There’s a certain rush of emotions you get when you make eye contact with an attractive stranger in public. A quick smile or smirk, the slight tilt of the head, the way you position your legs and hold your arms — your body language can draw people in, and even shut them out completely. A more nuanced version of the ‘love at first sight’ sensibility reveals that there’s a certain mystery, an attraction that draws your eyes back to this person before you quickly break away, perhaps never to see them again. This silent relationship can grow stronger and flourish into a kind of strong bond that’s forged with every subsequent meeting. It’s this relationship that Faraz Arif Ansari explores in his film ‘Sisak.’
“Two men meet in the Mumbai Local train over a period of many nights. Not a word is spoken, nor is there possibility for any sort of physical intimacy but what conspires between them is a wordless romance, so strong that it brings them closer to each other, night after night and perhaps, delivers them with transitory moments of fleeting happiness and solace from the unkind realities of the passing world outside,” writes Ansari on the Wishberry campaign page that they had launched to raise funds for the films post production. The request was met with an overwhelming response and they quickly met their target goals.
Sisak is a poignant love story of two men in a homophobic country where their love is a criminal offence. What’s incredible about Sisak is that it’s India’s first silent LGBTQ short film. Filming, directing and acting in a silent film with layers of such a theme is a lot more difficult than people imagine, so we reached out to Ansari to get some insight about Sisak’s conceptualisation and filming process.
HG: Can you tell us about yourself and your introduction to the world of film.
FAA: “I wanted to make films since I was 4 years old. Obviously, I didn’t know what it was called then. Once, during Eid, as tradition, I had relatives visiting from Canada. After watching the play I had put together with my Barbie dolls, one of my aunts came to me and said, ‘So you want to be a film-director when you grow up, yes?’ and I think, that was pretty much the turning point of my life. Since then, I knew my life goal, and after that when anyone asked me, I knew what I had to say.
Obviously, coming from a non-filmy family, my career choice wasn’t something that was embraced instantly. In fact, even now, there are days when I have to explain my career choices to my family but now, with all the big articles in the print media, and otherwise, at least my family knows that I am doing something commendable! So I finished school and left for the United States to pursue my education in filmmaking and I did my majors in film-direction, screenplay writing & psychology and my minors in theater & film-production.
After my graduation, I briefly worked in the US, directing some chat shows and then got back to the bay and worked as an Associate Director, Co-writer, Executive Producer, Casting Director on films like Taare Zameen Par, Stanley Ka Dabba, Gippi! More recently, I wrote the story, screenplay and dialogues for Zee’s Zeal for Unity’s Silvat that was directed by Tanuja Chandra. I made a short film called Siberia in May 2015 and it is still traveling to film festivals across the globe. It has been to more than 43 international & national festivals and won us the Best Actress & Best Director Awards as well. Currently, I am in the process of working on my first feature film. Sisak is my second independent short film as a director, writer & producer.”
HG: Was there a particular incident that inspired the story of Sisak?
FAA: Like Lennon says, ‘Life happens to you while you are busy making other plans!’ That’s exactly how Sisak happened to me. After having worked on a few Bollywood films, I knew I was ready to take the leap and make my first directorial debut. So I started to write my first feature film called Ravivar. I didn’t want to make a rom-com as my debut film so I wrote a film that I truly believed in. Ravivar is a socio-political satire and has a homosexual protagonist. I wanted to bring the LGBT issues to the mainstream audiences through this film so I kept the writing very centered and didn’t go left of center at all. After that, I went around to almost every production house in the country, from the biggest to the smallest. They all read it, they all loved the screenplay but none of them wanted to produce it because it has a homosexual protagonist.
To have your first film rejected is like being told that your first born child is ugly and shouldn’t live. It hurt me immensely and all the more because all of them loved the film but didn’t have the courage to take a risk and make it. This lead to depression. I remember, I used to leave from home and take a local train from Churchgate and travel aimlessly across the city, listening to the OST of In The Mood For Love, Bob Dylan and just be absorbed into sadness. However, I have this habit of intensely observing people and trains are a breeding ground to sit and observe various individuals and closely. The world that I was exposed to was so intimate, intimidating and immensely beautiful - the world of ‘cruising’ — as it is called in the homosexual world (something I learned much later, after research). And while observing men closely, I realized that I was surrounded by unspoken stories - some happy, most of them of unrequited love and almost all of them unspoken, between men who traveled together in an overcrowded local compartment. And somewhere between all these observations and unspoken stories that were clogging my heart, Sisak was born.”
