Nishant Roy-Bombarde whose debut struck gold with two national awards and recognition at several international film festivals is premiering his next - Gair - in India. Yogesh Pawar spoke to him about the making of Gair, the invisibilisation of caste by mainstream LGBTQIA+ filmmakers and more…
How and when did Gair happen? Walk us through its journey from a seed idea to the final cut?
In my earlier short film Daaravtha which was about an adolescent boy’s exploration of his sexual expression, there was a scene where the mother tells him about her own past where she was in love with an upper-caste boy and their union was obviously impossible. That’s the turning point when her character decides to help her son in his journey without letting societal taboos obstruct him like they did with her.
The germ for Gair came somewhere from there. I wanted to explore the space where caste and sexuality cohabit and look at how they affect each other. I also love the space where interdependent journeys of two characters help both navigate tribulations. I must point out that Gair was written in 2016 and suddenly the world around was abuzz with talks of intersectionality. I was myself questioning the space the intersectionality of caste and sexuality creates, and what the experience of people at this intersectionality is especially with double persecution.
Like Daaravtha, Gair was also written in one night but it went through a metamorphosis later. It has been an arduous journey from inception to fruition. It was a difficult film to make because it didn’t follow norms of the new kind of short film market burgeoning online. Over and above that — when you add caste and sexuality to the mix and yet keep it understated, you have created multiple challenges for yourself. From funds drying up overnight, people ceasing to respond to calls and messages, to being asked to make changes that would fundamentally alter the theme of the film, I have gone through it all.
Till Neeraj Churi stepped in…
Thankfully, Neeraj Churi showed an interest in the film early on and brought the other producers on board. Once the finances were in place, it did look like half the job was done but more adventures awaited.
This was a perilous time to shoot. We were to shoot in Delhi and the CAA protests were still on. We reached Delhi and the North East Delhi riots broke. Our art designer couldn’t step out of the house and hence we had to fly a replacement from Mumbai at the last minute. I had envisioned the film to happen in a mysterious setting and thus Delhi winters and fog had a big role to play but because of financing issues we were already in March. But just picture this - we reached Delhi and the same night it rained cats and dogs. It rained like Mumbai and that too in March! And it was foggy for the next couple of days. There might be a hundred things that go wrong, but the universe also has a way of making it up to you.
And then the pandemic struck…
Exactly! I came to Mumbai after finishing the shoot, went into deep slumber only to wake up to the sound of people beating utensils and screaming. The pandemic was here. I edited and scored the film through the pandemic. Even going to my editor’s house a few blocks away was spooky. During this extremely difficult time for all, I am happy that at least I had some creative work to keep myself busy.
Gair was written in 2016 and now we are in 2022 — six years of self-doubt, meltdowns and managing people, but I’m relieved it is finally out. Every journey teaches you something.
When is it releasing?
It released in the US on May 7th as part of the New York Indian Film Festival. In India, it releases in June as part of the Kashish Film Festival. It will be available to watch in the theatres as well as online for 48 hours, sometime between June 01-12. We are also in talks with some streaming partners to get it online and hoping that some good streaming partner who is interested in good cinema comes on board.
You had hit gold with your debut short Daaravtha (2015) which bagged two national awards and travelled to some of the biggest international festivals. Are you looking for an encore?
One can only hope! But every film must choose its own journey and am happy that this one has too. Both NYIFF and Kashish are special festivals because of their past association with Daaravtha. NYIFF was the first-ever festival it got selected. It also had the warmest reception ever at Kashish. I still remember how the audience screamed the film’s name for each award being announced. They thought it deserved every award in the festival and that was the most special award for me.
How alike/different are Daaravtha and Gair?
They are very different. Daaravtha is happy and gay, Gair is contemplative and a bit melancholic. You grow as a person and that reflects in your work. One mustn’t hope for the same journey for every work. What matters is that it is reaching out to people and they are already writing in with warm reviews. That a film like this should move people and compel them to ponder even for a moment - what else would I want?
A budding filmmaker called me today and described how he noticed a quaint train sound in the backdrop wanting to know my thought behind it and share his interpretation of it. How lovely is that!
Don’t you feel pressured about Gair’s trajectory given that the bar is set so high with Daaravtha?
Of course. It’s only human. I never expected Daaravtha to have the journey that it did. At one point, it escaped my hands, and truly became a people’s film. The twin National Awards were a great thing, it just multiplied the reception exponentially. But you know what amazes me more? Six years down the line, the film is still screening from classroom to pubs and from Los Angeles to Meerut. Daaravtha has travelled everywhere and managed to stay relevant after so many years.
