Using Varsha Panikar’s poetry series by the same name, Bodies of Desire is a visual poetry film co-directed by her and Saad Nawab. The visual treat takes the viewers on a journey of intimacy, desire, exploration of self and a yearning for love. The film was released on September 19, 2020 and has been featured in eight film festivals till now, including the very prestigious Berlin Commercial 2020’s Cultural Impact category. The film has also been selected by Nowness Asia, a platform/video channel that features some marvellous works by artists in Asia.
The film begins with a literal buzz in the air. The electricity in the feelings of longing and compassion can be felt in every frame from the get-go. The people in the scenes seem to be mentally prepping for some moments of intense intimacy. The brilliant silent expressions and body contortions really bring forth the jittery nervous energy one feels when they’re in love. Considering the fact that the director worked with actual queer people who had not had any professional acting experience, the actors do an amazing job, especially keeping in mind how difficult it is to signify so many deep emotions without actual dialogues or words.
The film is an homage to desire and the sensuous nature of love. Although the spoken poem is about the journey of love making, with its highs and lows, the choice of not showing something inherently and explicitly sexual is a very clever one. The film does a wonderful job of subverting the “accepted” version of love making shown generally in cinema. It symbolises the intoxicating feeling of being in love by highlighting the little, forgettable moments that hold such unbridled, raw sensuous energy, like caressing your lover’s body, mapping their nakedness and drinking them in just by your eyes, fuelling your inner fires by merely rubbing your face onto theirs.
The film does a great job in bringing up the question of what exactly is considered love making? Is there even a definitive answer?
Sex, whenever spoken in any context, has always meant penetration and release, and most of the times, a woman’s pleasure has never been accounted for in the general, heteronormative explanation of sex. Either that or sex is what causes reproduction. When it comes to queer love making, this limited knowledge of sex arouses several questions in the mind of heterosexuals, and that conversation always has its roots in homophobia and misogyny. The biggest question that Bodies of Desire answers, is, that intimacy is not limited to sex; sex is a secondary part of intimacy. One does not even have to be fully naked to experience an overwhelming sense of intimacy. One does not even have to be with someone to find intimacy and desire burning in their core. Normalising queer love does not only create more avenues of acceptance, but also provides another perspective to the previously considered “normal”.
The poem and the visuals depict love making as a spiritual, emotional and outer-body experience that cleanses the mind, body and soul. The purity in cradling your beloved’s face in your palms and breathing them in with your eyes could hold more depth and intensity than any other act of love. The poem talks about how love finds you even when you’re hidden in the darkest of shadows, how losing yourself in love could help you find yourself; be it the love someone else showers on you or a love you find all by yourself, within you. It answers the question of how nonuniform and random love is, how everyone has a different expression and language of love, and how useless it is to confine it to the binary, the known, when the actual depth of intense love is still unknown. The film asks its audience to open up their minds, to expand their knowledge of what all love, desire and intimacy can possibly mean and entail.
I had the most wonderful opportunity to interview the folks behind this incredible venture. Here’s what they had to say about their filmmaking process.
Q. Sensuality, in its essence, is the electricity disguised in moments of intimacy. The brilliance in cinematography captures that invisible electric nature throughout all the frames. What notes did you keep in mind to make that emphasis as subtle yet powerful as it was?
Varsha: I wanted the film to have a spontaneous and romantic quality like the scattered pages of a diary, or stills that look raw like paintings. One of the most important things was for the characters to look as though they’ve allowed us a peek into their intimate and personal world, like a willingness to submit to another’s gaze, yet be absolutely in control of it.
The intimacy between the characters is something we worked on over a period of time, especially since most of our cast is made up of non-trained actors. We did a series of exercises, from one-on-one auditions where we discussed what intimacy and desire meant to them, what their inhibitions were with self and with scenes of intimacy, what their preferences were with respect to pairing. All this helped build a base of honesty, comfort and trust, which I think is essential before you embark on a project so intimate. These were followed by intimacy workshops, choreography and rehearsals on location which further allows us to discuss inhibitions and boundaries of consent, build chemistry, define the degree of intimacy everyone was comfortable with, which I think allowed the performers to artistically be vulnerable in front of the camera and helped us to create an honest depiction of the character’s individual sexuality and intimacy, which was natural and un-inhibited.
In the end, I think it was all of the prep we did with our amazing bunch of cast, who naturally exuded a vigorous sense of confidence and self-love, and that played a massive role in how authentic it look. That mixed with Kaushal’s cinematic brilliance and the fluidity of his gaze through the lens brought to life the reality we were trying to portray. Eventually, Cornalia’s seamless edit, and Mark’s treatment of the sound design heightened al the emotions and made it into the sensual delight that it is.
