So, what is it about desire? About longing and instead, being found; about being all shades of grey and suddenly being bombarded by prismatic phantasmagoria; about chasing a dream only to realise that it was chasing you all along; about coming face-to-face with secrets divulged – secrets that were always known, perhaps only forgotten? So, what is it about desire if not about accepting and being accepted, burning the self bit by bit, melting all apprehension and drowning in ecstasy only to be illuminated from within?
There are only a few things in the world more powerful than desire. Yet, in the face of society’s double standards, desire is reduced to shame. While for the heteronormative, desire is always an expectation, the queer narrative of desire is persistently marred by dilemma.
Mumbai-based queer writer and filmmaker Varsha Panikar, in a bid to peel the various layers covering the simple, unembellished root of desire, came together with an equally talented crew to produce Bodies of Desire — a spoken word visual poetry film about intimacy, desire, and self-discovery. The film, which explores themes like identity, curiosity, passion, sensuality, and intimacy, is adapted from Panikar’s poetry series by the same name.
Says Panikar, “As filmmakers, we wanted to make a film that represented us, our authentic selves, in our moments of intimacy and longing, in an attempt to create a portrait of what queer urban India could look like, to an extent, since it is an ever-evolving and a broad spectrum.”
Bodies Of Desire, which follows Panikar’s journey of healing and self-acceptance as she rediscovers love, passion, and identity after encountering her lover, has been co-directed by her and Saad Nawab. Kaushal Shah is the cinematographer of the film.
Talking about the initial musings, Panikar says, “ It all began with me and Kausal sort of wanting to create a piece that was stylised and captured the essence of the series. The fluidity with which he moulded his gaze to look at them through a lens that is genderless, is something more people need to embrace and develop.”
Opening with a soft introduction to four individuals who are complete but not contented, the film moves on to capture the moment of being found by someone amid shadows. The poet’s muse enters her world as a sudden encounter. She finds her and fills her tiny chasms with light, colouring her bit by bit. Panikar and team, who long to “create a portrait of tender intimacy, of longing, of discovery, of desire, of embrace and care, of profound companionship” through her film, further spin the various threads of intimacy together. They narrate, “Immersed in the lover’s thought, the poet recalls moments spent in embrace, the touch, the smell, the little things that evoke feelings and emotions in her, that are complex, multidimensional and fluid, and inevitably puts her on a path of discovering her own power and uniqueness.”
Bodies of Desire is an attempt towards creating a ‘new normal’ by telling queer stories through diverse and real people. However, that’s only one of its specialities. For a film that is entirely based on capturing intimacy, it’s pertinent for the camera to work in tandem and not in opposition to the flow created by a scene. Director of Photography Kaushal Shah says that since Bodies of Desire is all about tenderness in gender fluidity and sensuality, it was important for the camera to share the space and become a part of its tender flow. In order to do this, once Intimacy Coach, Neha Vyas and the directors were able to pair the various participants with one another depending on their natural chemistry and comfort, Shah made sure they got familiar with him and his camera. He used a hand-held camera for the entire shoot and essentially followed around the participants, making the process of filming entirely organic. The tone, light and shadow captured by the camera was also the result of an entirely naturally-flowing method. Kaushal’s camera, he says, became the third eye. The camera, rather than observing or chancing upon a voyeuristic gaze, became a part of the participants as they took it through their responses to touch and intense emotion.
Miracle-creator Kaushal Shah further says, “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 the 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.”
Having been shortlisted in one of the world’s most prestigious, Berlin Commercial 2020’s Cultural Impact category, the film has officially been selected in eight festivals around the world. Bodies of Desire was released by Nowness Asia on 19 September.
Addressing the paucity of queer cinematic narratives in the country, Varsha Panikar says, “There is a need to create more queer work, where we can build a ‘new normal’ that includes a wide spectrum of identities and sexuality, in different colours and forms. While the visibility of diverse characters and people in the media is slowly emerging in India, only a limited range of stories are being told, and we know that it is not enough.”
What makes Bodies of Desire beautiful is the fact that it is intimate yet never intrusive. It flows subtly yet hits right in the deepest core of the heart. A solemn play of light, shadow, and all that’s there in between, this one-of-its-kind film reintroduces us to ourselves as we find ourselves enveloped in memories evoked by the slight touches, the nimble kisses, and the tight yet freeing embraces. It’s common knowledge that if one wants the world to read what they write, they need to ‘show’ it to them. Beyond merely showing it, Bodies of Desire, a queer visual-poetry narrative, makes the viewer feel every moment, every turn, and every rupture as it takes their hand, holds them close, commands their love and attention, and leaves them lingering for more.
Learn more about Bodies of Desire here.
Find it on Nowness Asia here.
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