Daaravtha, whose title translates to "Threshold", is a moving portrait of a young boy discovering his sexual identity. We caught up with Nishant Roy Bombarde, the director of the film, about his nomination for the 2016 Iris Prize.
What is the story behind Daaravtha, and what inspired you to make the film?
All the events that you see in the film have been taken from different people's lives, although the film isn't biographical. An acquaintance of mine, a guy, had long hair and used to perform in plays, sometimes playing a female part. His father had a big problem with it. Once, during a big fight, he told his father that this is what he is like and that he needs to deal with it. That was the germ, to challenge the pre-conceived notions about masculine or feminine traits.
It took three years to make the film. What challenges did you face as a first time director? Did you experience any challenges specific to making a film about LGBT issues?
I wrote the film in December 2013. It took a while for me to develop it into a final draft. The pre-production took a little longer than it should have; we were shooting a long way from Mumbai (in Gondia), so we had to be sure about everything before we started the shoot; we also had a small budget, so all we had to offer people was the promise of a passionate team to work alongside.
We faced lots of challenges - people backed out. A camera and generator broke down. The budget shot up. We were shooting in a remote location, so every technical failure cost us at least half-a-day, but we managed. Dealing with people is the most difficult job during a film shoot, and as the producer, I had to manage the whims and fancies of the whole cast and crew.
We didn't really experience any challenges specific to making a film about LGBT issues – at least, not in Bombay. But I wanted to shoot the school scenes in my own school, which is a convent, so there were some hurdles because they wanted to see the entire script. There is nothing controversial in the film as such, but we wanted to avoid hassle. So I changed the school to a regular school, and we shot the school scenes in Aamgaon instead.
You wrote the script for this film and directed it too. Why did you want to tackle this particular issue when you started writing the film?
I feel that discrimination is ingrained in human nature as much as compassion. These two opposite forces have pulled against each other throughout our history. India as a society, with its caste system, is based on discriminatory ideas; the idea that one person could be inferior to another because of the work he does. In Daaravtha, caste plays an important part in the plot. The mother character makes an indirect reference to a life 'that could have been' only if it weren't for caste. Panku, the boy in the film, has to break the barriers of sexuality and gender created by society, and his struggle is strongly juxtaposed with his mother's struggle with caste. Coming from a Dalit background, I don't have to think of tackling discrimination in my writing; it automatically flows the moment I touch pen to paper. It is my reality. So in Daaravtha both the stories of mother and son are always told in first person and there is no "other's" lens through which I am seeing them.
You have explored the themes of childhood innocence and personal expression previously in your work. What draws you to these themes, and what are the other aspects of your work?
I was a rebellious child – I still am in a lot of ways. I was brought up a Buddhist, and I remember from a young age questioning Buddhist religious practices. I had huge arguments about gender roles and patriarchy with my father. Later, I carried the same angst when I went to college and work, and lost many friends in the process. I don't think I cared much as long as I knew I was saying what needed to be said. So freedom of expression has always been extremely important for me. I find it funny that it has been one of the most important Fundamental Rights secured to us by the constitution makers, but there is no cognisance of it in today's society. Daaravtha was born out of this quest for freedom of expression and artistic freedom as a product of it.
Iranian Cinema – particularly the work of Kiarostami, Majidi and Panahi – has had a huge impression on me, though I've never tried to directly emulate their styles. I'm interested in their explorations of the lives of children. I like how kids can sometimes present very simple solutions to problems that we have unnecessarily complicated. Very few Indian films have explored sexuality with kids, although science tells us that the signs of sexuality are seen pretty early, so I was interested in exploring this idea in my film.
Regional cinema in India has for long been exploring themes that are considered taboo or issues that are not addressed in mainstream Indian cinema. Do you think there is has been a move among distributors towards screening more challenging films to a wider audience?
Back in the 1980s, someone came up with the term "Parallel Cinema". It is such a funny term. What is it parallel to? The bubble that popular Hindi films have created, which is devoid of the reality of space and time? I feel that the labelling of cinema which talks about real people and real issues as "art house" is a deliberate attempt to strip it off of its commercial value.
Then there's the term "Regional Cinema". Whoever came up with that term has in my opinion caused huge damage to some of the best cinema ever made in India. The idea that there is a "national language" or "national cinema" is so derogatory in a nation of multilingual people. Non-Hindi language cinema in general, and Marathi, Bengali and Malayalam cinema in particular, have contributed a valuable aesthetic and voice to art. Look at the resurgence in Marathi Cinema today, and what films like Killa and Fandry are doing in cinema as well social debate. Both films were commercially successful, but would we call them Parallel Cinema? Would we call Sairat, a film whose box office takings reached Rs 92 crore, as Regional Cinema? Let us do away with these labels, as we are struggling to do away with the labels of gender and sexuality.
What was it like to receive the National Film Award in the Non-feature category this year for Daaravtha?
Let's be honest, we all like awards. We can pretend to be aloof about them, but somewhere inside there's a child who always wants to be appreciated. But getting one is surreal. When I got the call, I jumped around like a child. Winning it definitely turns heads and makes people take you seriously. For a beginner, it matters a lot.
What is the importance of film festivals, and particularly LGBT festivals like the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival and Iris Prize Festival?
I love film festivals. They are the reason I became a filmmaker. At festivals, you see students, filmmakers, critics and the general public sit in the aisles and on the stairs to catch the film of their favourite filmmaker, and that gives me goosebumps. Festivals provide a place where art is respected for what it is – a tool for social change, or simply a reflection of what we are. They help new filmmakers reach the right audiences. They are also great places to build the right contacts if you are serious about serious filmmaking.
For a long time I had mixed feelings about film festivals with themes specific to one community. But my opinion has changed over time. Festivals for people of colour for example have helped to preserve a common heritage and build bonds across continents to fight discrimination. But my turning point was the screening of Daaravtha at Kashish and the award ceremony that followed. I remember the feeling that everyone in the room was rooting for us. The film resonated with their own struggles, and that's why it was so popular at Kashish. Festivals like Kashish and Iris Prize are doing a great service to the LGBT community as well as filmmakers whose films might not make it into larger festivals.
What are you most looking forward to about your visit to Cardiff for the Iris Prize in October?
My editor and friend Anadi Athaley and I are very excited to be at the Iris PrizeFestival as we feel Daaravtha will strongly resonate with the audience there. We are also curious to see how a voice from India is viewed in a country that has had such strong connection with India in the past. It's also exciting to be part of an international programme of work by filmmakers coming from all over the world. Daaravtha is the only Indian film showing at the festival, and we are extremely proud to represent India in Cardiff.
Gender discrimination is a hot topic in India, particularly following the government’s decision to abstain in a recent vote to appoint a UN expert on gender orientation and identity. What is your view on equality rights and discrimination in India?
Discrimination is ingrained in Indian society, and unfortunately in the LGBT struggle, elitism is also a factor. The people at the helm of the activist movement are generally urban, upper class, upper caste males. If marginalised voices within the LGBT community could be brought to the fore, I think the movement could be more inclusive. It is society that has to change first, and then the laws will follow, but right now the whole approach is exactly the opposite. There seems to be a feeling that if certain laws are changed everything will be okay. UN votes should matter the least – governments come and go, but what remains is the power of ideas. Let us not forget, that the first brick at the Stonewall was thrown by a Black Latina woman.