light on a kind of gay normality that is still quite novel for Bollywood.
Writer and director Sudhanshu Saria answered some questions from ThinkProgress about the film from India, where Loev had its big opening night premiere Thursday evening.
THINKPROGRESS: Aside from the Indian Supreme Court’s 2013 decision upholding the criminal ban on same-sex activity (Section 377), many American viewers might not know much about what it’s like to be gay in India. What did you learn about gay life in India as you wrote and directed Loev?
SUDHANSHU SARIA: So much, and it’s hard to quantify. India really is a study in contrasts and pluralities. My time in the U.S. conditioned me to prize this quest for truth and individuality, this journey towards recognizing and achieving my “true self” above all else. Who am I? What do I really want? Every day felt like a rigorous examination of that and representing that truth in your life seemed to be the highest path towards peace and self-fulfillment. And this clearly plays out in how one deals with gender identity, sexual orientation, and the coming out process.
But India doesn’t work that way. Not only are people living multiple lives and managing multiple identities, they have no guilt about doing so. My cousin has no trouble praying with the family in the morning and being an atheist with his friends at night; or kissing a boy in private and flirting with women in a public setting. When I first got here, I was very judgmental of this. I judged it from my U.S.-centric quest for individual truth but as I started to sink into India, I saw a new strength in this fluid and constantly shifting sense of identity I saw in people around me.
Letting go of my judgment and allowing everyone to pursue their own version of queer truth was a major step for me. There is a practicality that comes with it where the person allows herself to be bullied and to protest depending on the setting. It’s a code everyone seems to adhere to and it helps avoid unnecessary conflict.
I tried to deal with this as I was writing Loev. I wanted to do away with this binary state of “in” and “out” of the closet. Each of these characters is at a different point in that journey and that key decision is really the cause of so much tension in their lives. I tried to represent that journey I had seen in both parts of the world through these characters.
I also had fun capturing some of that The-World-Is-Flat stuff here. As I was meeting people my age, their fluency with Western culture always struck me as amazing. I would meet people who might never have traveled outside India but knew so much about the world and were listening to that brand new Rihanna single or sampling that hip show on Hulu before it had even broken into the zeitgeist. I knew I wanted to capture that to really force the audience to get over their foreignness and actually relate to these characters living out their lives and fighting for love in another part of the world.
There have been stories that mention that you had to shoot this film secretly. Can you talk more about that and some of the challenges you and the cast faced turning this film into a reality?
Sure. For starters there is no guidebook on what happens to you if you choose to make an LGBT film so we didn’t know what to expect. When Deepa Mehta made her lesbian drama Fire in the early 90s, cinema halls were burnt down. More recently, the Certification Board of India snipped out the entire Monica Bellucci kiss scene from the latest James Bond. So I knew that screening the film would be a huge problem and that there would be censorship, but I didn’t know what to expect during the production process so we took the safe route and just never talked about it.
Everyone from the cast and crew on knew that it wasn’t to be brandished or flaunted. We ran a small social media campaign and obtained location permits and raised funding without ever using the word “gay”. The whole theme of the film became friendship. Why risk losing the permit or getting kicked out of a location by offending some vendor’s sensibility?
There was also safety to think about. India has no shortage of opportunistic political parties and right-wing fringe groups — and which issue they choose to salivate over on any given day is anybody’s guess. Our budget could not withstand the slightest disruption and so we just found it safest to stay below the radar and keep our heads down and mouths shut until the film was finished.
It wasn’t until the film’s World Premiere in Tallinn, Estonia that most of our families even found out that we had participated in this film. It felt naughty and exciting, like we had pulled off a bank heist or something.
The film doesn’t openly discuss LGBT politics, but there are subtle glances of disapproval of same-sex intimacy from various people throughout the film. What do you hope audiences take away from the film in terms of their impressions of Indian culture and what it’s like to be gay there?
I just tried to stay away from everything one might expect from a movie like this. It’s much more dramatic to have government workers show up or citizens show up and tear them out of their hotel rooms or stone them or whatever. Gay films already do a great job with that torture porn stuff. I was more interested in the every day experiences of being LGBT, where you’re made to feel deficient on a daily basis, made to feel ashamed on a daily basis in these simple little ways. What starts out as a glance from a third party gets internalized and very soon, you start censoring yourself, following that invisible heteronormative guidebook.
