Duelling with love

By Young Film Critic Taylor Hess

After winning the Tiger Award in 2011 for Jan Villa, a short film that has screened at more than 20 film festivals worldwide, Bombay-based fi lmmaker Natasha Mendonca debuts her Hubert Bals Fund-backed first feature at IFFR. Strange Love (Ajeeb Aashiq) is a hybrid fi ction-doc fi lm about the intersecting lives of working class transgender rickshaw driver Khush and impassioned award-winning Indian singer, songwriter and performance artist, Suman Sridhar.

Originally intended as her thesis film at CalArts, where she completed a Master’s in Film and Video, Strange Love took Mendonca three years to complete as she wove together the story of Suman and Khush, tailoring the script to reflect the vicissitudes of real life events. One such event was the major government decision in 2009, under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, to decriminalize same-sex relations in India. But in 2013, the ruling was overturned and gay sex was once again outlawed in India – an event that happened to coincide with the middle of Mendonca's shoot.

To me, resistance is not as exciting as much as slow


"For me," says Mendonca, "the film is divided in two halves – the first is about the characters and their lives, and the second is more abstract, about the social and political environment in India." The first half of the film, dealing with the characters' lives, was "a very intense collaboration," says Mendonca. Khush, for example, was imprisoned during the shoot, "so there was often the question of where to draw the line between real life and performance." The second part of the film, the social and political half, isn't just about retaliation against the conservatism of India's government. "To me, resistance is not as exciting as much as slow," says Mendonca. "The current political climate for LGBT rights hits home to everybody," she says, "not just LGBT people or people with disabilities; but also to more middle-class people who feel misidentified and who’re feeling the pinch."

In terms of the progression of LGBT rights in her native country, Mendonca resists the label "activist," and rejects the concept behind the term in general. Thirteen years ago, Mendonca co-founded India’s first international film and video film festival on sexuality and gender, called Larzish. What’s noteworthy, however, is that the festival didn't begin as a queer festival. "Many people thought of it as a queer festival because we had a lot of queer works in the festival initially," says Mendonca. "But when I started working on the festival, I was more interested in a statement of rights and in the idea of censorship." This method of resistance against censorship was not Mendonca’s only interest in setting up the Larzish Film Festival, but it is the essential driving force behind Strange Love today. "This film is my playful gesture towards a musical protest," Mendonca says.

Artists will always push back and find ways to comment

Peaceful and artistic protest is also an active form of resistance, Mendonca argues. "People who show films with varying degrees of sexuality or nudity can get into trouble with the state," says Mendonca, referring to the films that were publically shown as acts of resistance when Larzish Film Festival first began, and are still shown as acts of resistance today. Artists push very hard against a government that refuses to legalize same sex relations but in many ways, Mendoza maintains, "art is really thriving. Artists will always push back and find ways to comment," she explains. Mendonca is one of many artists pushing back through peaceful protest. "I made the film out of strange love," she says. Ajeeb is the Hindi word that translates to mean 'strange' or 'queer' or 'different.' Aashiq is Hindi for 'love', which comes from a Turkish tradition on the art of duelling with words or with poetry. "If they attack me," says Mendonca, "I will have long sentences of poetry to use against them." She continues: "And if nothing else, then some amount of idealism and words from a stormy heart." Aashiq, she maintains, is a very potent strategy through which to fi ght. As a fi rst feature, Strange Love is maybe just one contribution to the fi ght, but in terms of it's signifi cance, it's a powerful one.