Some films nudge boundaries and others push against them with abandon. This year the BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival comes with its fair share of firebrand filmmaking in Jayan Cherian’s follow up to 2010’s controversial debut Papilio Buddha. That film was banned in Cherian’s native India, and there’s a strong likelihood that his new tale of modern day Kerala will cause a stir too.
Ka Bodyscapes’ trio of friends come together when Haris, a gay artist, finds his muse and lover in Vishnu, a rural kabbadi player, while their feminist text-reading friend Sia’s liberal ideals create tension within her conservative Muslim family.
Like many films set in modern India, familial obligation looms large and, unsurprisingly, neither Haris’ erotic portraiture of male nudes or his in flagrante reinterpretations of religious figures go down particularly well with Vishnu’s extended relatives. But Haris is on the cusp of a big gallery show, and having gathered a group of like-minded friends, he’s eked out an accepting niche in what’s otherwise an unaccepting society.
Sia’s story, as symbol-driven as Haris and Vishnu’s, starts when she gets involved in a labour rights dispute defending a woman in her factory after a humiliating incident involving a sanitary pad. She launches a picket line outside her workplace, where people hold placards declaring, ‘I am gay, I am Indian, am I a criminal?’ and ‘Menstrual blood is not impure’. In an adrenaline fuelled act of defiance she posts her used sanitary pad online. More provocative imagery of culturally taboo subjects lingers in the mise en scene with posters saying: ‘FUCK YOU – IPC 377’ (section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises homosexuality).
Unsurprisingly for a film that boasts non-traditional actors and social activists as its leads, Ka Bodyscapes is brimming with head-butting rebellion. Cherian’s on-screen India rails against restrictive and conservative values, while challenging homophobia, misogyny, and traditional modesty to show the dualities in the lives of many young Indian people. But the flag it rallies under is never just ‘rainbow’, it’s more generally one that represents a welling up of young people’s anger against a host of marginalising behaviours toward gender, race, class, and orientation.
Words by Cormac O’Brien
Ka Bodyscapes screened at the BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival 2016.