Included in the 43-strong Official Selection at Exit 6 this year was India's first silent LGBT film, SISAK, from director Faraz Ansari. The film has been deservedly hoovering up awards and accolades at festivals around the world, and we talk to Faraz about the making of his wordless wonder.
Hello Faraz. Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your incredible film SISAK - which moved some audience members to tears at Exit 6 this year. Where did this beautiful story come from?
It was a cold winter's day. I was sitting in a cafe in Nainital, writing the screenplay of what was to be my debut feature film - a mainstream love story of a boy and a girl. And then, something on screen of the television, caught my attention. The news was on. The Supreme Court of India had stepped back from the judgement on Section 377 and as I sat helpless in the corner of the cafe, watching the news, I went numb. I was scared... for myself, my friends who had courageously come out of the closet, some of them had even gone public with their relationships, etc. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream, I wanted to hide, I wanted to run. But I was unable to do anything. I felt helpless. And in that state of helplessness, I opened up a draft on my laptop and started to write a story. A story that would end up being India's First Silent LGBTQ Love Story.
How did you go about putting the film together, i.e. funding, crew? And what was your toughest challenge during production?
Let's be honest, in many countries, including India, no one wants to produce an LGBT film. All the more if it is a silent film. They want homosexual people to be caricatures, to give comic relief, to be clowns, or some such degrading stereotypical portrayal. If you are not giving them all this, they don't want to be associated with your film. Same goes for actors. They think they'd lose their so called "fans" if they played homosexuals on screen which I think is so narrow-minded of them and only shows their own homophobia and fear. Yes, actors backed out, I had to sell my car, I had to put my house on rent and move back with my parents and literally sell many of my belongings to make Sisak but then, if you truly believe in something with all your heart and soul, you have to take a risk and follow your calling. I am just glad that I went ahead and made Sisak.
Not finding a producer can be a pretty traumatic experience. One starts to question themselves about their talent and ability. Also, having actors back out just five days before shooting can be absolutely heartbreaking. All of this breaks one down, little by little. But then, I had to remind myself, again and again, every morning and every night that Sisak has to be made, no matter what. Thankfully, I have a wonderful family and amazing friends who decided to come on board and help me put my words into motion and translate them onto the big screen. From Saurabh Goswami, my DOP, who has shot some of the biggest Bollywood films to Pritam Das, my award winning Sound Designer, to Aparna Sud, my co-producer (also, an award winning Prodcution Designer) to my Editor, Akshara Prabhakar to my best friends, Richa Desai & Farah Khan who gladly came on board as Associate Director & Executive Producer, respectively. Once I had them, there was no stopping me.
It took us 6 months of preparation before we decided to go on floor. We had planned to shoot Sisak over three nights, 5-6 hours each night. However, to all our surprise, the entire shoot of Sisak was done in 6 hours flat, over the period of two nights. Most of the final edit of Sisak is made out of our first takes that we got.
That's fast work! We understand you also had another reason to work quickly - a police chase during filming?
On the last day of shooting, we were on the platform at Churchgate Station, shooting the climax of Sisak and this day also happened to be the day of the IPL Match that was happening at Wankhede Stadium, a stone's throw away from Churchgate. The station was crowded with people and the security was high. Saurabh Goswami, my DOP, was worried that this would be the night when we would get caught but I coaxed him to take a chance. I remember we were shooting the final shot of the film, my actors were on two different platforms and there was a rushing train between them. My crew was smartly hiding us from the cops, making a group around us, to block us from their view. However, a cop ended up seeing us with a camera. He yelled at us and started to run in our direction. Saurabh turned and looked at me. I just put a hand on his shoulder and asked him to continue taking the shot. And right then, when the cop was 100 meters away from us, I called out, "Cut it... AND RUN!" And my entire cast & crew disappeared in a minute. It was madness!
We're glad you escaped to finish the film! What’s the reception to Sisak been like in your home country?
Sisak has won 16 International Awards since our World Premiere in April 2017. I believe this makes Sisak, India's first short film, LGBT or otherwise to have bagged so many awards. However, back home, things haven't been very supportive. From being snubbed at Indian film festivals, including the LGBT ones, to having barely any support from the Indian film industry or the LGBT Community back home because of various unknown reasons. Mostly when an Indian film wins a lot of accolades internationally, sometimes, it works against acceptance back home and perhaps, Sisak has been suffering from that. It's a crab race and to see someone succeed is, at times, extremely difficult for people to see.
It's wonderful to see the reaction to the film from an international viewpoint. What’s it been like to get that kind of response, especially at the festivals you’ve been able to attend?
It is very overwhelming, to say the least. Every time, the film is about to play at a festival and I am in the audience, my nerves get the best of me. It's like watching your child walk on stage for the very first time, in an auditorium full of strangers. The audiences have been extremely generous with their appreciation and love to Sisak. The accolades and awards only make it all the more special. On an average, every day, I get about 10 messages across my social media profiles from all corners of the world, where people are thanking me for having the courage to make Sisak. It gives them immense hope, they say. There have been many stories of people coming out to their families after watching the film. Just last week, a teenage girl messaged me on Instagram telling me the story of her brother coming out of their parents after repeatedly watching the trailer for 3 months. She told me, "My brother is sleeping at peace after years and you are responsible for that." It makes one humble and realise the power that cinema has.
It must be so rewarding to see the positive impact Sisak is having on audiences. What was your best experience during the making of the film?
I remember on the first night, we had to finish shooting three major scenes and everyone was working very hard. There was a woman sitting inside the same compartment of the train where we were shooting. Before leaving, she walked up to me and offered me an apple. She told me, "I have been watching you work so hard and I wish I could help you. But here, I have some apples that I just purchased from the grocery store. Please share it with everyone." I was moved to tears.
What advice would you go back and give yourself at the start now the film is finished?
I keep giving myself the same advice even now, and I have been giving myself for the last 7 years, "If you believe in something with all your heart and soul, you'll make it happen eventually, if you have the courage to stick around until it happens".
What advice would you give to other filmmakers looking to make their first short?
Always remember that film-making is a privilege. With that, comes immense responsibility. Art has to be political. If you get an opportunity to make a film, always remind yourself to walk on that thin line of entertainment and pushing people towards a larger understanding. The world needs more of that.
What’s the next project for you?
I am working on my first feature film. Its called Lottery. Its a coming-of-age tale of a woman, stuck in a broken marriage for the last 45 years, as she longs for freedom to come. Other than that, I am in the process of writing another feature film called 'Surkh' (Crimson) - A love story between an Indian man and a Pakistani man. I am also working on starting a short film called 'Gaajar Ka Halwaa' (Carrot Pudding) which is about the relationship of a mother and her gay son.
You can follow Faraz on Twitter: @futterwackening
You can also follow the progress of the film on Facebook.