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Mumbai Artist Varsha Panikar Talks About Her New Film ‘Bodies of Desire’

The picture is an attempt to create a portrait of the ever evolving and broad spectrum of what queer urban India could look like

David Britto Oct 01, 2020

A still from 'Bodies Of Desire.' Photo: Courtesy of the film

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When Mumbai-based queer filmmaker Varsha Panikar began working on visual poetry and a sketch series called Bodies of Desire on her Instagram handle, it transformed into something much deeper. Panikar realized that it evolved into a place for her to tell stories of endearment and passion. She says, “The kind that delve into themes of identity, desire, curiosity, discovery, sensuality and intimacy; and looking at it outside the context of sex and letting it become an expression and exploration of rediscovering yourself, through your desires, and through intimacy.”

Being the artist she is, Panikar decided to direct a short film with the same concept and roped in co-director Saad Nawab, producer Asawari Jagushte, Romania-based editor Cornelia Nicolăeasa, Greek composer Mark Spanoudakis as well as cinematographer Kaushal Shah to create a sweltering and encapsulating display of tenderness, with a cast and crew consisting of people within the LGBTQIA+ community in India.

In this interview, the Bodies of Desire crew talk about how the film came together, the narrative, the background score which sits well with the visuals and more.

Tell me about how you came up with the concept and ideation for Bodies of Desire.

Panikar: The first step was the text, which was created by stitching together different stanzas from the [Instagram] series to give it a seamless narrative structure.

I wanted to create a portrait of intimacy, of longing, of desire, of embrace, and capture moments amongst lovers where only they exist, and the rest of the world becomes background noise. As a queer artist, I believe there is an almost tangible validation in seeing people who love like you do on screen, and I really wanted to portray the kind of love that I could relate to, the kind of couples I knew and was craving to see in films for a long time. So when Kaushal [Shah] (cinematographer and colorist) and I decided to adapt Bodies of Desire into a film, we wanted to capture that very essence through a lens that was free of bias and prejudice, and yet create an emotive work that would combine a variety of disciplines from visual poetry, spoken word, movement to fashion film. I wanted it to have a spontaneous and romantic quality, like scattered pages of a diary, where the characters felt natural and uninhibited through the lens and Kaushal’s cinematic approach was to capture that very essence, or as he puts it, ‘a togetherness in form and ethos.’

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What was the process of making the film and how was that experience?

Panikar: Not all intimacy is erotic or romantic. There is also intimacy in thinking together, and creating together, which emerges from the same source as love and desire. The approach to the film was just that – intimate and collaborative.

Nawab: Soon after we finalized the cast, the pairing, we discovered each couple’s physical language of intimacy, and were ready to go on floor. We had exactly 10 hours to shoot and a very limited budget so it was imperative that we knew what we were going to shoot and how we were going to achieve it. We wanted the cast to also know exactly what we would be doing because once you are on set, everything gets very technical, and we didn’t want the cast to feel overwhelmed by it all on the day of the shoot, and so, right before filming we did the final choreography workshop on location, which gave the cast enough time to familiarize themselves with space, and feel comfortable in the presence of the camera and the rest of the crew.

From a narrative point of view, what do you hope viewers take away from it?

Panikar: Bodies of Desire is our imagination of what queer urban India could look like. Of course, only to an extent, because it is really broad and ever-evolving. But hopefully, this will compel others to take back the narrative and make and produce more queer content, which is told from their own perspective, and not how it appears to an outsider. And maybe, one day, we can look at works like these as not just queer or of the marginalized, but simply human, because that’s what they are.

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What were your unique approaches to the film and setting the mood and direction of it?

Spanoudakis: As soon as we agreed with the directors about the sonic imprint, my goal was to be able to create an ever-changing rhythm that would complement the film’s fast editing pace, and together with the rest of the musical elements could offer a sense of synchronized breathing between the visual and audio narrative. It is always challenging not to overstep the image’s momental statement and rather try to charge it emotionally when needed, with subtle changes over time.

Shah: Bodies of Desire to me was all about tenderness and sensuality. Hence, the camera was in their space and was a part of them. In terms of tone and texture, it had to feel like we were in their environment, one where they could express and feel free. Hence, the handheld, and the sort of moody-lit environment where our attention is calculated and put to detail, and hence the extreme -wide use of lensing which is still very close to them.

Nicolăeasa: The moment I saw the raw footage I knew this was going to be a good film. The footage I got spoke for itself. The text was powerful and evocative, so while editing, all I did was amplify those emotions – of desire, of love, of togetherness – that were already there.  It was an absolute thrill working on this project and I hope the audience is driven by those feelings from the start to the end.”

What’s next for you going forward?

Panikar: We’ve had the privilege of finding our voices, even if it took time, and we plan to use it, to continue telling stories that are personal, yet universal. Stories that matter to us, stories that build hope, and yet stir and provoke.

Watch ‘Bodies of Desire’ on Nowness Asia.

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