Didn’t you have a gut feeling this would happen?
I never expected this, I was just making a film to test my abilities as a filmmaker. So, I’m unsure if I should even attempt to emulate that success. But the pressure is there. It is there even when I go to people with my feature film projects because they have seen Daaravtha and that sets a certain expectation. But I’ve gradually come out of that shadow. I remind myself why I wanted to be a filmmaker - because I wanted to tell stories, to move people with them not to win awards and accolades. Awards are great but they can’t be the aim to make films.
Caste is often invisibilised in “mainstream” LGBTQIA+ cinema. Did that drive you to make Gair?
For your readers, let’s clarify that by mainstream you mean the cinema that one usually sees around and not necessarily mainstream as it is generally understood in the industry.
Caste is invisibilised in these films because the caste discourse is invisible in their filmmakers’ homes. All of them are aware about caste but they don’t want to talk about it because it means questioning their own privilege. It takes a lot of guts to acknowledge it, rest aside talking about it. Even if you talk about caste, they look the other way.
But you see, caste isn’t totally invisible in these films. In these films or even films in general, caste makes its presence felt through the choice of spaces, language and food and so on. Because these are one of the few tools through which caste propagates and expresses itself. That was the reason to talk about music and food in Gair and represent how they are used as tools of oppression. If your understanding of caste is that you consider yourself as only an “Indian” or that you are not caste-ist because you don’t serve tea in a broken saucer to your maid, then your understanding of caste and India is laughable.
This is not limited to homes and families, look at their friend circles and the partners they choose. With rare exceptions, it will be homogeneously upper caste with maybe some upper caste Muslims thrown in. Caste is often disguised as class in India. One look at dating apps and you’ll know what I’m saying. Coming from such a space, I am not surprised that caste discourse is absent in their films - knowingly or unknowingly, because not acknowledging caste is also a privilege that is available only to those at the top of the caste pyramid.
How do you read the paradox about a community that practices exclusion even while fighting the same evil?
It’s mind-boggling! The disease of caste is propagated from one generation to the other without ever talking about it even while keeping the privilege intact - queer or non-queer alike. But it is baffling to see a community that is so vocal about its rights of sexual expression being so mum about caste discrimination that denies basic human dignity to millions of Indians.
Interestingly, exclusion is how caste begins. A group wanting to become a caste first starts excluding itself from others and then starts looking inward, becoming endogamous. I am of course quoting from Dr B R Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste here. There seems to be something similar happening with the queer community. There could also be a problem of association with Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis (DBA) and a feeling of superiority. Considering most torchbearers are upper caste, it wouldn’t be a surprise. In India, anyway class is a euphemism for caste.
But world over, equal rights movements have derived from each other and supported each other.
DBA rights or Queer movement are both equal rights movements. So, I don’t understand the inhibition here. A majority of transwomen in India come from Bahujan communities. Theirs is one of the oldest struggles. If there is a Queer Dalit person who wants to talk about their double persecution, what do you plan on telling them? Scream you are queer, but shush about being Dalit? Can the lesbian community talk about feminism from queer stages or should they just talk about gay rights and keep mum? If they can, why can’t DBAs? Pride began as a protest to Stonewall and at the forefront of the Stonewall riots were Black and Latina trans women! Are you going to whitewash this history? Or talking about race and gender is fine but caste is not?
So bigotry is not a monopoly of the cis-world?
You see, just because one is queer doesn’t automatically mean one is liberal and progressive. You can be gay and a bigot. The choice is yours. It is the right time for all equal rights movements to be inclusive and enable each other.
Conversely, the Dalit rights movement is also not very happy to come out and work together with the LGBTQIA+ movement…
Same rule applies. There are no two ways about it. Women’s rights, worker’s rights and so many equal rights movements in India have their origins in the Phule-Ambedkarite struggle. A true Ambedkarite has to stand up for equal rights. Having said that, I remember so many examples where the Dalit rights movement has associated itself with LGBTQIA+ movement. Activist and writer Kancha Ilaiah inaugurated the Hyderabad Pride walk, 2015, the Blue Club is an organisation of Dalit women and queer folks that directly engages with queer issues, the Dalit Queer Project is trying to look at Ambedkar’s Labour Rights from a queer perspective — just to quote a few example. Even some younger politicians from Dalit parties have shown an inclination to talk about queer issues. It is to be seen how many such examples are seen on the other side of the pond. I'm sure there are some out there. Parmesh Shahani for example, tries to engage with caste along with queer issues. He is doing some important work about empowering the queer community within the corporate workforce. But by and large, the queer movement has a long way to go in becoming inclusive and empowering those who find themselves at the intersections of caste, gender, religion, region, and many more.
