It’s ironic, and appropriate, that the well-received Indian gay short film Sisak, screening at queer film festivals around Australia, is a silent film. Queer Indians have no voice in their own country, where it’s illegal to be gay.
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code doesn’t mince words:
- 377. Unnatural offences: Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.
That section had been in force since 1862. In 2009 the Delhi High Court decriminalised consensual gay acts in private, saying the rule “denies a gay person a right to full personhood”.
That was in July. In December the Supreme Court recriminalised it.
'Sisak' is an Urdu word meaning 'the cry that’s stuck in your chest'.
Filmmaker Faraz Arif Ansari, just 31, whose background was stage musicals and who had only three or films to his credit before this, told The Hindu Times: “The government has literally pulled the tongues out of our mouths. That’s why this is a silent film. It’s about two people who want to be together, but they can’t be because of our stupid laws.”
“Sisak” is an Urdu word meaning “the cry that’s stuck in your chest”. The film was crowd-funded, more proof that Indian people are keen to give voice to their LGBTQ countrymen, and put their money into it. The cast and crew all worked for free. The film takes place in a railway carriage over subsequent evenings, as the same two men, one younger and single, one older and married, travel home after work in Mumbai and strike up a familiarity with each other, told simply with glances, body posture, subtle gestures and looks which though appearing random to the casual onlooker we know there’s something much deeper going on. It’s beautifully directed and wonderfully played. The younger of the two men is played by Dhruv Singhal, who’s studying mass media at uni. He chatted with us about making the film. Was it a challenge to play the role without dialogue?
Yes, it was and studying films by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin at the time, I knew it was going to be tough.
But my friends made me realise this opportunity was too huge to miss and I knew it could go either very wrong or really teach me something I’ve been aching to learn for a long time!
Honestly, I could either give it my all – or not do it at all because there was no middle ground with this project. I decided to go ahead with the first option.
Why did the director choose not to use dialogue?
I don’t think Faraz intended to make a silent film. In fact, he realised once he was done writing the film that it had no dialogue. The agony of section 377 being reversed traumatised him to such a great extent that it became difficult to express in words.
The director previously had problems getting actors to play gay characters. Did you have any hesitation in taking this on?
Before I read the script, I was sceptical but after I read it, I didn't need more convincing! I was on a bus back to Pune when I read the script for the first time. It was flawless, it was poetry!
In five hours I read the script four times and by the time I got off the bus at Pune I knew I was going to do the film because I was in love with the script. That was it and I didn’t care what anybody said after that!
Most of my friends and family asked me to give it another thought and think how it would affect my career but, honestly, I didn't care. I couldn't wait to go out and shoot this project. Probably the only thing that scared me at the time was the fact that I’d never sat in a Mumbai local train before in my life, let alone shoot a film in one.
There are many layers of yearning in the film – between the two strangers, but also the unspoken yearning for LGBTQ acceptance, almost as though the train carriage itself is a prison.
I agree there are many layers of yearning in the film and it does point towards the unspoken yearning for LGBTQ acceptance. But I don’t feel the train carriage was a prison. It was more a safe haven in my opinion, where both the characters, for those brief periods spent travelling on the train, could be true to themselves and not care about the world outside and how it would condemn their love.
This is how I interpret it but that’s the beauty of Sisak, you can interpret it in multiple ways and they’d all be right since the film gives the viewer that freedom, like all good poetry and art.
I haven’t faced a lot of backlash myself but you don’t get the same amount of respect you’d get if you’d done a film on another topic . . . apart from the occasional teasing and people questioning my sexuality all of a sudden.Dhruv Singhal, straight actor
How difficult is it for an actor in India to be associated with a gay film like this? Have you had any backlash personally?
It’s quite difficult, Ian. I haven’t faced a lot of backlash myself but you don’t get the same amount of respect you’d get if you’d done a film on another topic.
People are quite confused about the concept of homosexuality in India. They don’t understand it and a film like Sisak shows them the truth behind it which confuses them even further.
It’s much like how we all grew up learning that there are nine planets in the solar system and then one fine day Pluto is disregarded as a planet and we’ve got to make our peace with it even though we don’t quite understand it.
Apart from the occasional teasing and people questioning my sexuality all of a sudden, I haven’t faced any personal backlash yet. But I know if I belonged to a middle class or had a lower middle-class background then things would’ve been way worse.
Has the film received criticism from traditional communities?
I’m not sure if we’ve received any criticism from traditional communities because I decide not to pay attention to such things and Faraz always safeguards me from those things.
Do you identity as gay – and are you able to say so publicly? How relevant was your own sexuality to playing this role?
No, I don’t identify as gay. I’m straight, but I don’t feel my sexuality is relevant to playing the role. Yes, I understand I might not have the same amount of knowledge and experience that a gay actor would but I can learn, understand and comprehend it in order to create my character.
One only needs to be human to understand and feel for another human being’s agony and pain.
This interview was conducted via email from India.
- Sisak on Facebook here.
- Sisak on IMDb here.
- Sisak on Wikipedia here.