At the Open Frame Film Festival 2018, the filmmaker spoke with us about cruising, exploring public spaces and the engagement of the Indian state with sexuality.
I began to see the familiar in the unfamiliar: Anindya Shankar Das on his film Zara Nazar Utha ke Dekho
New Delhi - 24 Sep 2018 7:00 IST
Anindya Shankar Das’s film Zara Nazar Utha ke Dekho juxtaposes personal narratives of cruising by the LGBTQ community, against visuals of diverse public spaces in India, revealing different facets and complexities of urban cruising.
A Direction graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Das is a filmmaker and photographer involved in all aspects of film technology. He is especially keen on exploring the themes of culture and ecology and has shot and edited a number of documentaries, music videos, experimental and short films.
At the Open Frame Film Festival 2018, he spoke with Cinestaan.com about cruising, exploring public spaces and the engagement of the Indian state with sexuality.
Your film is on cruising and I felt that your film is very tactile in the way that we get a real sense of the spaces that you explore, places that we tend to ignore. What is it that led you to make the film?
What drew me to cruising was an incident that happened to me, where I chanced upon a public toilet. And I have issues of hygiene and the toilets were this territory that I didn’t want to enter and I have hardly stepped into one in all my years. By chance when I did go into one, in a park, I chanced upon two men engaged in a sort of sexual activity inside that park. And it terrified and excited me and that incident imprinted itself on me. The nature of that space itself, with its shadows and that smell…that rank smell of a public toilet and the fact that there was something like this… along with me struggling with what my ideas of sexuality were and how to approach it…was when suddenly this moment imprinted itself on me.
So I started walking the roads at night and I started entering the toilets… I discovered the Pune railway station toilet and I spent many nights sitting outside the toilet and looking at people and I actually started looking at people. I started using my eyes in a public space, for the first time in this way. And I began to see.
It came from a place of phobia, it came from a place of thrill but once I sort of settled in tentatively, I began to see how interesting it is. There are so many different kinds of people who congregate together…people who are in transit, vendors, people across classes, across age groups. I am always interested in evolution, how things evolve, so in a small place, I saw many different kinds of evolution, the evolution of older men who would stand guard when strangers cruised, the sense of connection, tentative fleeting connection and the chamatkaar (miracle) of being invisible in a very crowded space.
I mean, there’s a public toilet where men are coming to take a leak and just a couple of stalls away, there’s a designated area where sexual activities happen. All of this, and of course my background as a filmmaker who’s studying film, made it all come together for me.
It’s fascinating how your film explores this aspect of looking at the familiar in a new manner which reveals a whole sub-layer, which exists in the everyday that we didn’t even know existed.
For me, specifically given the life I have had and the phobia of human beings for a long time, public space is always unfamiliar. It’s only when I discovered cruising and a certain way of looking at cruising spaces and how it fed into my own sexuality that the public space started to become familiar. I began to see the familiar in the unfamiliar.
The film foregrounds personal stories but cinematically, your film is in conversation with the state... framing voices against the Indian flag. There are a few moments when films are at the cusp of significant change and with Section 377 being decriminalized, your film marks one such moment, as when you began shooting the film, you were exploring sexuality that was deemed criminal but now we’ve arrived at a different moment.
I think this is especially important because a lot of people who have been implicated, or picked up under Section 377, according to what I’ve heard, though I have no hard data to support this, were cruising. People weren’t arrested from their bedrooms and they weren’t arrested for holding hands, they were arrested because they were caught in some kind of sexual activity in public spaces - in parks and toilets and it’s not as if all these cases went to court. So there has been a leveraging of Section 377 and catching people in cruising spaces. Everybody has a story about this so yeah, definitely cruising is positioned against the backdrop of state machinery and state exploitation.
I love the story of the policeman that you have in your film, which is really about desire and it doesn’t matter whether its heterosexual or homosexual desire because we have seen way too many instances of heterosexual couples being picked up for holding hands in public spaces, it’s just that part of the larger repressive state machinery.
Absolutely, I mean what we are seeing with what’s happening in the country right now with people who are fighting for a certain kind of justice being picked up, it’s the state showing that they can control voice. How do you control people? You show that you control their sexuality. That’s probably part of the old colonial system - controlling people’s sexuality, controlling the idea of what love is. You’re right, the homosexual/heterosexual angle is blurry because the state wants to control everyone. In fact, in so many places it is tougher for a girl and a boy to sit in a park together than for two people of the same sex to do so.
The film has been screened at the PSBT festival, what are your plans for the film?
This is the third place where the film has been screened - it was at Kashish and at Kerala earlier. So, I definitely want people to see it because the film has been designed by PSBT as an introduction to cruising. There could be many kinds of films made on cruising - political films made on cruising, but this was shaped as an introduction with people’s experience and their stories. So, I do hope that the film travels and people watch it. I would also like to take everything I have learned from this film, there are certain contentious ways of looking at people in public spaces and using somebody else’s story on them, I’d like to go beyond that.
I noticed that you’ve been attending the festival throughout, so I’d like to get your thoughts on the festival and the selection of films screened here.
I think it’s a very warm festival - that’s the first word that comes to my mind. Cozy also, almos. It’s a small space and you see familiar faces and the team is always smiling and welcoming you in, so there’s a personal touch, not just with the filmmakers but also the audience. I’ve seen Ridhima [Mehra, senior programme manager and director – Open Frame], Tulika [Srivastava, executive producer and director – Open Frame], Anjuli [S, programme officer] recognize and smile at the people in the audience, which is amazing.
I really liked the selection of films, I mean I’m no one to gauge the curation but one section that really stuck with me was the narratives from the Hinterland section. Those films really stayed with me. As a filmmaker and somebody who is very connected to wildlife and forests and wants to work with that… for me the biggest takeaway from the festival, is that section.