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Jayan Cherian interview: ‘India is in a historical freeze frame’

March 24, 2016

FestivalsFilm + EntertainmentInterview | by Dominic Preston


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Ka Bodyscapes

Documentarian Jayan Cherian’s debut fiction feature, Papilio Buddha, proved so controversial that it was banned in his native India, despite international acclaim. He’s now back with his follow-up, Ka Bodyscapes, which screened last week at the BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival. We sat down with Cherian to discuss Indian culture, LGBT issues, and his novel filmmaking techniques.

Why are LGBT issues so important in India right now?

Basically, with the current government in power all kind of sexual expression in public is banned. Talking about sexuality in India is also taboo. Especially since IPC 377 was reinstated [a law criminalising sodomy]. It’s an 1870s colonial penal code which still survives and somehow India has become stuck with that Victorian sexuality. While human rights movements have progressed in Europe and people have begun to accept the plurality of sexuality, India is in a historical freeze frame.

In Bollywood we create a romanticised version of Indian culture but I wanted to talk about human rights, people and how they live, free thinkers, feminists, and social activists.

You met and worked with social activists and human rights campaigners for your new film.

When making Ka Bodyscapes, I met with LGBT movements in Kerala, there is an organisation there called Queerala. I interviewed a lot of activists in the group and from those interviews I started to make a script. I always interview the real documentary subjects and from those interviews I make a fictional narrative. We cast most of the activists as themselves and mixed traditional theatre actors in too. It was quite an amazing experience to see how these activist’s personal lives came into play.

There are protest movements like Kiss for Love or Kiss in the Street. Young people holding hands or kissing in public is banned, so people go out and kiss in public as a protest. I was exploring these themes for Ka Bodyscapes, taking historical events and putting a more personal narrative on top of them.

There are incidents in India right now of people being killed for expressing themselves freely. Recently a literary figure, Kaliburgi, who sharply critiqued the caste system, was shot dead. And homophobia is at its peak – recently a painter called Balbir Krishnan had his exhibition shut down due to the homoerotic nature of the content.

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Ka Bodyscapes

But Ka Bodyscapes isn’t just concerned with LGBT issues?

In the film we also addressed feminist issues. Naseera, who played Sia, is an activist. There’s a temple in Kerala where no women are allowed, men have to fast for 40 days before entering and in that time they’re not in contact with any agents of pollution, including menstruating women. Naseera was thrown off a bus going there.  I addressed things like this in the film, like in factories, sometimes, if a sanitary pad is found on the floor of the bathroom, girls are strip-searched. Movements like Happy to Bleed came from incidents like this and are trying to battle the taboo!

In fact, in human rights terms, it’s about freedom of expression. In our public space women must behave themselves, this public performance of gender is really instructed and enforced, and people who don’t conform to it are punished.

If two people go out and kiss in the street, it’s a great anti-fascist act. It’s a political act, sexuality has become politicised. But nationalistic people are so afraid of this, they’re totally unsettled by non-conformist people.

You’ve made three films about non-conformists.

I’ve been making a film trilogy about race, caste and gender. And in Ka Bodyscapes I’m taking about sexuality. But all my films have the common theme of identity and how it’s performed in society.

My 2011 documentary Miss Rose Wood is the story of Jon Cory, an architectural designer who during the day runs a workshop in New York City. In the evenings he’s a yogi running a yoga centre in the Chelsea Hotel and late at night he transforms into a woman under the name Miss Rose Wood.

My feature film debut Papilio Buddha is about caste oppression in India. It’s set during a land struggle, where a group of untouchable people are displaced by corporate land-grabbing. There is an epic land struggle still going on in India, there are thousands of displaced families who are squatting on what is now corporate land. I worked with activists as the actors playing the central characters and it premiered here and in the Berlin Film Festival but was banned in India. There was a narrative about Gandhi the national leader and in a protest they burned an effigy of Gandhi. It was quite a struggle.

As in the American South where there was a peculiar institution of slavery, we have a peculiar institution of caste in India. The caste system is a systemic tool to categorise people, to contain people, to control and exploit people. We are proud to call India a democracy but even in the mainstream upper caste, upper class India, you can see oppressions, oppressive religious things and oppression of sexual minorities. India became India because of its plurality, its polyphony. But the nationalist people are making India a very moralistic, homogenous national group.

Words by Cormac O’Brien

KA Bodyscapes screened at the BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival 2016.