Panikar and Nawab on their groundbreaking film “Bodies of Desire”

By Romita Roy

The visual poetry film co-directed by Varsha Panikar and Saad Nawab shows 4 sets of lovers exploring each other’s bodies to a beautifully read poem by Panikar. It’s sensual, intimate and personal, yet open and accepting. Featuring actors of South Asian descent, it is a rare piece of representation, showing love, desire, and connection irrespective of sexuality or gender. It’s received numerous accolades and been screened at events and film festivals across 7 countries, such as the Indian Film Festival in Melbourne.


Described as ‘a sensual celebration of genderless love and desire’, the idea for the film sprang from the poem. I had an open conversation with Asawari and Varsha, asking them about their stories, their lives, expressions, and the way in which this film came together. When speaking, the most powerful aspect that shines through is the strength of these girls in their respective identities, and how clear their vision is around the importance of creating positive queer role models. In conversation with Varsha, she boldly points out - enough is enough. “I would like to see more and more diverse voices and narratives going forward. I do not wish to see films made by men advocating women’s rights and their suffering. Like someone said, ‘It’s time to pass on the damn mic.’ The gaze matters, and whose gaze it is, matters even more.”

Asawari pointed to the exoticization of queer narratives as one of the many reasons it was important for queer persons to be able to reclaim their narratives. “Most people who saw my work thought it was ‘strange’ or ‘edgy’. However my work is extremely personal to me and it is not relatable to the viewers, especially in India.” The film’s inception began when Varsha’s double-edged sketches exploring themes of intimacy piqued the interest of cinematographer Kaushal Shah, and the rest is history. Asawari, who spearheaded the production process of the film; wears many hats- a champion of female queer narratives through her extensive body of work, she also co-founded Anat, a content platform that promotes unconventional representation of marginalised genders.

“I wish more queer voices tell their narratives instead of them being written in “history”, by people who have absolutely no experience of living a queer life. And for that, you need safe spaces. Period.”

When discussing the intent behind Bodies of Desire, the filmmakers stress that their mission is to create safe spaces for queer creatives (and creatives in general) in cinema and theatre to openly explore themes of sexual identity and gender. As Asawari says “I wish more queer voices tell their narratives instead of them being written in “history”, by people who have absolutely no experience of living a queer life. And for that, you need safe spaces. Period.” They’ve emulated this in their casting process as well, which was built on the premise of creating a safe space for people from different walks of life, bridging together everything from activists for trans and animal rights, to copywriters, professional drag artists, corporate professionals, painters, illustrators, and of course, actors.

But for many this experience was a first, acting as a bridge to self-discovery and a stronger sense of identity through the production process alone. “One notable thing that everybody discovered through the workshop, was a certain fluidity most of them felt in their own sexuality which they hadn’t expected but were quick to embrace, and that is the, you'll discover yourself in ways you probably didn't think was possible.” 

Below are some excerpts from a conversation had with the filmmakers and their team about the need for the right kind of representation and visibility in films, not just in the casting but also in the hiring of a crew that is diverse and inclusive.

TLP: What aspects of your life experience did you bring into the film?

Varsha: Bodies of Desire, was originally conceived as a sketch-poetry book, as a sketch-poetry series on Instagram (pen name - @fromtheafterglow). I wrote it at a time when I was going through a transition and was myself on a journey to rediscover my own identity so as I kept adding to the series, it transformed into something that went a little more deeper and evolved into a means for me to tell stories of endearment and passion, the kind that delves into themes of identity, desire, curiosity, discovery, sensuality and intimacy; and looking at it outside the context of sex and letting it become an expression and exploration of rediscovering yourself, through your desires, and through intimacy. It was the same with the film.

TLP: What message do you want to bring to the world through Bodies of Desire? What stereotypes do you hope to break?

