Dan Ewers (University of Warwick)
Ka Bodyscapes (2016), directed by Jayan Cherian, follows a group of friends as they navigate and explore their identities within the conservative city of Calicut (or Kozhikode) in Kerala, a region of India. It focuses on three central figures, that of Haris, a painter whose solo exhibition, ‘Ka Bodyscapes’, has just been announced at a local gallery; that of Vishnu, a kabaddi player, Haris’ lover, and the model for many of Haris’ evocative paintings; and Sia, an activist who protests against emerging right wing social attitudes towards sex and the female body. Alongside their wider group of friends, the three central characters attempt to defy the normative roles assigned to them, either by their family, their workplace, or within wider social beliefs surrounding sexual behaviour and sexual orientation, often with dramatic results. Space appears central to the ways in which these characters navigate their day-to-day lives, whether within Haris and Vishnu’s apartment, decorated on several walls with Haris’ paintings of Vishnu, or Sia’s workplace wherein a female worker is violently reprimanded for having been on her period at work, or in the streets of Kerala where a protest against the repressive policing of personal sexuality is occurring on the roadside. Similarly, the film makes extensive use of its setting to great effect, with a cinematography that not only showcases the lush greenery of rural India but also the utilises shots of the cityscape, the ocean, and the factory to highlight the diverse spaces in which this story is played out.
For me, perhaps the most challenging and thought-provoking scenes were those in which very little dialogue went back and forth between the characters, leading the viewer to focus upon the minute expressions of the characters, the intricate details of the rooms, and the ambient sounds of the scene, creating a closeness and a sense of claustrophobia that unnerves the viewer. The film does a brilliant job of balancing dialogue between characters and moments of silence, allowing for moments of quiet contemplation and affection between the characters, as it does within Haris and Vishnu’s relationship, which also serves the dual purpose of giving the more explosive scenes of the film more impact. The argument between Sia and her family, the expulsion of Haris and Vishnu from their apartment, and the burning of Haris’ exhibition all challenge the viewer to consider the traumatic emotional undercurrents of the film and its implications for the characters within it. Relationships, identities, and affections are altered by mechanisms of public normative policing, leaving a distinct note of desperation and defiance that forms a strong undercurrent beneath the surface of the film. Upon discovery of the relationship between Haris and Vishnu, their privacy is disrupted, and they are expelled from their home. Similarly, the final lingering shot of the sea as Haris strides towards it in rejection of the threatening actions of the crowd has little music, leaving a long, pondering shot before the final credits roll. Haris has made his final attempt at public exhibition, tying a painting to a pole at the beach, and following disapproval from the crowd, has walked into the distance as the camera lingers.
The film deals with several very large themes very effectively, providing criticism of negative attitudes towards non-heterosexual relationships, the sense of belonging within one’s community, the impact of the censorship of artistic expression, the clash of left and right wing political philosophies, the potency of religious teaching in national and local culture, the impact of policing on public (and private) sexuality, the spaces between generations, and the relationships between family members. All are examined through the lens of the central characters within the film and the situations in which they find themselves. Given the often-tumultuous history of the censorship of the film in India, prompting a string of legal cases after the film’s banning by censorship boards, the final heart-breaking burning of Haris’ Ka Bodyscapes exhibition as a crowd of men watch on and Haris’ eventual walking out into the sea prompts a sense of desperation and a strong criticism against the censorship of artistic expression. Ka Bodyscapes speaks volumes to the contemporary activist present in Kerala, a region which sees a growing network of LGBT+ people challenging established norms surrounding sexual behaviour, tradition, and what it means to be part of a community. Ka Bodyscapes makes a number of powerful statements about the role of queer cinema in challenging normative cultures that cannot be simply dismissed.