Faraz Arif Ansari on Filmmaking & Queer Identity

Faraz Arif Ansari is an Indian filmmaker and the director of Sisak, India’s first silent LGBT film. I came across his work at the first British Asian LGBT conference held in Birmingham in the UK in 2018 where Sisak was screened at the day’s end. Faraz and I connected on twitter after the screening of his film, and have followed his progress as a filmmaker ever since. Faraz is actively making spaces for queer creatives in the industry through his work and activism and I am sure that many will agree, this representation has been long overdue. 

In a soulful interview with me, Faraz candidly discusses his journey as a filmmaker in Indian cinema and the international success of India’s first LGBT silent film Sisak which has gone on to win 59 international film awards to date! He also shares his experiences and the challenges faced growing up as a gay man in India. This is an impassioned account of Faraz’s journey thus far and I really hope you enjoy reading this just as much as I did interviewing him.

The Interview

Faraz tell us about how your journey into filmmaking began.

I think my journey as a storyteller began when I was a child. I’ve grown up surrounded by some fantastic women in my family. My Daadi (paternal grandma), my Khalajaan (maternal aunt) & my mother are all fabulous storytellers. I remember how fascinated I used to be as a child when even the most banal conversation ended up being a lesson in storytelling. From my Daadi, it was stories of her life in Lahore, of the partition that she witnessed as a teenager. From my Khalajaan, it was mundane stories of regular people that were turned into the most entertaining sagas, and from my mother, stories of faraway lands of speaking fruits and what not! I feel like these women were responsible for my decision to tell stories when I grew up. And so the journey began humbly, through Barbie dolls & He-Man toys at Eid & Diwali get-togethers where I presented little plays for everyone’s entertainment and before I knew it, I was Faraz the storyteller. Of course, the decision to become a filmmaker wasn’t easy because I don’t come from a film family and the world of cinema is something that no one at home had any idea about so my decision to be a filmmaker shocked them tremendously. But all I wanted to be was a storyteller and what better way to tell stories than through cinema!

 

As an out and proud gay man in India, who carved a successful career for himself as a filmmaker, you must provide inspiration to many. Has this ever been relayed back to you by people in the wider community?

I remember when I made Sisak, I was very apprehensive about how the audiences across the nation and the world would react to it. We had our world premiere at Wicked Queer: The Boston LGBT Film Festival (one of the biggest film festivals in America). We screened at the prestigious Museum of Fine Arts and Sisak was the closing film. I remember trembling throughout the two and a half hour screening program whilst waiting for Sisak to play to a houseful auditorium. I couldn’t help but cry through the screening — watching Sisak on the big screen. When the film credits rolled there was silence in the theatre…

I wanted to run away, of course thinking that everyone had hated the film, but then after a few seconds, everyone started getting up and there was a standing ovation! Later, I remember, a gay man in his mid-60’s from India hugged me and cried for a long, long time.

Sisak then went on to win the Best Picture – our first award! After that, we had a screening in Bangalore where two siblings came to watch Sisak. They sat in the front row and wept throughout the screening. Later that night, the sister messaged me on Instagram. I quote her direct message:

“My younger brother has being seeing the trailer of Sisak since it released, every night before he went to bed. After watching Sisak today, he came back home and came out to our parents. As I write to you, I see him sleeping peacefully, after many years. All because you had the courage to make Sisak. My brother is at peace. How will we ever thank you enough?” You see? That’s the power of cinema. It is life changing.

Have you noticed a change in the way the conversation on queer identity is being approached in India following the scrapping of section 377?

There have been more open conversations in the media which is a great step towards inclusion and acceptance. We still have miles to go of course but the work begun is half done.

Congratulations on the well-deserved international success of your film Sisak.  Did you ever think the film would warrant celebratory applaud in the way that it has?

I’m going to be honest about this – NO. I had no idea the film will go on to become the first ever Indian film to win 59 international awards – a milestone for Indian cinema. Honestly, I don’t think I ever thought about any of this when I decided to make the film. I just wanted to make an honest film about something I truly believed in and felt and one that would open conversations about acceptance and love in India.

I wanted to make a film for my mother. Something she would watch and understand that love is love is love is love. Gender has nothing to do with it. My biggest award has been watching my mother weep while watching the film. After that, she hugged me and was unable to speak. That has been the biggest award.

sisak

The trailer of Sisak was first announced by Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor. How did she get involved with supporting the film and what impact did that have?