There was a mention of caste in Daaravtha too. But here the intersectionality between caste and LGBTQIA+ rights is more pronounced.
Caste is a reality in this country. I don’t live in a privileged bubble to escape it, so it is going to make its presence felt in some way in my work. The mention of caste in Daaravtha is a plot point, it is that important. The mother and son are having a heart-to-heart and she tells him about a Brahmin boy she loved and how it was an impossible love. The son’s question as to why they couldn’t marry sets her on a journey of her own which eventually leads her to helping the son on his journey. So, their journeys become interdependent. After that important job, caste takes a back seat since the film is about something else. There was a different intersectionality at play there - it was that of gender and sexuality.
Gair is a totally different film. Here the mainstay of the story is housing discrimination because of caste. The protagonist himself is gay and Dalit. So, caste is at the very forefront of the film. It is the main conflict and triggers the sexual exploration for its other lead character, Rahul. How his journey then helps Pankaj in turn and leads to the resolution is the main framework of the story. Thus, the thread of caste leads the story but like gender in Daaravtha, sexuality here is also a simultaneous thread that runs parallel to the story.
Is it true that you were told to make the protagonist Muslim instead of Dalit?
(Laughs) I don’t know who your sources are, but they’re good. So, I met this very famous short film producer and they said the mix of caste and sexuality is too confusing. Also, “cities mein itna kahan dikhayi padta hain ab, wahan North mein, Dilli vagaira mein toh bahut he kam”
This is a paradox I come across often. North Indians coming to Maharashtra think there is lot of casteism here as compared to back home. I think what they are usually referring to is that the there is more “caste discourse” here and people are more vocal about discrimination. Anyway, he continued “…toh isko agar Muslim bana de toh audience ko samajhne mein asan ho jayega” I don’t remember engaging much after that. Who are these people jinko caste samajh mein nahin aati? What is it? Rocket science?
But religious discrimination is also essentially casteist…
"Hindu society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes. Each caste is conscious of its existence. Its survival is the be-all and end-all of its existence. Castes do not even form a federation. A caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to other castes, except when there is a Hindu-Muslim riot. On all other occasions, each caste endeavours to segregate itself and to distinguish itself from other castes.” These are Dr. Ambedkar’s words. They ring true even today.
The need to form a unified Hindu religion was felt in the last century after a long stint of Muslim rule followed by British rule. The various anti-caste movements by Periyar, Phule, Ambedkar and others made the need even more acute since those at the top of the caste pyramid suddenly felt the ground beneath them shake. Ironically, descendants of so-called Muslim invaders by and large enjoy privilege positions in the society today. They are mostly upper caste Muslims. It is mostly them and upper caste Hindus who indulge in polarising talk and instigate riots. Later they meet at iftar parties, and all is well.
But when riots happen, mostly Pasmandas and Dalit Bahujans get killed. Who are these Muslims who get killed? Most of are converts from lower Hindu castes. Their forefathers embraced Islam to escape caste because Islam apparently promised a casteless society. But the disease of caste has infected all religions. Because caste is decided at birth, they carried that stigma to the new religion. The same is true with other religions in India. You see, the problem isn’t ever with the Ashrafs and Pathans, it is the fruit vendors, butchers and flower sellers who are seen as a problem. Essentially all religious discrimination has its origins in caste discrimination.
While your first was in Marathi and located in rural Vidarbha, you chose to make Gair in Hindi and locate it in Delhi. Were you trying to make Ajay Devgn happy by making a film in the “national language”?
(Laughs) I love setting stories in Maharashtra, I was born here and thus naturally I understand the people here better than other parts of the country. Even feature films I’m offered to write are either based here or have something to do with caste or queer characters. I think they are typecasting me! (Laughs). There was a time I wanted to make Gair in Marathi but that was a more a budgetary decision. It was always set in Delhi and in one of the “official Indian languages” - Hindi. I have lived in Delhi for a while and feel it is another part of the country I understand.
Because of the Shahu-Phule-Ambedkar legacy, the expression of caste and the way it makes its presence felt in Maharashtra is entirely different from how it is in the North. It is way more pronounced there and direct. Caste-ist slurs are casually thrown around even in urban spaces. Gair is a story of caste discrimination in housing in an urban space. All this made Delhi a natural choice. Having said that, I have a feature film script around the same theme ready and wanting to be made and it is set in Mumbai.
Do you like to keep your work minimalistic or is that logistical?
