LGBTQ

What It’s Like to Be a Queer Muslim Filmmaker in Homophobic Bollywood

“We're so okay with celebrating war on screen and yet get so threatened with love. Isn't it baffling?”

by Faraz Arif Ansari ; as told to Pallavi Pundir
04 November 2019, 2:00pm

Faraz Arif Ansari

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

For far too long, Indian cinema has had a fraught relationship with representation of the marginalised or invisible. And one of those that’s been perpetuated unfairly for way too long—through caricaturisation or demonisation—has been the portrayal of queer people. In a country where mainstream films impact society and drive the economy in a big way—by 2020, the industry is projected to earn up to $411 million—it’s not an exaggeration to say that representation really does matter. This is particularly true in India, which decriminalised gay sex only last year. But Mumbai-based Faraz Arif Ansari, one of the few queer filmmakers in the industry, is set to shake things up.

VICE recently met the 33-year-old, whose film Sisak —India’s first queer silent film about two young men who see each other on the Mumbai local train but are unable to say anything to each other—came at a time when LGBTQ rights were criminalised (in 2017), and ended up with 59 international awards. He’s now back with Sheer Qorma , a love story between two Indian Muslim women. Here, he opens up about why he will never stop making queer films even though the country, and Bollywood, are clearly not ready for it.

I’ve always wanted to make films. It started with me as a child—as young as four—who staged elaborate skits involving Barbies and He-Man for family gatherings during festivals. But we all knew there was something in my ability to tell stories. I grew up surrounded by inspiring women in my family, who've done pathbreaking things in their own lives, and when you have that, you grow up with a very different understanding of the world by default. It's not a very toxic-masculinity kind of understanding; even my father is a very gentle creature. So when, in school, I heard a lot of "He's not like us", or "He's different", when sexuality and being a Muslim came into play as part of my identity, I just carried on with my life and did what I believed in.

I've always had this insane reservoir of dreams inside me. There are days when I feel absolutely defeated, but I always go back to this reservoir and say to myself, “You do what you want.” I've become my own agony aunt. This is what happens to queer people because you don’t have anyone to reach out to. Interestingly, I've never had to struggle with my own sexuality. I was always like, “I like boys, and it’s okay.” But even though I never made a big deal out of it, everyone around me was very uncomfortable, which I could never understand. Looking back, maybe that comfort came from the fact that I was surrounded by amazing women.

In my family, my khala jaan (my mother’s eldest sister) was my constant source of inspiration. She was a badass at a time when it wasn’t normal for women to do so much. She didn't marry, was the manager of one of India's leading banks, and brought up her siblings when they lost their parents. She would tell me not to ever listen to anyone and do my own thing. So I grew up with her courage.

My mother, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. She's very worried about what people think, which is probably why, even though I came out to her when I was 21, she still hasn't fully accepted me. She still hopes that one day, I will get better and realise that it was just a phase.

The reason why I made Sisak was that I wanted to show something to her, because, after a point, you don't want to have a conversation with people because they don't want to listen. But when you show them something visual—and cinema is such a powerful medium and an instrument of change—people can change.

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A still from Sisak, a short film about two men on a Mumbai local train who can't bring themselves to talk to each other.

When my mother watched Sisak in Liberty cinema, I could hear her sniffle throughout. When the film was over, I turned around to see her wipe a tear. She just patted my shoulder. We never spoke about this film after that. She reads my interviews in the papers so she knows that I'm out. It's a very gentle kind of acceptance but still, it's not entirely acceptance. It’s like when you embrace someone and the other person is not embracing wholeheartedly, you feel it.

That's why most of my films are about showing that there's nothing wrong in loving each other. That's why I made Sheer Qorma, which is a story of how queer children struggle with acceptance and being loved. I feel like cinema has forgotten how to show love. We're worried about plotlines and how to sell it. But I just want to know how many lives my work is going to change.