Varsha: I read somewhere, “It’s hard to be and understand what you can’t see.” And while the visibility of diverse characters and people in the media is slowly emerging in India, it is important to remember that only a limited range of stories are being told, and we know that that is not enough. When you see yourself depicted and represented, it gives you a sense of connection and hope. There is also a lot of shame that people here still associate with sexuality and desire, and that shame; has been with us for far too long. Intimacy amongst lovers holds immense political power. In the lover’s embrace, the labels that make us look at others through the lens of identity retreat into the background, giving way to a presence that is free from bias and stereotypes that continue to segregate our society. I think it is time to create a ‘new normal’, one that includes a wide spectrum of identities, sexualities in different colours and form with a presence that is more prismatic, nuanced and fluid, and maybe, one day, we can look at works like these as not just queer or of the marginalised, but simply human, because that’s what they are.

Asawari: It is important to gaze at intimacy and desire, without having shame attached to it. Intimacy is something so personal, yet universal and we wanted to break away from the usual myth of queer bodies as sexual tropes, instead celebrate desire as a primal - universal concept.

Saad: Coming from a marginalised community myself, I know the value of the right kind of representation and visibility, in films and popular media. My work on Bodies of Desire was collaborative and I think that is the direction in which we should be heading. We need stories that are multi-cultural and multi-dimensional. I hope that through this film we can start a dialogue about the need for the right kind of representation and visibility in films, not just in the casting but also in the hiring of a crew that is diverse and inclusive. It is time to let more voices and narratives be heard.


TLP: What aesthetic and visual imagery is the film trying to capture?

Varsha Panikar: I wanted to create a portrait of intimacy, of longing, of desire, of embrace, and capture moments amongst lovers where only they exist, and the rest of the world becomes background noise. So when Kaushal and I decided to adapt Bodies of Desire into a film, we wanted to capture that very essence through a lens that was free of bias and prejudice, and yet create an emotive work that would combine a variety of disciplines from visual poetry, spoken word, movement and fashion film. We wanted it to have a spontaneous and romantic quality, like scattered pages of a diary, where the characters felt natural and uninhibited through the lens.


Kaushal Shah (Cinematographer & Colourist): Bodies of Desire to me was all about tenderness and sensuality. The cinematographic approach was to capture this very essence. When it came to styling and the look for the cast, we wanted to keep it natural and real, by maintaining the authenticity of the various skin tones we had, I wanted it to look raw and brown in all its glory. The idea of the 4:3 ratio also comes from this very idea, of boxing our mentality, our perception and understanding of thing, and how once you allow it to, within that box you can still explore, evolve, rediscover and create a space, an environment, which has such magic, such emotion, such delight. As a visual artist, it is important to develop a gaze that is fluid and free from any bias and prejudice


TLP: What was the process of getting the cast and crew together?

Asawari and Jagushte: Viren our executive producer and casting director went around the town to find a talent pool of non - trained and trained actors, from the LGBTQIA++ community in Mumbai, who were comfortable being a part of such a narrative. We wanted artists who could give their best of who they actually are and be comfortable in their own skin. Our crew was gender-balanced throughout, we wanted more women and queer individuals to be a part of the process, not just in front of the camera, but also behind it. Cornelia is brilliant with editing choreography and creating a hypnotic visual landscape. I think she has the power of being present in the space where the actors lived and create drama by using the same energy. We found Mark while we looked for musicians, sound designers in India. His work understood the sound design and used daily sounds instruments to create a visceral soundscape. The fun fact is that we have never seen Mark or heard his voice. We worked with him throughout the pandemic, only on email conversations, while he worked from his studio in Athens.

TLP: Going forward, how do you envision inclusivity in creative fields such as filmmaking?

Varsha: I would like to see more and more diverse voices and narratives going forward. I do not wish to see films made by men advocating women’s rights and their suffering. Like someone said, “It is time to pass on the damn mic.” The gaze matters, and whose gaze it is, matters even more. I would like to see more diversity also in the crew and the technicians we hire. People always say to me, “but there aren’t enough experienced technicians and performers who are queer”, that’s because there is a serious lack of opportunity for them build that experience. Do workshops, train people. It’s possible and has been done by many. It’s up to you to make it inclusive, and if you want to, you will find a way.

