I now have a larger sense of community and belonging.
US-based film-maker Sonali Gulati talks of her film, I AM.
It was a Sunday scripted perfectly. Tons of rain, lots of traffic and a screening of Sonali Gulati’s I AM organised by LABIA (Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action).
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize Of Best Documentary at IFFLA, Special Jury Award Winner at Kashish 2011 held in Mumbai amongst many others to its name, the screening found a houseful of women waiting to watch this heart wrenching tale. Some who had seen I AM before at the recently concluded Kashish fest and some who had heard much praise for this tale.
The 85 minute documentary details Sonali’s own journey: As she deals with her mom’s memories, her own mixed bag of emotions at her inability to come out to her mom and her own questioning as she meets her gay friends and their families who deal with their coming out. Edited by Anupama Chandra, shot over 5-6 years, this documentary deals with coming out stories of gay, transmen, lesbians to their parents and its aftermath.
The telling lives up to every bit of praise for the beautiful narrative, raw honesty that it has won rave reviews for! The research, the loneliness, the footage and the seamless movement from one story to another that the film captures left many teary-eyed!
The film will be out on DVD soon (http://www.sonalifilm.com/I-AM.html) and exhibits in 20 cities across the world over the next three months
Did you come out to your extended family even though you couldn’t come out to you mom and what was their reaction like?
A: Yes, I did come out to them. Infact, I did it through the screening of I AM. Except for one negative reaction from my cousin brother who wouldn’t accept it and displayed his homophobia by saying ‘I was torturing my mother’s soul’ — the reactions have been very positive and encouraging. I have some family who watched it in Delhi, my elder brother watched it in Boston, even got a special DVD of the same and I am also hoping to have some family see it in California as the film screens around the world.
What for you has been the most affirmative part and the most difficult part of this experience? Take us through your journey of film-making over the years you spent on it…
A: It’s been a long journey but a fruitful one. For instance, when I began filming, Elakshi’s mom agreed to be in the film, but wanted her face to be blurred out, voice to be changed and more. Five years later, she was at the Delhi Pride, coming to terms with her status, speaking up for her in public. That transformation was heartening.
I interviewed 21 families and strangely, in some cases, I found their parents more forthcoming and willing to tell their story rather than the gay children. In fact, I have enough material for 2 sequels and my editor Anupama Chandra (who lives in Delhi) and I went back and forth on what needed to be put in made it excited. We worked very well together and I did insist we put in the scene at the clinic which claims to cure homosexuality or that in some shot, my ass looked too big and she must edit it!
The toughest part about shooting it was when I asked Harpreet’s mom, how would she deal with kids like me who wasn’t out to her mom and she said, ‘she would come over and talk to my mom.’ It was a breaking down moment for me and I cried behind the camera and couldn’t even hold it steady! At that point, I didn’t think I was ready enough to continue telling the story and it was almost a year and a half before I picked up the camera again!
Finding the funding was also a bit of a hurdle. And I shot in bits and pieces—saving money and shooting the same.
Was it tough to find parents willing to talk to you? Especially fathers – as the mothers seem much more vocal in your film? Did you spend a lot of time making sure they were comfortable and that you blended in?
A: I spent a significant time hanging out with the families. Interviewing, speaking to them before I shot. In most cases I would hang out and shoot them as they went about their daily lives. Largely, there was only me doing the shoot because these were intimate conversations and deserved the one-on-one approach. And I choose the conversations over technique even though there were many balls to juggle – be it sound, camera or lighting.
The mothers do outnumber the fathers. They just seemed easier, more vocal and more comfortable with their children. I did try and balance it out but I realized I needed to stay true to my experience, that most women are stronger than men. And that is something to be proud about.
Also, many of them just accepted me into their space and their family. For instance the conversation between Elakshi and her mom about her wearing a kurta pyjama to a wedding came about since I was hanging out with her. Elakshi (who is now a dear friend) dragged me to get some support in her favour. But when the conversation started, I ran back to my car (because I always carry a camera with me) and they were completely cool with me recording it. You can’t stage these things! The moment just happened…
Any positive after-effects of I AM? Any feedback of how the film helped?
A: I was on a late night flight from Delhi to Bangalore. An airhostess tapped me, waking me up from my slumber and asked if I was the same girl on NDTV’s Chat Show Salaam Zindagi. I nodded, shocked that people recognized me! She thanked me and then mentioned how her sister had asked her to watch the show where I came out and said I was a lesbian. She was to be engaged and needed her help to break it up. ‘I am just like that girl on Salaam Zindagi… and I cannot go through.’ The airhostess understood, spoke to her parents and stopped the engagement.
Before I went on the chat show, I debated to myself whether this was necessary to out myself. This little positive story reaffirmed the necessity and if my coming out could change one person’s life – then I am so much the happier.
Sonali before I AM . Sonali after I AM . How much has I AM changed you?
A: I now have an extended family—In fact, a larger one beyond my biological family. The twenty one families became my own. In fact, I became very protective about them. One of the stories that doesn’t get featured in the movie belongs to a man who was HIV positive and was outed by his parents during the film-making. Since he hadn’t told the world he lives in about his status, we decided to edit the story.
Why did you really make the film: What were your real questions behind it – given your mom was no more? Do you still wonder, post making it, whether your mom would have accepted you?
A: I wish it had not been so difficult to come out to my mother. I wanted to articulate that and the deep regret and the dominant voice stays despite many a positive story through the money. I also often wonder if resources of any kind would have helped. In fact, I found it strange when I went for a court hearing of 377 when it was said ‘There are no gay people in India. It’s a western concept.’ I wanted to turn around and say that 377 is also a western law!
Would my mom have been okay with me being gay? You as audience are the best judge of that. I am too close to the subject to decide. But I think my mom loved me a lot. Now, at 38, I think should have accepted me. Given she was a single divorced woman in the 70’s when it was very much a stigma – I think she would have understood. It may have been a process, but I think she would have had a similar journey like most mothers took time to accept in the documentary. Having said that – given she’s no more and passed away in 1997 and its 14 years hence—it really leaves everything to my imagination.
What’s your next project?
A: My next film documents 12-14 different clinics operating across the world that actually profess to cure homosexuality. How it is such a thriving economy not just in India but across the world and how many get taken in by it. In fact, I recently met a couple who said they met in a camp enrolled by their parents to become straight!
Did you try any of the medicine given by the homeopath in the film?
A: Nope. What if it had been potent enough and worked! I would be straight…