HG: Why did you chose for Sisak to be a silent film?
FAA: “While I was in the midst of writing Ravivar (Nov 2013) Section 377 was brought back to life. I remember sitting in a cafe at Nainital and watching the outrage over the news channel. It was heartbreaking. An entire community of people were converted into criminals overnight and only because they love someone of the same-sex. It was literally like, the hearts were pulled out of the rib-cages and the tongues were chopped off - YOU WILL NOT LOVE & IF YOU DO YOU ARE A CRIMINAL. BOOM. As an artist, I wanted to express my anger through my writings, through my films. So when Sisak was conceived, I instantly knew it has to be a silent film. In fact, throughout the film, forget talking to each-other, my characters don’t even shake hands or touch each-other and in spite of no spoken words, no physical contacts, they fall in love. How will the law take that away from a human? How can any law in the world take away the right from someone to love someone silently? Silence is the loudest and that is why, Sisak had to be a silent film. It is a silent revolution. Words are just white noise after a point, anyway.”
HG: Can you tell us what the word Sisak means and how it connects to the storyline?
FAA: “I have been blessed to have grown up in a household that wonderfully uses Urdu and Khari boli in our everyday conversations. Sisak, in the simplest of terms, means ‘to sob, silently’ If I have to take some poetic liberty, given that fact that Urdu is such a beautifully poetic language, I’d add to it by saying that Sisak is that sob that is stuck inside your chest and most of the times, only comes out silently because it is so loud. In fact, the title of the film comes from my mother. I was struggling for sometime with the title of this film. However, after I narrated it to my mom, she immediately summed it up by saying ‘Dabe hue dil ke aansoon, dabi hui dil ki aas... Sisak’ (The hidden tears of the heart, the hidden desires of the heart... sobbing away slowly, silently). And the film is just that — two strangers who fall in love over a period of nights inside the local train but because of the world, the traditions, the bondage that surrounds us all — they are unable to express it and their love remains unsaid, stuck inside the heart, silently weeping away to find a voice.”
HG: What kind of reactions did you get from people when they learnt about the subject of the film?
FAA: “I remember the first people to read the screenplay were my Director of Photography, Saurabh Goswami & my editor, Akshara Prabhakar. I remember Saurabh read the screenplay for 10 times in 3 hours and then asked me to meet him for coffee. I was so nervous! When we met, he told me “I love it. Let’s shoot it. But how the hell are we going to shoot it?! Do you have monies to get permissions to shoot in the local train? I am not shooting without permission!” My editor had issues of a different kind. She said “Its so beautiful! You’ve written it like a Murakami book! But how will you bring out such nuanced performances without the use of words and without any shooting permissions?” Honestly, I was just glad that they both loved the screenplay. Obviously, I had all the concerns that they had raised but then what’s film-making without taking risks? I knew I had no monies, I knew I had a good script, I knew I had a good cast & a great crew. All I had to do now was, GO OUT AND MAKE THE FILM. And that is exactly what we did. Touché, without any problems at all!”
HG: What kind of reaction have you gotten from the film industry itself?
FAA: “Well, I still haven’t heard from Ranbir Kapoor! (I plan to cast him as the lead in my first feature film, Ravivar) But other than that, the response has been quite overwhelming, to be honest. The media has been extremely kind towards Sisak. We have been getting a lot of coverage from the leading newspapers of the country, which has made a lot of people from the industry notice Sisak. In fact, I have got phone-calls from almost everyone that I have worked with in my career, telling me how inspired they feel. Its all very humbling. Not just the film industry, every day I have at least 50 new friend requests & messages waiting in my inbox on Facebook & Instagram - from strangers across the globe, thanking me for making Sisak. Most of these messages are extremely emotional - talking about a lost loved one, a friend who gave up his/her life because the family didn’t accept them because of their sexuality, about their own tragic love stories, whether they should come out to their parents and what advice would I give them, etc? These strangers are not just from the LGBTQI community but a lot of heterosexuals who’ve seen the teaser and other videos, have written me long letters telling me about their unspoken love stories.
The other day, I was at the airport, waiting to catch a flight to Delhi and this young woman walks up to me and asks me if I am Faraz Ansari, the director of Sisak. I was extremely surprised! She took me to meet her entire college group that had chipped in and contributed towards my crowdfunding campaign for Sisak. I was literally moved to tears when I met them. 50 odd young people all looking at me and so excitedly. And then, the word “Autograph!” I ended up signing more than 50 of them and took innumerable selfies with them. Similar incident happened while I was walking around at Khan market in Delhi. This woman, in her 60’s, walked up to me and introduced herself and invited me over for a cup of coffee. She told me about her homosexual son and how truly happy she is that someone is making love stories about homosexuals without stereotyping them or making a joke about them, the way Bollywood mostly does. After coffee, she invited me over for dinner the next day and later, made me Skype with her son and his husband who recently got married in New York.
