Queer stories have found a robust form of expression in short films. This explains why writer-director Nishant Roy Bombarde, 39, chose this medium for: thereavtha (2016) and Gair (2022). Layered and delicate, thereavtha is about a young boy who makes his choice while discovering his sexuality. In Gaircaste and queer stories intersect as two youngsters experience love. thereavtha (The Threshold) won the National Award for Best Debut Film and recently Gair has received acclaim in screenings after its premiere at this year’s New York Indian Film Festival.
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What was the reason for your short film Gairwho talks about discrimination based on sexuality and caste?
Much of the gay community, which is so vocal about its rights to sexual expression and freedom to choose a partner, can be surprisingly casteistic. In general, 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 escaped me. Diving deep into the recent past, conversations about intersectionality have met apathy at best and blatant opposition at worst. So the question, how do people who are in this intersectionality navigate through this made me curious. It’s a struggle to fight double persecution and find no support in what you thought were safe spaces. On a conceptual level, this was what was going on in my head. But as you know, in my earlier short thereavtha (The Threshhold) Also, caste plays an important role in aligning the paths of the two protagonists. I wanted to explore that space more. These two ideas eventually evolved into Gair†
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How important is it to you to address social issues that make some people “minority” or “others”?
I don’t really think about raising a social problem per se. I just write what comes naturally to me. What interests me is telling the stories that surround us and what makes us human. In essence, both Gair and thereavtha are stories of people with quiet strength who go against society and forge their own path. The struggles of caste, gender, sexuality and others are all around us. If you don’t close your eyes and look the other way, they will seep into your work on their own. In fact, I’d say it’s the other way around. Movies, television shows and web series that do not reflect this reality choose to isolate themselves from reality and live in a bubble. That said, I like to delve into the lives of people on the fringes of society. They make for much more interesting characters and their stories can make us think and evaluate our position in society.
Has the world become more accepting of the gay community and their stories after the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code?
To a certain extent yes. What brought the Section 377 debate to the fore is that the fight for gays is for the right to equality. Before that, there was a degree of sleaze associated with the movement in the minds of non-queer people. It was only seen as a struggle to sleep with whoever you want. With the reading of the section, the discourse has become more open and the movement can now focus on civil union and inheritance rights. So now people can see gays’ struggles as not very different from theirs. It has also paved the way for more stories to make their way onto the screen. Companies are starting a conversation about bullying and representation in the workplace. The best that can happen is that it has penetrated to the rural and lower socio-economic strata of society. The term “gay” may not raise the same alarm it did a few years ago.
Gair questions caste-based prejudice. Did you try to start a social debate with it?
Maybe unconsciously. Like I said, that wasn’t my goal. I like complex characters, characters on the fringes of society, taboos, awkward spaces, quiet strength and rebellion. So quite naturally, the stories that excite me are these.
Movies are an extremely powerful tool. I would even go so far as to say that cinema is the most powerful art form in existence today due to its wide reach. Many film movements coincided with social justice movements around the world and changed both the political and cinematic landscape. Of course, most of them have emerged from Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, where anti-caste movements have an iconic history. Looking at this country itself, the growing number of emerging filmmakers whose work deals with caste has made a dramatic contribution to the country’s already rich caste discourse. The second generation of Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi filmmakers have realized that the camera is an extension of the literature they already have at their disposal.
Are you happy with the representation of queer on the Indian screen today?
Yes and no. It’s good to see so many queer stories now making their way onto the Indian screen. It seems to be the flavor of the season. Herein lies the reason for the concerned answer to the question. Mainstream Hindi cinema and TV shows quickly jump on a bandwagon of a new flavor and then quickly forget about it. Plus, most of the coming out stories are – the most basic story you can tell in the world of “queer cinema.” It looks like a symbolic representation – a kiss here, a rainbow there.
When you see indie queer cinema, it’s long gone and tells a lot of complex stories with a lot of depth, layers and intersectionality. But at least the mainstream space has moved on with self-mockery and homophobic caricatures. That is a relief! In fact, the real good work was done before it became hip – by people brave enough to bring their lived experiences to the screen. One has to wait and see where it all goes from here.
Do you think short and independent filmmakers take bigger risks than regular filmmakers?
Oh always, totally! I think the fundamental difference is in the reason behind making a movie. Most short and independent filmmakers either focus on telling a story they really believe in, or they just love the medium of cinema itself. This is where the budget is checked. So the focus is on telling the story in the best possible way.
Mainstream filmmaking is another ball game with many different intentions. Some are frugal and some are fame-driven. The goal is to please a large audience at once, because only then will you get the numbers back. In all of this, storytelling often takes a back seat. That said, isn’t it great that so many new-age filmmakers have brought sensible and thought-provoking cinema into mainstream space, both getting grades and giving us the joy of cinema?
How can mainstream filmmakers catch up with them?
It’s a constant churning. You can see the mainstream Hindi film industry making its way to make room for interesting content, even if these films are still driven by economic motives that are in the industry’s DNA. After all, it is a business. So instead of imitating each other, it is better that the two types of cinema learn from each other’s strengths.