With Sisak, I tasted that. People came out to their families after watching that 15-minute film, and then reached out to me, saying that their families had accepted them and thanking me for having the courage to make that film.

So I have taken upon myself the responsibility to heal the world. Such a stupid thing to do, given the world we live in!

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A still from Sisak

I wanted to be a filmmaker so badly that I decided to go to the US to study filmmaking and ended up living there for six years. But I eventually came home because I realised I wanted to bring a change here. Despite no contacts in Bollywood, I made my way with some big projects until, in 2013, I wrote this queer film called Ravivar, about a prime minister's son being gay. It's a satire, a comedy, political, and pathbreaking, and I took it to every production house worth their weight in salt. They all said it's beautiful, but sorry. And that's when I realised, for the first time, that I’m dealing with a big monster called homophobia. It’s so internalised that all those blue-eyed dreams of making the big Bollywood gay film died that day. Over the last few years, I've died like that many times.

In one of those moments, I wrote Sisak. Since then, it's just been a constant journey to open up more conversations. Sisak also brought to me one question from women: Where are the women? That stayed with me because, yes, Sisak featured two men in a pre-dominantly male compartment in a Mumbai local train. Sheer Qorma came out of that inquiry, and also the fact that the portrayal of Muslim women has been so stereotypical in Bollywood. So many who identify as Muslim and queer have told me, “Why isn't anybody making a film about us? We're real people like you are.”

Sheer Qorma is not out yet, but some people are already unhappy with the film or its tagline, “Mohabbat gunah nahi hain (Love is not a sin).” But it's important, given where this country is heading, to talk about this. When was the last time you saw a mainstream film about a Muslim family, where they were not killers or it wasn't political? When was the last time you’ve seen two Indian women in love on a poster (apart from Fire)? This is a simple, gentle Muslim family, like everyone's family. Are you ready to see that they live just the way you do?

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Actors Swara Bhaskar (left) and Divya Dutta in Sheer Qorma. The film is slated to release early 2020.

When I released the poster of the film, I got death threats on social media. I've been told I should be killed or hanged, or that I should go to Pakistan. We're so okay with celebrating war on screen and yet get so threatened with love. Isn't it baffling?

There's also this mentality that if two women are in love, that love must be different from the rest. I’m trying to fight that mindset. I’ve interacted with many women and shared my draft with them, and they'd ask, “How did you know about our lives?” And I’d say, “By knowing about my life.” Perhaps the biggest compliment came from (actor) Shabana Azmi, who also stars in the movie, when she called the film gender-free.

As a result, Sheer Qorma is also a lot about representation. There's a child who plays the role of a gender non-binary person. A trans woman plays a cis-woman role. I have to break this pattern in Bollywood where people are so non-inclusive even though they harp about inclusion all the time. In Sheer Qorma, 97 percent of my crew and cast are all women, which is intentional because representation matters, no matter how big or small.

Despite the reading down of Section 377 last year, Bollywood is deeply entrenched in homophobia. I've been told many times not to talk about my sexual identity. I’ve lost many people I called friends over the last many years. Before I went on stage to release the poster of Sheer Qorma, I was told, “Yaar, try not talking about your sexuality.” Queer people from the industry tell me not to be queer because it may hamper my career. But I don’t want to make my career being queer. I want to make my career being a storyteller, and a storyteller has no identity.

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Ansari in Mumbai, his hometown.

After 377, a lot of pink money (purchasing power of gay community) content is being created, but I have made movies before the judgment when nobody wanted to touch LGBTQ themes. So I do see queer content now, but even there, there's a lot of parhez (restrictions) in the way people tell stories. It takes a great deal of courage to become an artist anywhere in the world, all the more so in our country. There's either no real support for the arts or they want to support it but they want to do it for free. Some day, they'll see it but until then, we'll just have to keep trying.

Sheer Qorma is slated for an early 2020 release. You can follow updates on Ansari’s work on his Instagram and Twitter.

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.