Yeh sab kuch qudrat ke khilaf hai…! (Being queer is unnatural) – It’s a phrase that caught my attention while watching the Sheer Qorma trailer, a seemingly interesting and bold film on two Muslim lesbians – Saira and Sitara – in love and their fight with conservative society to get accepted by them.
For the past decade, the Indian film industry has shown that it can forego cliches and prejudices held against the queer community. Be it the recent movie Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan which eradicates homophobia and validates same-sex relationship, or Ek, Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga that embraced the concept of sex-sex marriage.
Gaylaxy recently interacted with Faraz Arif Ansari, one of India’s few queer filmmakers in the industry, whose short film Sisak – India’s first queer silent film – bagged 59 international awards. Faraz, who is adamant about eradicating homophobia and disseminating the message of diversity and acceptance to the Indian audience, is now back with Sheer Qorma.
Here are a few excerpts:
Gaylaxy Magazine (GM): Why the name Sheer Qorma?
Faraz Arif Ansari (FAA): Food, for me, is an emotion. It speaks a language more powerful than words. When I came out to my mother in 2009, she didn’t speak to me for six months. When she did decide to find a way back to me, she made a pot full of biryani and nihari.
Art imitates life and vice versa, and so food as a metaphor is a very strong, cinematic motif, for it speaks a universal language without any words. When I started writing the screenplay of Sheer Qorma, I knew that food would be an integral character in the journey.
I have used food as a recurring theme throughout the film from the first frame to the end of the film. There is a certain perception that Sheer Qorma is a “Muslim” dessert. Well, food, like languages, has no religion. The film is called Sheer Qorma because… well, you’ll have to watch the film for that!
GM: Islam and homosexuality are aeons apart. What inspired you to make such a bold film?
FAA: Not just Islam, most religions condemn same-sex relationships. I chose to have a Muslim family in my film not only because I come from a Muslim family but also because along with the many other pivotal narratives that Sheer Qorma brings forward, one of them is islamophobia.
Being a minority, given my faith, my gender and my sexuality (my friends call me minority cube — Muslim, gay & non-binary) I have always been subjected to immense islamophobia, especially in the Indian queer community. So while Sheer Qorma addresses themes of womanhood, nationality, sexual and gender identity, it also showcases a Muslim family just like most middle-class Muslim families — unlike the stereotype that has been created in representing Muslims in global media and Indian cinema — we don’t live in homes with green coloured walls, we don’t just eat biryani, we wear sarees and some of us identify as queer.
Sheer Qorma isn’t bold because it brings religion and sexuality in the same sentence. The movie is bold because it is a true representation of a world that has never been seen because it does not cater to a false, regressive stereotype that has been instilled in public memory for decades.
The movie is revolutionary, in that sense, because it takes many of these “mainstream” stereotypes and throws them out; it makes one question their preconceived prejudices and dogmas that haven’t allowed them to look at what is real.
GM: What are the challenges you faced while making the film?
FAA: I think the biggest challenge for an independent filmmaker trying to make a film, be it queer or otherwise, is to find producers. After Sisak’s success and India post 377, many producers had reached out to me because they were keen to invest in my next film. When I reached out to them with Sheer Qorma, they asked me to change the woman protagonists into male protagonists.
I was told that people want to watch “young, good-looking men romancing men”. Cis-gay men are the new black in Indian cinema. Thankfully, I dared to turn down their generous advice and wait to find the right energies to make Sheer Qorma.
When I met Marijke deSouza, the producer of Sheer Qorma, she turned out to be the biggest support for us in this journey. There were no changes or questions asked — she realised how important it is to tell this story and she made sure that as a director, I got everything that I wanted to bring this film to life in the best possible way.
GM: How has the audience reacted to the Sheer Qorma trailer? Did you receive any threats or hate messages?
FAA: There has been so much love pouring in from all corners of the world, especially from the South-Asian communities that live overseas. Many have reached out to me and my team, expressing how grateful they feel to see their lives and their experiences being represented so sensitively and with so much love.
Many folks who identify as non-binary have been elated to see a non-binary protagonist in an Indian film. Of course, there is always hate that accompanies love. Many people ran a #BoycottSheerQorma trend on Twitter and even tagged Islamic clergies to take strict action against us and ban the film.
What was ironic about all of this was that most of these accounts that were asking for a boycott and ban on Sheer Qorma were not owned by Muslims. They called the film “anti-national” because it stars Shabana Azmi & Swara Bhasker – two individuals who are not just phenomenal actors but also always stand up for the truth. There were personal threats too – to me and my family.
GM: Shabana Azmi is a staunch supporter of the LGBTQ community and films. How has she supported you throughout the film?
FAA: Shabana Azmi ji, Divya Dutta & Swara Bhasker are all allies of the LGBTQIA+ community. I feel, woman actors are more forthcoming when it comes to being a part of queer narratives, in comparison to Indian male actors.
When I told my mother that Shabana Azmi has agreed to be a part of my film, she didn’t believe me. When I showed her a picture of me with Shabana ji from our workshop, she said it is photoshopped! Shabana ji is such an icon for all of us that she only believed me when she saw the trailer of Sheer Qorma. Working with Shabana ji has been life-changing, in many ways.
I feel honoured to have worked with her so early in my career. Shabana ji is not just an actor on set – she is a partner in the film-making process. Right from our workshops, Shabana ji’s involvement has been so monumental in all departments.
From Divya Dutta’s costumes to the presentation of the Eid feast, from the dialogues to the shot-taking, Shabana ji continued to be the wind beneath my wings.
Also, I don’t know if a lot of people know this but Shabana ji’s sense of humour is legendary! Between shots, she had the entire set in splits with her jokes. She even made the entire crew weep while we filmed the climax of the film. I have never seen anything of that magnitude.
Truly, it is the brilliance of who Shabana ji is and I am fortunate to have experienced it so up, close and personal.
Films like Sheer Qorma and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan reveal how the world around us is revolutionizing and for the better as society moves away from mindsets of discrimination, be it language, race, colour or gender. It thrives on love, respect and understanding.