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Paromita Vohra talks about 'Agents of Ishq' at Asian Women's Film Festival

Agents of Ishq is a multimedia website that offers alternative ways of looking at and learning about sex.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

On the last day of the IAWRT Asian Women's Film Festival, filmmaker, writer and educator Paromita Vohra conducted a thoroughly fun-filled and engaging Filmy Adda titled — 'Use of New Media for Making a Feminist Art Intervention to Give Sex a Good Name.'

Vohra's films explore issues of politics, feminism, culture and desire in India. Some of them are Un-limited Girls (2002), Where's Sandra? (2006), Cosmopolis: Two Tales of a City (2004), among others.

She is also the scriptwriter on several films including Khamosh Pani (2003) which won many awards including ones for Best Film and Best Direction at the 56th Locarno International Film Festival.

Vohra began the session by talking about creating a feminist intervention art project, Agents of Ishq (AoI), a multimedia website on love, sex and desire.

Though deeply interested in the idea of social change, the filmmaker did not want to create super boring, politically correct videos saying, "The only people who watch such social videos are the people who make them."

Instead, she wanted to create accessible spaces that were interactive and fun. Thus came, AoI, the goals of which were to create a positive, inclusive Indian language to talk about sex, love and desire in India; to provide comprehensive sexuality education materials, and to impact and alter mainstream discourse around sex, desire, sexuality and sex education.

For their research, the team spoke to doctors, sex educators, activists, young people, in order to create material that people could use.

As a feminist project, the goal was also to build on what was already available. Vohra described the prevalent attitudes regarding sex education, elaborating that shame is the overwhelming emotion around sex and love. She also noted that sex and emotion is not spoken about in an intertwined way, it's an either/or.

"The way in which we talk about sex continues to maintain a hierarchy where love is at the top," she said.

In addition, women are not able to articulate if they want something other than the 'no strings attached' kind of a situation. So, the idea of the project was to enable women to talk about their needs and desires.

What makes it a feminist project is that it doesn't just describe the problem but "addresses it, responds to it, articulates what women need and evolves a feminist form counter to what was on offer or deemed possible."

Talking about the conception of AoI, Vohra said, "Agents of Ishq was very popular and we wanted it to be beautiful, wanted it to be a warm, friendly space, the opposite of pornography. So we used dreamy colours and the designs were all handmade. We worked with a lot of artists and each piece is made as inclusive as possible as we wanted people to speak about all kinds of sexual life in the space."

She elaborated this point by taking the participants through the images used on the site saying, "The only way to make something acceptable is by making it beautiful," and added, "Pleasure is a part of biological information. If you make something fun to do, you take the embarrassment of it away."

AoI also has different threads to the site, so for example, 'Munna the singing condom', responds to questions with a song and the method also makes you aware of your own sexual needs. There is a flow-chart made for all sexual orientations, so the notion of choice gets incorporated and people are left thinking, 'which one is me'?

Vohra also addressed the very important issue of contraception saying, "Women don't get a say in contraception and men don't take responsibility for it." She highlighted the problems and lack of information, especially on the morning after pill, whose usage has become very common amongst women.

The filmmaker also pointed out the need to create educational films that clearly tell children about their bodies. Several films on AoI have been made with children and using animation so nothing is left ambiguous. She consciously features regular children in these films and not children as seen in advertisements. "We don't understand to what extent we need to see people like ourselves on screen to feel good about ourselves," she explained.

As a feminist, she addressed the image of India in people's minds, emphasising the need to excavate a different experience of India. Towards this goal, AoI has created a PDA (pubic display of affection) map of India, a kiss map of India, which as Vohra succinctly summarised, "Reclaims a loving India for ourselves, an India that's okay with love, sex and desire".

The packed and immensely enjoyable session elaborated on the engagement of the website with several concerns like consent, the role of parents in providing sex education, loneliness and the need for companionship, the ways in which caste and class determine what is considered sleazy and cheap in our culture, among other themes.

Vohra also discussed the offline engagement of AoI, where they have collaborated with several NGOs to organise workshops that get people to express themselves.

Emphasising on the feminist drive of AoI, the filmmaker said, "The project of feminism is how to have a better life as men and women. It's not about smashing the patriarchy but dissolving it or metamorphosing it into something else that's acceptable. Women and men need to see each other in humanised ways. This is a compliment we need to pay each other both ways", thus, foregrounding a degree of sensitivity with which both genders need to see each other.

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IAWRT Asian Women's Film Festival