Entertainment

It Was Nearly Impossible to Make This Queer Indian Drama

'Loev' is a sumptuous, provocative Netflix film that takes on queer intimacy in a nation where homosexuality is illegal.

by Mikelle Street
May 2 2017, 6:43pm

Set and filmed completely in India, Loev is a 95-minute meditation on behaviour, possession, and negotiation in both emotional and financial senses. The film follows Sahil (played by Dhruv Ganesh before his death), a musician-turned-manager on a weekend trip with Jai (Shiv Pandit), a high-powered New York businessman back in India for work. As they tour the Indian countryside, Jai seeks to impress his old friend, renting them a convertible BMW, gifting him a guitar. Sahil is alternately enamored and reluctant, his feelings complicated by his immature boyfriend Alex and Jai's constant Skyping with clients thousands of miles away.

As the film builds to its explosive conclusion, the two companions dance around their feelings, treading a perpetually shifting line between friendship and romance, their respective other commitments dooming what is a real yet flickering connection. Directed with nuance and confidence by first-time director Sudhanshu Saria, the result is sumptuous, provocative, and incredibly frustrating—all at once.

Saria wanted to make the film, which premiered on Netflix yesterday, with almost exclusively male actors. "The audience assigns strengths and weaknesses to characters because of gender," he recently explained to me. "So I knew I couldn't make it mixed genders. It levels the playing field by each character having the same sort of strengths and weaknesses so they become more responsible for their decisions."

The decision to effectively make his directorial debut a "gay" feature, with more-than-platonic relationships between the male characters, has created complications. Section 377 of the Indian Penal code has criminalized homosexuality since British rule in 1860, banning sexual activities "against the order of nature" under threat of life imprisonment. Loev comes filled not only with sexual tension between men, but also affection, and gay intercourse. With all that in mind, I recently spoke to Saria about how he made a film of what some would consider illegal in India and how success on the festival circuit has caused trouble for the actors involved.

VICE: Can you tell me a little bit about the context of why you made the film?
Sudhanshu Saria: I was trying to write something a lot more traditional when the Supreme Court in India made the decision [in 2013] to reinstate Section 377, that very archaic British law which criminalized homosexuality. Everything had been kosher and legal for a few years and our Supreme Court flipped it back. I had just moved to Mumbai at the time from LA and I remember thinking there's going to be protest, the whole West Hollywood thing, everyone was going to go nuts. But everything was pretty much moving along. There were op-eds pieces in the newspaper, but that was it. The city didn't go up in flames. I thought, This is weird. Why isn't there more of a reaction other than the intelligentsia?

Given those censorship laws against gay material, how did you go about actually making the film?
I come from a business background when it comes to film—I have been in the industry for eight years. That's where my history is: distribution and sales. So I'm very pragmatic when it comes to these things. Before I started I thought, This will never get made. I knew I wouldn't be able to get actors to take a chance on me because it could hurt them from a Bollywood casting point of view. But because I knew it was impossible to make, it gave me the ability to write with absolute honesty. It was like, "This isn't getting made anyway," so best-case scenario, it's a writing sample for [the HBO series] Looking.

So [after I wrote it and got production partners], we started the film thinking we weren't going to finish production. Some right-wing activist group could show up on set and shut the whole thing down. And then we finished production and we were working on post, but I thought it wasn't going to get it distributed because of censorship laws. But also I knew it wasn't going to go anywhere internationally because it was a no-name director, no-name actors, no-name cast, so no one was going to pick it up. The sum value of this film was zero.

The whole time, I was just waiting for it to get shut down. I didn't even tell my family because I knew we were going to be shut down. I didn't want them to think I didn't finish my first film. When we were filming, I kept telling the crew it was a film about friendship. When it starts off [Sahil and Alex] could just be roommates.

It wasn't at Cannes, it wasn't at Sundance, it was just this rinky-dink film. But then after the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia, the audience was bawling, they cancelled the Q&A, and it just took off.

