Queer narratives have found a robust form of expression in short films. This explains why writer-director Nishant Roy Bombarde, 39, chose this medium for Daaravtha (2016) and Gair (2022). Layered and delicate, Daaravtha is about a young boy making his choice even as he discovers his sexuality. In Gair, caste and queer narratives intersect as two youngsters experience love. Daaravtha (The Threshold) scooped up the National Award for Best Debut Film and, recently, Gair has been winning acclaim during screenings after its premiere at this year’s New York Indian Film Festival.
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What was the trigger for your short film Gair, which talks about discrimination on the basis of sexuality and caste?
A big chunk of the queer community, which is so vociferous about its rights of sexual expression and freedom to choose a partner, can be surprisingly casteist. By and large, caste discourse is not tolerated in queer spaces. Queer spaces are touted as safe, but they are selectively safe when it comes to intersectionality. The irony of this has never failed to escape me. If one delves deep into the recent past, the talks of intersectionality have met with apathy at best and blatant opposition at worst. So, the question, how do people who find themselves at this intersectionality navigate through this, made me curious. It is a struggle of fighting double persecution and not finding support in what you thought were safe spaces. At the conceptual level, this is what was going on in my mind. But as you know, in my earlier short Daaravtha (The Threshhold) too, caste plays an important role in aligning the two protagonists’ paths. I wanted to explore that space more. These two ideas eventually developed into Gair.
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How important is it for you to touch upon social issues that render some people as ‘minority’ or ‘others’?
I don’t really think about touching upon a social issue per se. I just write what naturally comes to me. What interests me is telling the stories that are around us and what makes us human. In their essence, both Gair and Daaravtha are stories of people with quiet strength going against the grain of society and carving their own path. The struggles of caste, gender, sexuality and others are all around us. If you don’t shut your eyes and look the other way, they would naturally seep into your work. In fact, I would say it is the other way around. Movies, television shows and web-series that do not depict these realities choose to shut themselves off from reality and live in a bubble. Having said that, I do like to delve into the lives of people on the fringes of society. They make for far more interesting characters and their stories can make us think and evaluate our position vis-a-vis society.
Has the world become more accepting of the queer community and their stories after the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code?
Well to a certain degree, yes. What the Section 377-debate brought to the forefront is that queer struggle is for the Right to Equality. Before that, there was a certain degree of sleaze associated with the movement in the minds of non-queer people. It was merely seen as a struggle for sleeping with whoever you want. With the reading down of the Section, the discourse has become more open, and the movement can now focus upon civil union and inheritance rights. So now, people can see queer people’s struggle as not very different from theirs. It has also paved the way for more stories making their way on to the screen. Corporates are engaging in the conversation about workspace bullying and representation. The best thing to happen is that it has forayed into the rural and lower socio-economic strata of the society. The term ‘gay’ might not raise the same alarm now that it did a few years back.
Gair questions caste-based bias. Were you trying to start a social debate with it?
Maybe subconsciously. Like I already said, that wasn’t my aim. I like complex characters, characters on the fringes of society, taboos, uncomfortable spaces, quiet strength and rebellion. So quite naturally, the stories that excite me happen to be these.
Films are an extremely powerful tool. I would go to the extent of saying that cinema is the most powerful artform that exists today because of its wide reach. Many film movements have coincided with social justice movements around the world and changed the political and film landscape alike. Naturally, most of them have emerged from Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh where anti-caste movements have an iconic history. If we look at this country itself, the growing number of emerging filmmakers whose work deals with caste have dramatically contributed to the already rich caste discourse of the country. The second generation of Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi filmmakers have realised that the camera is an extension to the tool of literature already at their disposal.
Are you happy with queer representation on Indian screen today?
Yes and no. It is good to see that so much of queer stories are now making their way to the Indian screen. It seems to be the flavour of the season. In this lies the reason for the apprehensive answer to the question. Mainstream Hindi cinema and TV shows are quick to jump onto a bandwagon of a new flavour and then soon forget about it. Also, most of them are coming out stories — the most basic story you can tell within the world of ‘queer cinema’. It looks like a token representation — a kiss here, a rainbow there.
If you see Indie queer cinema, it has long moved on and is telling much complex stories that have a lot of depth, layers and intersectionality. But at least the mainstream space has moved on from self-deprecating humour and homophobic caricatures. That’s some relief! The real good work has, in fact, been done before it became hip — by people who have been brave enough to bring their lived-in experiences to the screen. One needs to wait and see where it all goes from here.
Do you think that bigger risks are taken by short and independent filmmakers than mainstream filmmakers?
Oh always, all the way! I think the basic difference lies in the reason behind making a film. The focus of most short and independent filmmakers is either to tell a story they really believe in or they just love the medium of cinema itself. The budget there is controlled. So, the focus is on telling the story to the best of their abilities.
Mainstream filmmaking is a different ball game with a lot of different intentions at play. Some are economical and some are fame driven. The aim is to please a large audience at once because only then will you recover the numbers. In all of this, the storytelling often takes a backseat. Having said that, isn’t it great that so many new-age filmmakers have brought sensible and thought-provoking cinema into the mainstream space and got both numbers as well as given us the pleasure of cinema?
How can mainstream filmmakers catch up with them?
It’s a constant churning. You can see the mainstream Hindi film industry mending its path to make space for interesting content even if these films are still driven by economic motives which are in the industry’s DNA. It’s a business after all. So, rather than imitating each other, it’s better that the two types of cinemas learn from each other’s strengths.