Somak Biswas (University of Warwick)
Ka Bodyscapes was screened by the Queer History Reading Group at Warwick as part of the Queer Asia film festival 2018. Set in the city of Kozhikode, in the Indian state of Kerala, the film tells the story of three young characters and how they grapple with issues of (homo)sexual desire, conservatism and protest in the charged political landscape of contemporary India. The Director Jayan Cherian was in attendance and narrated the tortuous battles of censorship the film had to face in India, including threats to his own life. Ka went on to win several awards around the world but it is still struggling for certification and release in India.
Kerala has been under Left rule for several decades in post-colonial India and, despite its progressive discourse on a wide variety of issues such as education and labour, resistance to queer rights have been quite strong in the Left vanguard. Unlike some of their Latin American counterparts, queer and Left political discourse haven’t historically overlapped in India; rather, when in power, Left governments have generally tended to become liberal-nationalist in their impulses. At a time when the struggle for political power has been decisively shifting towards the Hindu right, minority discourses have suffered backlash and continual erasure from an authoritarian and centralised state regime, proliferating through various forms of cultural and moral policing. The film portrays the tense intersections of these contexts skilfully and with an austere minimalism that speaks less but says more. It does not pretend to offer hope in a never ending bleak world of despair and disappointments. Instead, it looks at the everyday spaces of struggle and dissent that these characters seek and embody through their art and politics. And often by simply existing – some silently, others eloquently – in the face of such brutal force, they show that the reach and power of no hegemony is absolute. The film draws to a close when the artist Haris disappears walking towards the sea, after his painting exhibition portraying male nudity and the Hindu deity Hanuman as a gay icon was vandalised by Hindu right wing goons. It is a fitting moment, the act of walking away is heart-breaking, and symbolic of the long wait that the gay community in India has been in. It is a history of many defeats, deferrals, and denials but also a struggle for what is not yet and what could be.
After the screening, the discussion veered on whether the film tended to romanticise an idea of pre-colonial India that celebrated sexual diversity compared to the increasingly stifling Victorian mores that accompanied British colonialism in India. Questions of censorship were connected to the steady growth of right wing control of creative content in the subcontinent. The attack on sexual minorities was interpreted as part of a larger onslaught on religious and social minorities and how critics of the Hindu right were continuously silenced through murder and charges of anti-national activities. Several members of the audience tried to relate queer politics and its difficult trajectories in non-western locations to the legacies of empire and the proliferation of right wing regimes. The mood remained grim during the discussion and after, though wine and food cheered us up to what was generally considered a brilliant film.