Once upon a time, British scholars and travellers considered India a country where erotic fantasies could be fulfilled with impunity. Back in Victorian Britain, rich men spent large sums searching for pubescent virgins. Homosexuals were also free to satisfy their fancies in India, whereas in Britain they were widely despised and buggery was a capital crime until 1861. India offered abundant sexual experiences for the libertines, a fact largely explored in literature.
Sociology, anthropology and history explain that societies evolve from irrational to rational, and from superstition to enlightenment. Well, it is not that simple. History moves as a pendulum and some societies, instead of moving forward, swing backwards. This is what Ka Bodyscapes reveals about current India: misogyny and homophobia have reach a new high.
The film opens with a photographer registering a sports dispute among men, where close-ups of male bodies lead to erotic and lascivious thoughts. Haris is a young bohemian painter and photographer, whose model is his lover Vishnu, who has moved from the countryside to Kerala. Vishnu starts working for his uncle as a graphic designer in a company that does not value artistic freedom and creativity. The uncle then finds out his lustful behaviour and begins to persecute his nephew and lover.
In Indian society, kissing in public is a taboo, and public display of affection is deemed unacceptable (even for heterosexuals). Sexual activity between two males is illegal and is punishable by incarceration, while female same-sex activity is not criminalised. Yet, women face all sorts of prejudices. For example, women having their period are considered impure. They are not allowed into the kitchen, they cannot enter the temples and they cannot sit with others. Jayan Cherian exposes an India that is neither harmonious nor kind to its people, where prejudice is endemic and systematical.
Sometimes the camerawork and acting in the movie is a little rough, but these minor faults do not compromise the urgency, the beauty and the integrity of the social message in the film. Haris’ friend Sia is a defiant young woman and activist who is trying to survive in a misogynistic workplace and restrictive home life. She takes solace in masturbation. At one point, she takes a picture of her bloodied sanitary pad and posts it as her avatar on Facebook, as a statement against discrimination of women. This is possibly one of the most subversive sequences in the history of Indian cinema.
Cherian explained to DMovies that “homophobia and aggression towards women are happening now in Kerala. Eighteen months ago, 30 women were searched in their work, in order to check if they were menstruating. Women sued the company, but those girls are lost. There is a moral vigilante police in the streets looking for girls and boys who ‘cannot conform to social roles’.”
Haris, Vishnu and Sia are pushed to the margins of the intrusive society because they are not ashamed of their bodies and desires. They fight for civil liberties and labour rights by turning their bodies into art, both through social media and paintings.
Jayan Cherian hasn’t showed yet the film to his crew and doesn’t know if his feature will be distributed in his country. The “Ka” word in the title refers to Ancient Egyptian mythology. Ka was the part of the soul believed to be a life-force of a person that survived after death. Ka is a ghostly duplicate of the body. Surely the feature is a beautiful attempt to achieve body and soul harmony. Will India allow it to come to fruition?
Ka Bodyscapes is part of the 30th BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival, which is taking place right now. Click here for more information, and watch the film trailer below: