In India, screening a film that explores queer, feminist or religious issues without sanitizing it to mainstream sensibilities most often leads to bottlenecks at obtaining a certification. Alankrita Srivastava’s whip-smart Lipstick Under My Burkha was infamously denied certification on grounds of its ‘lady oriented content and their fantasy above life’. In actuality, the film depicted how Indian women in smaller towns repressed, acknowledged, and negotiated their feminine desires in a predominantly patriarchal Indian society. Fortunately, its makers took matters to the tribunal and minted money at the box office after it was finally granted release.
KA Bodyscapes, the queer-themed Malayalam feature by Jayan K. Cherian, has similarly battled the Censor Board for over a year and half until it finally received an adult certification in 2018. It was initially rejected by the CBFC in Thiruvananthapuram for ‘ridiculing, insulting and humiliating Hindu religion, in particular portraying Hindu Gods in a poor light’. The board illustrated how ‘the Hindu God “Hanuman” was shown as coming in the books titled “I am Gay” and other homosexual books’. By 2017, the Censor Board agreed to grant a certification provided the film deleted references to political parties, namely the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the ‘objectionable and disrespectful’ still of Hanuman, and, in another display of disguised misogyny under the garb of preserving a woman’s modesty, ‘the shot of a female character masturbating’.
Today, the film has only found takers at selected festival circuits. I managed to watch Ka Bodyscapes at a screening in Ahmedabad in April. The film is set in Kerala, the more progressive of the Indian states which has often witnessed youth-driven protests against various injustice. The 2014 Kiss of Love protest against moral policing comes to memory, or the recent ‘Watermelon March’ against sexism. Kerala has also pushed for queer rights through welfare policy and medical support for trans-people, and community-driven initiatives by Queerala and Queerythm. Despite this, the city isn’t without its prejudices. KA Bodyscapses chronicles the everyday sexism, homophobia, mob violence, housing discrimination, and violation of freedom of expression faced by minorities in God’s own country.
Its key characters Vishnu (Rajesh Kannan), Haris (Jason Chacko) and Sia (Naseera) are all ordinary people struggling to make their ends meet. Haris, a young painter constantly falls behind on his rent. Vishnu, his boyfriend and muse gets a lowly position as a graphic designer at his uncle’s firm. Their friend Sia works at a shoe factory by the day and blogs at night. All three are subjected to varying degree of scrutiny and interference by priggish family members, oppressive bosses and pesky landlords.
Haris is the most liberated of the lot. Living on his own, pursuing his passion for the arts, and openly homosexual. He spends his days painting at home or by the beachside. He aims to clear off his debts by hosting his solo queer-themed exhibition ‘Ka Bodyscapes’. More intriguing is the character of Vishnu, who works under his uncle, an openly right-wing supporter who presses him to keep away from Haris after learning that the two live together. As the film progresses, the men live increasingly under the fear of being thrown of their apartment for their lifestyle.
Sia belongs to a conservative Muslim family where female elders have been conditioned into accepting patriarchal notions of gender identity and gender roles. Sia’s grandmother constantly hectors her for her rebellious attitude, her choice of dressing and for coming home late. In a classic example of patriarchy, the male members are brought in as the last resort to ‘teach her a lesson’. Sia is also verbally abused and slut-shamed by male superiors at workplace. Sia takes the matter to the police when her co-worker is strip-searched after a used sanitary pad is found in the office washroom. In a scene that highlights the absurdity of the Indian justice system, the police initially dismisses her grievance by reasoning that ‘it was a female supervisor who did the strip search’. Stuck between unsupportive family members and a demeaning work environment, Sia’s only outlet for voicing her individual opinions is her Facebook page Sia Rational. However, as things worsen, she takes her activism to the streets.
Ka Bodyscapes’ greatest strength is its simplicity and restraint in capturing the desires and angst of these individuals who live among and stand up to an ignorant, God-fearing, male-dominated society where the use of violence and threat become the tool to silent alternate, minority voices. As the end credits rolled, I realized the key reason why the Censor Board feared this film’s release. It isn’t the so-called disrespect to Hindu lords. It isn’t the shot of a woman touching herself. Neither is it the reference to right-wing parties. It is because this work of art succeeds in conveying the message and critiquing the status quo brazenly, incisively and truthfully, and the Censor Board would rather wish to distract us with Bollywood fantasies.
Ka Bodyscapes was screened on April 14th jointly by The Nomad Café and Queerabad in Ahmedabad.