Faraz Arif Ansari's 20-minute short film, Sisak, is being presented as India's first silent LGBTQ movie, but it is based on an experience that may be familiar to many, especially to frequent users of public transport in this country.
On a bus or a train or the subway, long or brief may be the journey, it's hard not to be stared at by random strangers. You could be fixed by an openly hostile gaze, given a casual once-over, looked up admiringly or simply given a hollow stare, full of ennui. Some of us stare back, others stare down. Few dare go beyond the staring, the rest move on.
In Ansari's movie, two men, who take the same local train back home in Mumbai every night, are caught in a web of stares but never manage to speak to each other. The poetry of their encounter is stretched in the visually spare movie, mainly through the use of real-life noise and music, to tell a story of love, but also of fear and despair.
'Sisak' is an Urdu word, which refers to the sob that's stuck in the throat.
'Sisak' is an Urdu word, which refers to the sob that's stuck in the throat. The plot came to Ansari in 2013, in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling reinstating Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that is historically used to harass the LGBTQ community in India.
"I was working on another screenplay in a cafe in Nainital at the time," Ansari told HuffPost India during a recent visit to Bengaluru. "I tried to compose a tweet, but deleted it. I wanted to put up a Facebook post, but couldn't find the words." In the end, he opened a word document and wrote the entire story of Sisak — in three hours flat.
When the 30-year-old director revisited the script, he found he hadn't put in a single dialogue — and that is how he decided to leave it. The film, which has been submitted to Cannes this year, is yet to be screened to the public. But Ansari is already contemplating a full-length feature film based on it. And yes, that too will be silent.
"We are a part of a generation that rants everywhere," says Ansari. "Sometimes silence can allow us to look inside and connect with ourselves. In a world where the young seem driven by likes and retweets, people have forgotten to love."
Silence can be terrifying too. It can often become an imposition, as is the case with LGBTQ people in India. To use silence as a tool to expose the plight of the community is therefore ingenious and subversive. But to get to this point, Ansari had to struggle with three years of uncertainty — from the lack of funding to being ditched by actors only five days before the shoot was to start to being chased by the cops while shooting on site, he has a chequered story to tell.
"We are a part of a generation that rants everywhere," says Ansari. "Sometimes silence can allow us to look inside and connect with ourselves."
The long wait and hard work seem to be paying off finally, with actor Sonam Kapoor coming out as one of the first champions of Sisak last month. After watching the trailer, Kapoor asked for a private screening, following which, visibly moved, she went out to promote it on her social media.
Since then, Ansari has been invited to speak about his work at various conclaves, including one organised by IIM-Kozhikode in Kerala. Men from across the subcontinent, including Pakistan, have been reaching out to him through social media, confessing their dilemmas, experiences, feelings and trials. He's also getting enough hate on social media — homophobia, Islamophobia, every shade of bigotry you can think of.
Overwhelming as this reception may be, Ansari had to put in half of his life's savings to make Sisak. Having made a short film already (Siberia, 2015) and worked as assistant director with Amol Gupte for Stanley Ka Dabba (2011), Ansari still found it difficult to convince producers to invest in Sisak, even though his budget was only a minuscule of any assembly-line Bollywood movie. Eventually, his own savings and crowdfunding came together to get the project going.
Finding suitable actors was another challenge. "I auditioned 300 actors and asked each of them to just sit and read a book," Ansari says. "But none of them worked." In the end, Jitin Gulati and Dhruv Singhal, his cast, came to him by fluke — and actually did what they were asked to do. They sat and actually read the damned book!
The long wait and hard work seem to be paying off finally, with actor Sonam Kapoor coming out as one of the first champions of Sisak last month.
Although limited budget allowed for only five days of shooting, the film was wrapped up in three nights, on the local train that runs between Andheri and Church Gate. "We would take the 9.30 pm train from Andheri and continue going up and down, until the last one returned from Church Gate at 2.05 am," says Ansari.
The actors had to change into their costumes behind dupattas held up by the female members of the crew. The team also had to be swift on their feet, moving from one platform to the next in minutes to catch the returning train. Then there was the crowd, which had to be managed with tact, especially on a fortuitous evening when the platform was flooded with IPL-watchers going back home in hordes after a match.
In spite of meticulous planning and research, the cops found out about them and gave chase one night. "We ran for our lives," Ansari says, though the commuters, surprisingly, were only curious, never disruptive.
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