India is also like some insane mashup of 500 different countries and cultures. My characters are clearly more bourgeois — they are educated, well-versed in Western culture, stay in cities, are artists — so there is a lot of destigmatization that has already happened with them. Their attitude towards social bias is not going to be the same as someone from a small town. Indeed, the bias being thrown towards from someone from a small town is also very, very different from the bias my characters get.
So yeah, I tried to focus on a very specific sub-culture of this country and what the experience would be like of hanging with a very specific sort of couple from that very specific sub-culture and give the audience a sense of what queer life might be like in that circumstance.
Bollywood is not particularly known for its nuanced portrayals of gay characters, so the way you accept the fullness of these characters’ sexualities might shock some audiences. What were your expectations for how the film would be received, and now that you’ve had your first few screenings in India, what reactions are you hearing?
I’m actually gearing up for my first screening in India this weekend so I have no clue. We have purposely stayed out of the country, focusing on outside markets, prestigious festivals, and critics so we could build up some credibility for the film back home. The audience is much smarter than we ever give them credit for so I am actually excited to see what they say.
Indian films, much like films in Hollywood, have traditionally always used queer characters to provide a non-threatening source of comedy or comfort for the audience. I didn’t want to do that. I also didn’t want to glorify anyone, regardless of how many queer films get made. I really wanted the characters to be relatable, rather than heroic. We are all flawed and that’s okay.
In many ways, Loev is a universal story about questioning the circumstances of your current relationship and wondering whether the grass might be greener in a different relationship that might have been. What do you think this story gains from taking place in India and among gay men?
Correct. More than gay-centric issues, or India-centric issues, this film is really about behavior in love. How does one conduct themselves when they like someone and the other person doesn’t like them back? It can take place in any city around the world, doesn’t matter to us. So in a way, the story could have taken place anywhere from Boston to Budapest to Buenos Aires.
But it does take place in Mumbai and that actually gives this film a whole bunch of new layers. The legal status of homosexuality, the marginalization of the queer population, the jingostic political party in power, the mob mentality, rape culture — all of it starts to show up, adding energy and another layer of tension to the proceedings. It makes you lean forward because if you’ve seen any queer cinema, you know that their bedroom door is going to be knocked down by society and they are going to be dragged out of their idyllic vacation by the authorities to pay for their “crimes” at some point and it just makes you that much more nervous.
The character in the film who seems to struggle the most with insecurity about his sexuality is Jai, who actually lives and works in the United States and is simply visiting India for the weekend. What similarities and differences have you noticed in how the two countries approach gay acceptance?
Haha, that’s true. I think it’s that duality thing again — for Jai, it is about being out versus not. For the other two characters, that closet is more fluid. I’m not a hundred percent sure if they are out to every single person in their lives. They are also not bothered by it; they don’t owe that declaration to anyone. It’s more got to do with how comfortable they are with their own sexual orientation rather than how many people they have come out to. I think that’s sort of the primary difference there. What’s hampering Jai is maybe the lack of self-acceptance, rather than whether he is out or not. And I think that distinction I have seen in the U.S. a lot. This rallying cry about “coming out” versus more of a focus on one’s own relationship with oneself.
Another point of difference is society’s own perception of how liberal or open-minded it is. Being closeted in India is very normative, it’s easy to understand but that’s not the case in the United States. There’s a shame about it, like something is wrong with the person if they don’t feel safe enough or confident enough to declare themselves to the world. It’s a whole other kind of oppression and it can be crushing. I understand the power of coming out and how important it is for the movement that its members participate but not everyone is there in their journey and we have to make more room for that.
In one sense, the film is literally small — a small cast telling an intimate story — but in another sense quite large in the impact it could have for gay visibility and representation in India and elsewhere. How will you define whether Loev is a success? What difference do you anticipate it making?
The first benchmark I have for myself is what I think of the film. Before it goes out into the world or is seen by anyone, I want to know if what I have made matched up to my intent. In that sense, Loev is a success for me. Beyond that, if the film has any goal, it is to generate empathy amongst its audience. I wanted folks to see their own relationships in the love between these characters. Once we empathize, it becomes harder for anyone to dismiss it.
Besides all that, I am hoping whatever little success Loev has had will inspire ten other people to pursue such stories.
Full disclosure: Sudhanshu Saria attended college with the author. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.