I strongly believe that to bring inclusion and acceptance, we need mainstream support and exposure. Sonam has always been someone who has strongly stood up for the queer community. She is one of the biggest and strongest allies we have today. I wanted the trailer to have a huge impact and so it needed the right channel to find its way into the world. Sonam was the first name that I had in my heart. Of course she is also one of the biggest stars of Indian cinema today. When I decided to reach out to Sonam I had a strong feeling that the trailer will speak to her and that she will support it – and she did! Sonam loved the trailer immensely and since then Sonam and I have formed a friendship based on immense respect, admiration and love. Her support was the biggest support and it continues to remain so. She continues to retweet and share achievements and wins of Sisak till date. I couldn’t have asked for a better launch for Sisak, honestly.

Sonam Kapoor also stars in the recently released Hindi film Ek Ladki Ko Dheka To Aisa Laga. Do you feel that mainstream Hindi cinema has a role to play in the representations of queer identity on screen and the ways in which Indian society perceives homosexuality?

Cinema is more stronger than the Prime Minister of any country. Cinema has the power to change the subconscious. How we talk, dress, eat, love, hate and how we relate. It is all influenced by cinema. When one has such a powerful tool at one’s disposal, we need to understand that responsibility and utilise it wisely. A lot of harm has been done to the LGBTQIA community by horrible representation of queer identity in Bollywood which has caused terrible damage by reinstating stereotypes that has caused irreparable damage to many. However with time, things are changing, especially after section 377 being read down. I truly hope we move towards the right representation in mainstream cinema, slowly but steadily. I hope I can manage to do the same through my films too.

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How has Sisak been received in India?

Out of our 59 awards, none of them have been won in India. However, we’ve had private screenings and we’ve also screened at colleges & universities like JNU, Christ College, Bangalore, etc and the response has been beyond overwhelming. Especially the responses at the private screenings, they have been life-changing for many, including myself. I’ve seen people coming out after watching the film, I have seen families bond, I have seen so much that has really, really humbled me and made me realise the tremendous power of cinema & how truly life-changing cinema is.

Sisak is a silent movie. Why did you chose to exclude dialogue from the film?

While growing up, I often used to think: what would make my mother understand me? And my queer identity? Growing up queer in a Muslim household in India is not easy, to say the least. So as a storyteller, I decided to use silence as a tool. Silence makes one connect deeper with oneself. Silence makes you think. Silence isn’t preachy. It makes you uncomfortable to be with, since we live in a world where everyone is trying to be louder than the other to be heard so I decided to go silent. Silence is where most love stories are born and where we find a deeper connection with one another. It is in silence where the biggest decisions are made. What can be more powerful than silence? And so, to open a dialogue with a populous that is billions strong, I chose silence to tell a story of love that is not just a love story. It is politically and socially aware in its core and spiritual being and at the same time, a meditation on love.

In early January this year you announced that your next film is in production. What can you tell us about it?

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a fantasy film for a while now and I’ve only just started writing Samandar. From the looks of it, Samandar is going to be a huge production and I’d like to shoot it in IMAX & 3D when I am ready. My next film, which is my first feature film is called Sabr. It is about the journey of a transgender woman who comes back home to India after many years. I have Shweta Tripati & Shernaz Patel playing pivotal roles in the film. I shall be announcing the leading actors very, very soon. We start filming Sabr this year. After Sabr, I want to make a sci-fi thriller film that’s titled Shunya which will have a female protagonist. I am hoping to cast Sonam Kapoor in the lead for Shunya.

What advice would you give to queer desis when addressing their sexuality, not least given the often conservative attitudes towards LGBTQ issues in Indian society?

The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is this: Love yourself, accept yourself, embrace yourself which is a journey that’ll last a lifetime. However, once we begin on this path, a lot of things, including one’s sexuality, will find a way of expression and realisation. For me it has been cinema, writing & the arts. Of course, the realities of families and society will always exist around us. The way I’ve been standing up against the dogmas is by being my authentic self and that itself takes a lot of courage. Once we find a way, whatever it maybe, of finding a way of living honestly, a lot of things start to fall in place. Always remember to never be afraid of being yourself and loving yourself because *you* are your biggest asset and your biggest responsibility.

What advice do you have for new filmmakers like myself venturing out into the world of filmmaking?

Like every form of art, it is extremely essential to find your own perspective, your vision of looking, your words with which you will tell a tale. It’s like the way it is in music – 12 notes between any octave. After the 12 notes, the octave repeats itself and so, the same story is told over and over again.

Being an artist is to find your own way of expressing those 12 notes. That is all there is to it. And therein lies the biggest challenge.

Faraz is currently working on his first feature film about a transgender Indian woman. Additional details of the film and its release will follow on his social media. You can follow Faraz on Facebook Twitter and Instagram for more.

 

Recently Faraz ran a free acting workshop in collaboration with Keshav Suri for Transgender Indians called TRANSaction where he worked alongside actress Kalki Koechlin and Divya Dutta and others offering real opportunities to transgender actors at a grassroots level.

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Photo credits: Faraz Arif Ansari

Sisak and ELKDTAL Images: via Google

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