Faraz Arif Ansari, who made the critically acclaimed Siberia and Sisak, has now directed the much-awaited upcoming film Sheer Qorma starring Shabana Azmi, Divya Dutta, and Swara Bhaskar. In December 2020, Faraz was honoured with the Emerging Artist of The Year award by I-View World, a global human rights film festival. Here, we talk about Sisak, Sheer Qorma, the politics around queer films, and much more.
Sisak has been received quite well at film festivals and later, by a large section of the masses after its release. What are your thoughts on the film and how well it did?
Faraz Arif Ansari: I think, independent cinema that does not subscribe to the idea of the mainstream, is usually denied a place under the sun, if not the right spot it really deserves. The reason why I chose to be a filmmaker is precisely this: I want to tell stories that have never really come to spotlight from the margins to the mainstream. Sisak is an effort in that direction which is a great deal of risk for anyone who wishes to make such cinema.
Firstly, It’s a queer film and on top of it, it’s a silent film. I think Sisak leaves people breathless, inspired, motivated to find out what happened, a little hungry for more without any loud monologues (a mainstream trope). Also, I feel we as a generation have really forgotten how to love each other. We’re so caught up in our virtual lives, prejudices, hate, and everything that separates us, forgetting the most important thing that brings us together–love. Sisak, on the other hand, gives us moments of comfortable silences (a term Tarantino uses in Pulp Fiction). It starts off with uncomfortable silences, moves to comfortable silences. When I tell someone that Pulp Fiction was also an inspiration behind Sisak they won’t agree.
I’m just glad that I had the courage that I could go out and make Sisak.
There’s a common ‘subaltern’ aspect in Siberia, Sisak and now Sheer Qorma, as if you’re making a conscious attempt of giving voices to invisible things around us from our everyday lives. Do you agree? Where does this motivation come up from?
Faraz Arif Ansari: I think it comes from the fact of being a queer person, to be honest. You’re always told that you’re different and considered an outsider even when you’re the insider. You’re never a part of it, yet you’re a part of it. It’s that in-between space in such scenarios that inspires me to explore the multitudes that exist within us and around us via such spaces. Another thing that impacts my handling of films is to explore things beyond the surface which mainstream films do not do, they only touch the surface and play safe. I also want my cinema to reach everyone, regardless of their sexuality, faith, gender, or identity, or anything, for that matter.
What’s your take on the existing contemporary cinema around queer representations? Do you think people are responsible in how they representation the queer community?
Faraz Arif Ansari: How can a non-queer person portray the real, authentic queer identity which is so multi-layered? They can never do that. They can only touch the subject. When we watch most of these existing films, we realise it’s all around the surface. They don’t go beyond what films should do. On the other hand, when you watch The Adventures of Priscilla, or Pose, we realise that there are queer people involved behind the camera as well, making the representation feel so authentic and honest. And we in India are yet to do that, because so far we haven’t allowed queer people to tell their stories by themselves.
I was recently on a panel at Rainbow Literature Festival with a bunch of major filmmakers, which too emphasized this. Upon being asked, how how do you justify that you take away opportunities from queer people to tell their stories, they couldn’t say anything except how they ‘believe in inclusion’. The key is to step off the line and make way for people from marginalised communities who are not represented enough, to walk into spotlight for them to tell their stories the way they want to. That’s where you see a great deal of difference between a Sisak and say, Made In Heaven. Or between a Sheer Qorma or Shubh Mangal Jyada Saavdhan, Onir’s films and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Esa Laga, etc.
A queer person will never make a film where queer identities are so suppressed, that you need cis-het people around them to be their voices. In such representations, even the narratives are coming from cis-het people.
Sisak took a long time to finally get within the reach of the masses, after its journey to and from film festivals. Are we expecting the same with Sheer Qorma or will we get to see it on an OTT platform?
Faraz Arif Ansari: I feel that’s not true. Sisak went around 250 film festivals but at the same time we also did a lot of screenings for the community. We did it with our Delhi’s association with Keshav Suri foundation, Gaylaxy Magazine, screenings in Christ university and at several other places in Bombay for the community as well. Since we don’t have A-Listers, the attendees get limited. We try and take the film to the community as much as we can. With Sheer Qorma, the idea is to take it to film festivals as well as to communities across the world as well (including India of course, the screen is for them after all).
The reason I don’t feel OTT is the right way to launch a film that can open a bigger dialogue is only because we want to do more personalised interactions with the audiences, which is only possible in screenings and film festivals. Eventually, Sheer Qorma will end up being available on an OTT platform. But in 2021, it will only be going to film festivals.
It’s interesting that Sheer Qorma revolves around a woman and a non-binary person, which is a rare sight in Indian cinema. Maybe it’s the first time. What makes the film different from the other queer films out there other than this fact?