I’m unsure what you mean by that because both these films are not really minimalistic in the truest artistic sense. And logistically — definitely not! Both had huge wadas and kothis, multiple locations, locations that needed permissions from ASI and police permissions in Naxal affected areas. Also, Daaravtha had a lot of embellishments. In comparison, Gair is more controlled, yes. And I guess that’s where you’re coming from. It has two characters mostly stuck in closed spaces. Although logistically easier, it was more an artistic choice. I wanted the feeling of being stuck at one place and being haunted by the weight of the past that Pankaj feels come alive through the space. I love minimalism - both in cinema and in general. My ultimate aim is to gravitate towards that kind of cinema, but I haven’t got there yet.
Like Daaravtha, in Gair too, casting is spot-on. Tell us how you went about casting?
I think I’ve struck gold with these two boys. They come from such vastly different schools of acting and complement each other so well. Tanmay is methodical and gives a lot of thought even to minute details. Sahil on the other hand is raw and instinctive. That’s exactly how the characters are written too, so it all fits perfectly well. Even years after Daaravtha, people still remember Nandita and Nishant’s portrayal of mother-son. I am already getting to hear the same kind of reception to these two boys. Half the battle is won with casting because your actors are co-creators and I’m so happy we got the casting right.
How did you find Pankaj?
I was hunting for Pankaj absolutely everywhere - from professional Indie names to Nagpur's Bahujan Theatre. The hunt to cast Pankaj was still on when we began pre-production and it drove me crazy! Then I bumped into Tanmay Dhanania at Infiniti Mall and there he was - in his harem pants, loose tee/kurta and a jhola, his usual arthouse self! Not that I hadn't thought about him earlier... Tanmay and I were acquainted but he had always done very different kind of work till that point. I asked him if he would agree to do a screen test and he readily agreed. The moment I saw that test, I knew I had found my Pankaj. The way he got into the skin of the character amazed me! He found moments (jagaha) as is appropriately called in the music world that was only in my mind but possibly not on paper. His interpretation of Pankaj moved me, amazed me and angered me all at once. There was a time he scared us as we got a feeling that he might be angry with us but thankfully it was just his method acting.
The hunt for Rahul, the other protagonist was equally taxing if not complicated. There was one point when an actor told me he will charge Rs 5 lakh only. Well, considering that was more than half the budget of the entire film, we were obviously not fortunate enough to work with him. Then there were others who wanted to do Pankaj's role because they felt it was a meatier one. But they were too young for that role. There was supposed to be a visible age gap between the two boys. We almost cast one boy who thought we were rolling the next month whereas we were rolling the coming week. He was also my choice when the film was to be in Marathi. Sahil Mehta did not look the part but when his audition arrived, (which he shot himself btw, almost like a short film) I was sold. He sounded exactly what I thought Rahul would sound. I’m so happy that it worked out in a way that both my protagonists are unconventionally good-looking because it contributes to the film’s believability.
While Gair could have been a very politically strong charged, ‘activist’ film, why did you choose a subtler, art-based approach?
Do you mean it isn’t political enough? (Laughs) Films don’t need to look a certain way for their politics to be strong. Even extremely understated and visually stunning films can be strongly political. I’m reminded of Douglas Sirk’s Far From Heaven - what breathtaking imagery but so amazingly political. Film is an artistic expression at the end of the day although equally political. I’ve had a politically informed upbringing, but I took to cinema because of the amazing latitude it provides for artistic expression and not necessarily as a political tool. Also, I like things to be subtle and understated. As a viewer, I’ve loved cinema that just takes me on a journey and leaves the interpretation to me. Naturally, my inclination as a maker is to attempt that in my work. And I’m not an activist anyway, I just like to talk a lot! (Laughs)
Also, I would like to mention what I said during a screening of Daaravtha. A professor asked me, ‘Doesn’t so much beauty in frames take away from the substance and from the seriousness of what you want to say?’ She drew an analogy to Fandry’s cinematography. I said: ‘Beauty hits hardest!’
Are you already on to your next? Don’t you want to make a full-length feature?
I’m working in different capacities right now. I’m writing for films I may not direct and also considering directing films written by others. I am also talking to producers where I am both writer and director. The pandemic presented us with more pressing issues but now that things are back to normal, I am raring to go.
What are the feature films you’ve written about?
I have written three feature films that I want to direct. One is an understated film about a young boy’s journey in an urban space amidst caste discrimination. The other is a love story of two women set against a political backdrop. And the third is an intense love story about a contemporary take on relationships with song and dance, mind it.