LOEV – Gay Film made in India secretly
A wistful, meandering gay love story
Dir/scr. Sudhanshu Saria. India. 2015. 92mins.
A wistful, meandering gay love story, Loevis very unsensational by the standards of LGBT cinema produced elsewhere in the world. But in India, where homosexuality is punishable by law, this gentle film is quietly revolutionary.
The taboo nature of the subject matter meant that the production was veiled in secrecy. The relative scarcity of gay-themed cinema from the Indian sub-continent (Aligarh is another recent festival title to address the topic), plus the interest in India’s burgeoning independent filmmaking scene should ensure a warm reception on the festival circuit after a bow at Tallinn’s Black Nights. Further theatrical prospects are less certain: pacing issues and a slightly inert central relationship take a lot of the passion out of Loev.
Aspiring musician Sahil (Dhruv Ganesh) fumbles for a candle to light the apartment he shares with his feckless boyfriend Alex (Siddharth Menon). Alex has forgotten to pay the electricity bill – the latest of many small crimes. Sahil is annoyed, and resents the fact that Alex gets to be the carefree, irresponsible one in the relationship. “I’m not your girlfriend and I’m not your mother. I don’t want to nag you,” he says, a little sulkily. But the showdown will have to wait, because Sahil has a weekend planned with an old friend. He shoulders his backpack along with his grudges and meets Jai (Shiv Pandit) at the airport.
Writer-director Sudhanshu Saria doesn’t explicitly spell out the nature of the past relationship between Sahil and Jai, but it’s clear from their flirtatious exchanges that they are more than just good friends. A handsome hot-shot young businessman based in New York, Jai has flown into Mumbai for a meeting about a lucrative real estate deal. But he is spending the forty-eight hours before the meeting with Sahil.
For his part, Sahil has dropped everything and planned a road trip to the picturesque Western Ghats. DoP Sherri Kauk captures the drama of the landscape, favouring plenty of wide shots showing Sahil and Jai hiking in uncomfortable silence.
Jai’s jet lag means that he is restless and awake while Sahil, beat from the long drive from Mumbai, crashes out on one of the modest single beds in their shared guest house room. But it is not just their body clocks that are not quite in sync. Sahil resents the fact that his friend can’t disconnect from his laptop and phone and simply enjoy their time together. Meanwhile Jai spends a lot of time staring longingly at Sahil and makes a couple of tentative passes.
Sahil gives out some pretty mixed messages, but repeatedly pushes Jai away before things get too steamy. Sahil suspects that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Jai is not fully comfortable with his sexuality.
The naturalistic acting style notwithstanding, there is something not entirely persuasive about the relationship between Jai and Sahil. More convincing is the bickering banter between Sahil and Alex. With his lean physique and limpid eyes, Ganesh is a charismatic presence on screen. Tragically, this was to be his last acting role. He died, age 29, from tuberculosis. The film is dedicated to his memory.
Sudhanshu Saria bravely steps forward as a voice for India’s gay community with his first feature Loev that has its world premiere in the Tridens First Feature Film Competition at the Black Night Film Festival.
At a time of unprecedented economic growth for India, the country seems to be moving backwards when it comes to civil rights. Two years ago, its Supreme Court overturned a previous ruling that criminalized sodomy making it punishable by life imprisonment.
The director accepts the possibility the film may be banned in his home country, choosing instead to speak out about a victimised population who might otherwise remain silent under the domineering shadow of Bollywood’s machismo and the legal threat from the conservative government.
Screen spoke with Saria about his challenges in making the film. International sales are handled by Wide Management.
Why did you decide on this story for your first film?
Before I moved to Mumbai – I was living in LA debating gay marriage and attending rallies. And then I moved to India – where on the complete opposite side of the spectrum – peaceful loving citizens suddenly woke up as criminals because of this law that was overturned two years ago [in 2013]. In a way, the most political thing you can do is go into someone’s bedroom. So I did that to give voice to this situation and dignity to these characters.
How would you describe the story between the two men – ‘Jai’ played by Shiv Pandit and ‘Sahil’ played by Dhruv Ganesh?
Jay is a Wall Street banker living in Manhattan. He comes to Bombay [Mumbai] to do a business deal. Over the course of 48 hours, he sets off on a getaway with his buddy Sahil to Mahabaleshwar which is essentially a religious Hindu city. When they come back – it is very much about things said, and not said. It’s about how you deal with something you haven’t confronted.
Most people say it’s a romance, not a gay film. The genre is riddled with cliches: the sex scene, twinks and six-packs, the ‘coming out’ scene that all end in being ostracized or suicide. If I was a teenager growing up and watching these films – my god, I would have wanted to go back in the closet. It’s terribly oppressive. And so I just wanted to make a film showing there is more to this life than that.
Are you concerned about how this will affect the film’s theatrical release in India?
I knew I needed local cooperation – I needed locations and I needed to be able to use their streets. So I needed them to think I was making an appropriate film. If I had been totally honest, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the locations like the international airport and these streets.
So I just kept telling people, ‘It is a story about friendship’. It is a shame in a way. All of our marketing materials are ambiguous so you don’t get a real sense of their relationship. We have been dealing with it long enough. I am ready to be truthful – this is what we are, here is what we are doing. And if that affects the film’s possible release in India, then I have to accept that.
Did you have trouble financing the film?
Myself and producing partners made the film for less than 1mill($). We received a small amount of money through crowd funding, which I find useful to gauge the audience’s reaction. And then we had private equity – some of which came from our own pockets with deferred salaries. This helped give everyone who contributed incredible ownership.
What was it like filming in India after having worked in the US for an extensive period?
I was born in India – but when someone asks where I am from – I have a hard time saying that. I feel like a citizen of the world.
So I was worried people would ask ‘Have you lived in Mumbai? Do you know about gay relationships here?’ But out of fear comes this sense of desire to get close – to really observe the details of the life around you. That gave me the push to tell this story. And by turning it into a story about men – it became urgent.
How did you cast the film?
Dhruv Ganesh had every intention of becoming the next Bollywood star. I remember calling him to read for Sahil. He did it so well that I took him aside and told him what the film was really about. He said ‘I want to be a hero. I can’t do this.’ And I understood that – I told him not to take the role. I don’t want to be the person who manipulates someone into doing something. But then he called me later and told me he was incredibly nervous but he would take the role.
Shiv Pandit is well known in Bollywood. I was surprised there too when he said he would take the role of Jay. But he was very believable in this role as well.
Can you talk about the death of Dhruv Ganesh?
The film was shot and completed last year. In January I got a phone call saying he was very sick with tuberculosis. It quickly went from bad to worse. He died in the hospital in January. It’s taken me months to process. I was so excited to present him to the industry in Mumbai. Despite not being gay – he has achieved such a naturalistic performance. It’s not a sympathy move – but this is his truth and it’s important to share that.
It’s the biggest compliment to me that his parents came here (in Tallinn), to see the film. I also feel a sense of responsibility since this is his last film.
How are you hoping the film will influence India’s gay community?
India seems to be moving backwards into intolerance. We are making a film that gives homosexual men the dignity of not being reduced to a stereotype. It’s a symbol just like the Section 377 law is a symbol and symbols are important.
The friendships I encounter in the gay community seem to be about much more complex things. So I wanted this story to shed light on issues that crop up in gay life, the emotions that are often denied or overlooked. I want people to be able to speak more freely about this – it’s something for the next generation.