Faraz Arif Ansari: It is made by a queer person coming from a Muslim family and identifying as a non-binary. It offers an authentic insight into how minorities are at play in the narrative, being a mainstream universal film at the same time.
I don’t remember the last time I saw a Muslim family in Indian cinema that did not live inside homes with green walls; or were not terrorists; or not wearing nakaabs; or were talking in a language that a lot of people felt was alien. I mean, there’s so much inherent Islamophobia that comes into play the minute you attempt the representation of the Muslim community. Sheer Qorma does not have any of that. It is more about a progressive side of representation which you would not usually (or never see). There are many layers of progressive narratives at play, not only about gender, sexuality or identity but also about nationalism, womanhood, faith and Islam as a religion in the the film. It’s a deeply political and socially relevant film. It’s truly about many intersectionalities coming together, without making it patronising, without breaking into a monologue to say: but I’m a Muslim queer person, listen to me.
It does so with subtlety and nuances, and at no point you have to go to your terrace and shout with a rainbow flag. There are no rainbow flags in my film, but it is a queer film.
How did people react when you screened Sheer Qorma in a private screening in Delhi?
Faraz Arif Ansari: Two minutes into the film, Swara Bhaskar was holding my hand and crying. When I looked around, every person in the theatre was sobbing. It was an unreal experience to see everyone (most of them don’t belong to the queer community) watching the film and sobbing away. There was just silence in the entire auditorium when the film ended. Nobody spoke, nobody moved, nobody said anything until the moderator of the question-answer round took to the central stage to announce it. We got a standing ovation, which felt lovely. I felt so full of gratitude to share such a film that is so sensitive, feminine, queer, subtle. It just feels reassuring that there was not a single eye that wasn’t moist. I knew it, I told my producer while editing, that this film is a tear-jerker. I think it doesn’t make you cry because there’s so much sadness and grief in the film, it makes you cry because it warms the cockles of your heart.
You made Sisak through the help of public funding. What are the other difficulties coming in when one decides to make such films?
Faraz Arif Ansari: I think predominantly it’s related to finding an actor to play a queer character. Even now. It continues to be so. Ayushmann Khurrana is someone who likes to take risks and so, he would do that. But I don’t know anyone else from the A-listers to B-listers who would do it. They all say that they want to do it, but when you reach out, they simply deny it. I think one has to find ways and means around it. For example, my next film is about a queer child and how the individual is raised in a regressive queerphobic Islamophobic world. So, by default hopefully, I would be able to get an A-lister playing the father of the child. So, you’ve to find such ways to not compromise on the story as well as the visibility.
Of course, many don’t want you to make queer films. They don’t want to support, fund, promote, act in them. It is always going to be an uphill battle until one of us becomes Ryan Murphy and then we say, “I’ll have my own channel and production house, I’ll make all the content and will sell it to the biggest OTT platform in the world.” Hopefully, someday we’ll get there.
Indian mainstream cinema saw a huge gap in producing films around female sexuality from Fire (1996) to Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga (2019). Even when Queen (2013) began a way for female-centric films, why do you think we still did not see many films around female sexuality or women narratives from the margins?
Faraz Arif Ansari: That is why I made Sheer Qorma. It is related to the fact that people want male-dominated content. Even in the queer spectrum, they want male-dominated content. You’ve no idea how many times I reached out to producers for Sheer Qorma, and they asked me to change the characters of these women into men, promising they will produce the film if I would do so. They even promised to double the budget if I would cast two very hot men with abs and muscles. I had many such opportunities for sparkling budgets.
I was never even tempted to try this as I always wanted to make this narrative with and around women. The producers would go, “No one wants to see women.” That sort of regression I’m not here for. Our deeply rooted stigmas denying women any mainstream opportunity keeps reflecting in cinema and its process of making as well.
Another reason you don’t see women characters in cinema is exactly the real conditions in India. Where are the lesbian and non-binary people? There’s no space for us. That’s why to make a Sheer Qorma is an act of courage even in 2020 when it really shouldn’t be.
How was your overall experience of making Sheer Qorma?
Faraz Arif Ansari: 95% of crew of Sheer Qorma happen to be women. I believe energy into my cinema comes from the people on set, so I had to diligently choose my team, because I know how much their energies will translate into the screen. A totally different experience from Sisak was when in Sheer Qorma, unlike the way we shot without permission in the train in Sisak, this time we had a team and permissions. The difference was the presence of energies around, a set dominant with women contains a more nurturing energy that really wants to listen to you, and embrace you and let you be. And that really got transferred to the film. Moving forward, I’ve taken a decision that my crew is always going to be of women and queer-centric by default because I think all of that translates to a scheme of things.