We also need to sensitize people, crew and even creatives about how to act and work in a diverse and inclusive set up, because having worked in ads for a decade, I’ve seen some serious malpractices and disregard when it comes to how we treat and work with people. We are still working within a very patriarchal structure of hierarchy when it comes to the industry. It is 2020, and we’ve had enough of it. It’s time to change!

Asawari : It is not easy working in environments that normalize harassment, bullying, discrimination and abuse, especially for marginalised communities and genders. The antidote to such work spaces is to create an alternative culture that is free from any racism, femme phobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination - a space that has rules and potentially a strict no-tolerance policy that protects the essence of the space from becoming diluted and turning toxic. Only after that, can each and every person on a film set be authentic to themselves, devoid of being judged or harassed. We need to honestly and truthfully work towards having gender-balanced - intersectional cast and crews, sensitising them and embracing representation not only in front of the camera but also behind it.


TLP: What changes do you wish to see in the way queer themes are portrayed in cinema and art?

Varsha: Growing up I don’t remember seeing anything that could be described as a positive queer role model on screen and even then, they weren’t exactly encouraging tales - the queer characters were either abandoned, or ostracised for being queer, or the protagonist would die of Aids or abuse, and while those stories were based in reality and were important for the world to see, I wished I could have seen some characters that were like me, where they didn’t show us dying in shame, as an object of audience’s pity, and that why the ’RIGHT’ visibility is even more crucial, now more than ever. We are living in a global world so a queer kid or adult knows that they are neither alone nor abnormal. It is crucial because it helps make gender and sexuality less of a target for bullying, and it creates an important shift in the social consciousness to include people from a range of different backgrounds and not seen as charity cases, or the queer best friend. It changes attitudes and de-stigmatises different identities, inspiring people and giving them the courage to come out. It affects a huge group of people on a personal level, most of whom are still rendered invisible and are still surrounded by hostility and persecution, even more so if they are from marginalised ethnicities and religion or if they just come from smaller towns and rural parts of the country.

Asawari : Authenticity, authenticity and authenticity. The more you invest in keeping stories authentic and honest, the more relatable it gets. I am exhausted watching queer stories made by people who aren’t queer. It's how certain men made films about women in pop culture, the gaze was how they expected women to be rather than who they actually are. I wish we had more women tell their own stories, similarly in 2020 and beyond, I wish more queer voices tell their narratives instead of them being written in “history”, by people who have absolutely no experience of living a queer life. And for that, you need safe spaces. Period.

TLP: How do you plan to create a platform for queer creative individuals through your voice?

Asawari: Most people who saw my work thought it was ‘strange’ or ‘edgy’. However my work is extremely personal to me and it is not relatable to the viewers, especially in India because they have never seen queer work in the mainstream. Queer or marginalised filmmakers and their stories are often boxed in what we call the ‘niche’. I feel there is a dire need to educate and unlearn the patriarchal narratives that have been fed to us while growing up. I am working towards creating such functional environments - an alternative/parallel industry where queer, underrepresented works are becoming the prowess of contemporary Indian culture. And slowly you shift your gaze from ‘niche’ to what can be ‘mainstream’.

Varsha: I know some brilliant artist, writers and aspiring filmmakers from the community, who are yearning to take back the narrative, and make and produce more queer content, which is told from their own perspective, and not how it appears to an outsider, but what is lacking is opportunity. Some of the younger artists I've had the privilege of knowing are not here to settle, they want more, they demand more, they are affected by culture and the world around them, they see injustice and they call it out instantly, and that makes up hopeful.


Watch the movie here: https://www.nowness.asia/story/bodies-of-desire-varsha-panikar-saad-nawab