But then there's the kissing scene.
Yeah, so we're doing the scene on the cliff and I say, "Hey Jai, on this take I want you to kiss him." And he says, "Yeah?" and I'm like, "Yeah, do it." Then there's this gasp on set and my costume designer runs up to me and is like, "Did you not tell them?" And I was like, "Oh, I forgot. I meant to." And he asked, "What are you going to do?" and I was like "We're here now. Take another take." By the time it's take 14, everyone is so desensitized, it's like, "Whatever, man. Let's just get this done, so we can go eat."

It wasn't until the world premiere in Estonia that I talked to my producing partner and was like, "Wait, have you told your parents you've done this? Like this is socially shameful, they are going to have to answer questions. This is going to end up on Facebook." I had just sat down with Variety for a story and the headline really went there. But no one really questioned, no one really asked me about it.

Director Sudhanshu Saria. Courtesy of Netflix

But you had some trouble getting it on the festival circuit, right?
Well, when we finished our first cut, it was for Berlin. I wanted to get a cut out to Berlin, Sundance, Toronto, Venice—all the big markets. It was rejected everywhere. I'm thinking, Probably the film is not a good film. I didn't expect it was some manna from heaven. But my producing partners, they had dealt with this. They tell me, "You are going to have a tough time in festival because this is not the India they want. They are looking for poverty porn. They are looking for women with leaky noses, child kidnapping, child labor."

And I was like, "These are intelligent connoisseurs. They want to share every kind of India. This [type of film] has never been made, so that's why it's going to get in." Then we started having these conversations with festivals, and they were like, "You know this story could be set in Berlin or Budapest or Boston. How is it Indian?"

"The whole time, I was just waiting for it to get shut down. I didn't even tell my family because I knew we were going to be shut down."

They had this preconceived notion of what it meant to be gay and in India.
Right. I'm talking to film executives, people who have been coming to India for 20 years to buy films for festivals, and I'm like, "Where have you been staying when you come to India? You stay in a hut? No, you stay at the Four Seasons. You take a limo. You've seen our BMWs." It's like, "Are you really telling me, an Indian, that the film I made with a cast and crew that are Indian and is set in India, is not Indian enough? Isn't that a strength that these characters are universal, that these characters are going to connect?"

It doesn't allow you to escape from the film. You don't think, That could never be me. I wanted [the characters] to engage on a relationship level, not a social-issue level. The one time the word gay is used is when the tertiary character mocks the two characters at the end of the film. When I started it, I wanted to make a film that didn't wear its sexuality on its sleeve.

Most good gay films in India are either tragedies, where someone gets beaten or stoned or killed—those are sort of the ending results for gay characters—or it's this self-pity, self-righteous, soapbox scream for help like, "Love me," or, "Be better to me." I just wanted to do a film where their problems are of their own creation.

"It's like, 'Are you really telling me, an Indian, that the film I made with a cast and crew that are Indian and is set in India, is not Indian enough? Isn't that a strength that these characters are universal, that these characters are going to connect?'"

But sexuality definitely plays a part, in a very organic way, like in the negotiation scene.
I think in a male negotiation, your sexuality can be used. In certain contexts it can be used as a strength. In certain situations, I can tell you what colour cushion is right for you, and in certain circles if I use the sexuality card, I'm automatically right—that's the end of the conversation.

In business, people act very macho and very aggressive and they push that out in that context. In India, it is especially so. I didn't want that to be a case of bigotry. I wanted it to be a case of, "I lost this negotiation." If he had been more comfortable with himself, it wouldn't have mattered. Nobody walked out of the room and nobody said anything but he allowed them to use it against them because he's not comfortable in his own skin.

There's a lot that's wrong with the movie. There's a lot that's not politically correct about the film. Like it's a fair question: If India doesn't get to make gay films, should you really make a gay film where the characters aren't heroes? Can you make one where some of the actions they take confirm suspicions people have about the community? That's what this film is.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Follow Mikelle Street on Twitter.

Loev is now available on Netflix.