Kaushal Shah: “ Bodies of Desire to me was all about tenderness and sensuality, so the camera was in their space and was a part of them. In terms of tone and texture, it had to feel like we were in their environment, one where they could express and allow themselves to be free and vulnerable. Hence, the handheld, and the sort of moody-lit environment where our attention is calculated and put to detail, and hence the extreme -wide use of lensing which is still very close to them. When it came to styling and the look for the cast, I 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. I think as a visual artist, it is important to develop a gaze that is fluid and free from bias and prejudices of the world, the society, which allows you to look at the subject in hand in a sort of raw and awe inspiring manner, and that is what makes an image authentic and powerful. 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. ”
Saad: Another reason for it being subtle was also the restriction with the budget, but luckily Asawari found us a beautiful location so that helped a lot. Another thing to note, are the alter ego’s that everyone created for themselves during the workshops. The idea was to create an alter ego which would allow them to step into the character and step out of it safely when the shooting was done, and all of the cast including us got to create one for ourselves, everyone had the agency to mould and dictate as per their comfort and desire. It was surprising to see how confident, tender, nuanced and open those alter egos were and I think that is where the electric nature that you mentioned, comes from. Those characters were dynamic and electric, and it came out very naturally.
The rest of it, is of course, getting on location with the cast and finding the emotion through the framing and the choices of lens, and then letting pure emotions unfold. We chose wide angle lenses to emphasize solitude so it doesn’t look voyeuristic which tends to look lustful. That’s where probably the power comes from. Having said that, a powerful imagery is the end result of a whole lot of facets, the action, the emotion, the light, the lens, the edit, the music and the voice, and the wholesomeness and the synergy amongst those facets is what perhaps, makes it powerful.
Q. The background score has an eerie start to it. It begins in a way that the music fades into our ears and then slowly builds up in tempo and pitch as the poem reaches its climax. What was your inspiration behind this creative technique of background scoring, wherein the music’s rise and fall also becomes an appendage to the intimate expression of love making?
Varsha: As is with most things, the text was the starting point, and I created it by stitching together different stanza from the various poems in the series, to give it a seamless narrative structure with five acts. Saad and I, further, broke these down into different emotions and intentions, ranging from moments of longing, of self-contemplation, moving onto to exploration and discovery, leading up to moments of intimacy, of empathy, of love, and eventually, a moment of intense passion, a climax, before ending on an epiphany, a moment of calm, an unabashed boldness and acceptance of self where the poet finally looks back at the audience, leaving them to enquire the beginning and end of things? This graph of emotions and moments dictated the action, the choreography, the edit and hence, the music.
We were trying to create a portrait of intimacy where only the lovers exist, a moment where everything else becomes background noise, and yet the sensuality, the mood, the rhythm of the music had to evoke a sense of raw passion, whether it was with the buzzing of the bumble bee creating a sense of anticipation, or progression in the sound design to reinforce the intensity and emotions of the visuals, it’s highs and lows. It needed to be sensorial and visceral; a sound that had a progression, and an underlying layer of an almost audible atmosphere, like in ASMR. The edit Cornelia Nicol?easa had created was spot on, and the voice over had pretty much been laid out so Mark’s work was no easy task, but he eventually created a sound, that not only retained the mood and the tone of the atmosphere, the poetry, the movement, but elevate the depicted reality and brought it to life.
But this answer would be incomplete without Mark’s POV so here it is.
Mark Spanoudakis : The film is trying to imitate real life which by definition has ups and downs. Additionally, the intimate expression of love making has a certain continuous ‘rhythm’ on its own. Every human being might be different, however, during the love making, we are momentarily synced with each other physically and spiritually. So, my goal was to be able to infuse the score with the same thoughts via rhythms and emotions. To be honest, I always try to be emotional when I make music. This time however, it was quite different. Specific outbreaks were needed in certain parts that should define the amount of unified tension which was challenging, given the fact that the flow needs to make sense and not lose its continuity. Moreover, the poem’s lyrics played a crucial part as well, adding their fair share of emotion and rhythm to the picture. So, my job was to build a set of interesting instrumental sounds that could sync with the VO’s pace and at the same time follow the video editing lead so they could present a mixture of audio-visual rising tension when needed.
Q. As someone who enjoys angst and slow burn in visual and written representations, I have always wondered what is it about the imagery of hands caressing lovingly that poignantly captures the strength of love and simple devotion. Your film is a true testament to the visual expression of that yearning. Why do you think it works the way it works?
We asked all of our prospective cast, 5 things that reminded them of intimacy, and for the majority it was ‘the touch’ and then the smell. When you think of moments of embrace, the touch, the taste, the smell, the first thing that visually strikes you is the touch. The slight brushing of hands with one another, interlacing fingers, their caress on someone else’s skin, their face, palms pressed together, its erotic and romantic, it creates tension, and anticipation. There is also a certain profoundness and a soothing comfort in touch, and its caress has the power to heal. It is a such a simple act, but it holds great power and has been a subtle metaphor for queer relations for a very long, in literature, art and films. It is fascinating. But in hindsight, a lot of what you see, also came out through the exercises we used during workshops and the choreography, and touching through hands became the language of intimacy, everyone could relate to with ease and authenticity. I personally consider it as the first instalment of Bodies of Desire – the touch. There is so much more left to express, within those themes, and I can’t wait to explore it further.