All of this makes me realize the immense power of film-making, on how it touches lives of people you haven’t even met, and perhaps, will never meet but somewhere, in another dimension, you have met them and now, they shall be a part of you and you shall be a part of them, forever. This, I feel, is the biggest reason why I am a film-maker. After Sisak, I have realized that film-making is not just about touching lives but it is a massive responsibility, in every way and is life-altering / life-changing because ultimately we are all affecting the subconscious which has tremendous powers of transforming people and their lives and bringing in the much required. Like Billy Wilder said, ‘A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, sycophant and a bastard’ I’d like to add to that list - A mother, a revolutionary, Spiderman, Batman and a therapist. I think this list will keep growing as I make more films.”
HG: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced while making a silent film? Did the storyline involving a gay couple affect this in any way?
FAA: “Let’s just begin by saying that making a silent film is way more tedious and intricate than making a film with dialogues. No words to express what the characters are feeling, no small talks, no voice-over, no OS, no words at all. Purely the energies to work with. A lot of work happened in the writing - every move was written, every breath was worded, even the flutter of their clothes was written - I am very anal when it comes to writing. So every beat of each and every scene was written, rehearsed and thoroughly in place. However, on the day of shooting, I let my actors fly. After having workshopped with them for two weeks, I let them fly while we were shooting.
The first thing I told Jitin & Dhruv on the first day of shoot was ‘Fly. And don’t be afraid to fall down.’ They obviously gave me weird, confused looks but as a director, that’s how I am. I want my actors to take everything to another dimension and just immerse themselves so deeply in the scene that its almost like meditation. In fact, I even made my actors meditate pre-shoot. Sometimes, we took train rides in silence for hours before we began to shoot, just to get use to the silences, the spaces, the smells, the energies, etc. It was like allowing the bigger, outside world to open up in our little, created world. So yes, a lot of hard work in pre-production went in - super detailed shot breakdowns, story-boarding, workshops and what not! The biggest challenge sometimes is just opening up ourselves so that magic can happen - silent film or not. Thankfully, with a great cast & crew, we all worked together in a magical symphony, almost like Bach’s. Also, I never looked at these two as a ‘gay couple’ From the very first day my brief to them was very simple - Its about two people falling in love with each-other, without words, without a single touch. I mean, love is love is love is love, after all.”
HG: In your opinion, does Sisak being a silent film affect the audience’s perception of the film/storyline, or how they view it?
FAA: “I think, we all speak too much and most of the spoken words are just small talks. We never really talk about the most intimate feelings, we never give words to the most important things that need to be said. I think, those are the times we live in - everyone has an opinion on everything and nobody wants to listen. What can be more beautiful and more soothing than silence then? I feel with Sisak being a silent film, it allows people to immediately draw closer to the characters. They want to get into their minds to know what they are thinking, what is upsetting them, why are they crying, etc. And this is great because the audience gets more involved with the film and the characters and they feel everything more closely and perhaps, more deeply. I remember while watching Pulp Fiction, the one thing that has still stayed back with me was the mention of ‘comfortable silences’ - how beautiful is that! Sisak is the journey of uncomfortable silences that turn to comfortable silences - that is the true journey of love.”
HG: What would you like the audience to take away from the film?
FAA: “We live in such fragile times. What would be better than going back home with some love? Taking a moment and remembering that stranger across the road who you felt an instant connection with, or the person who sat next to you at the waiting lounge at the airport or someone you locked eyes with in the middle of a bustling road - all these unspoken, incomplete connections that live deep inside the recesses of our hearts, that we cherish from time to time - Sisak is about that cherishing, its about that strange, silent loving. Sisak is about remembrance of all those comfortable silences that will live with us until our last breath.”
Sisak crosses barriers of language, age, gender and sexuality as a story of unrequited love that we can all relate to on some level or the other. Ansari raised more than he aimed for through the Wishberry campaign as people came together in support from across the country. Crossing the required amount of money, the extra was used to pay the cast and crew, who in fact worked on the film for free, and used to take it for screenings at film festivals around the world.
The movie also received much deserved appreciation and accolades world over.