The trailer of Jayan K Cherian’s new film Ka Bodyscapes has the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in knots and crosses. It has objected to an artwork in the film, among other things, which it says shows the Hindu god Hanuman flying with a mountain of books including a copy of Section 377. A closer look would have revealed that the painting is not of Hanuman at all, but Vishnu, the lover of the gay artist Harris, and serves as a narrative device symbolic of their love and enduring resistance.
Ka Bodyscapes follows the artist Harris, a rural kabaddi player Vishnu, and their activist friend Sia. They refuse to conform to the norms of society but struggle to find acceptance in a world that has shrunk and leaves no room for them. Cherian, who identifies as queer, set out to make a film about the nuances of queer love, sexuality, body politics, gender identity, and feminism. “I am against all kinds of compartmentalisation and believe that sexuality should be enjoyed in its full spectrum,” says Cherian. And keeping with his outlook, the title of the film explores body as a vehicle of spirituality and pleasure. “‘Ka’ means vital spark of the body in Egyptian spirituality, an aspect of the individual believed to live within the body during life, and to survive it after death. In the film, “Ka Bodyscapes” is also the title of Harris’ solo exhibition, where his paintings are destroyed by moral vigilantes who were offended by the themes of his work,” Cherian explains.
Like him, Cherian’s films are unapologetic. He makes no effort to sugarcoat his themes, which mostly include gender, oppression, identity, or caste. “Caste is the most poisonous form of oppression, a scar on the face of humanity. And people think casteism is exclusive to Hinduism. In Kerala, Christians are fiercely casteist,” says the New York-based director.
This is not the first time that his work has made the film certification board and moral vigilantes uncomfortable. For his first feature, Papilio Buddha (2012), Cherian spent time with Dalits, worked closely with leaders of the Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM) and portrayed caste and identity politics. “They wanted me to mute a quote by Dr Ambedkar, and had silly issues with a line about a circumcised penis. It was hilarious. We need to rethink the way we censor. The government has to recognise a film as a piece of fine art. There is no room for editorial intervention in a democracy,” he says.
Cherian was a poet before he turned filmmaker. “I write, think and dream in Malayalam and convey my aesthetic most effectively in my language, and that became a barrier when I came to New York in the ’90s to study. So I started to visualise my writing as films,” he says.
For Ka Bodyscapes, Cherian worked with Deepa Vasudevan, founder of the LGBT movement in Kerala; Jijo Kuriakose, founder of Queerala; scriptwriter Deedi Damodaran; journalists Naseera and Shahina; activists Arundhathi and Nalini Jameela, and many others who came together as an integral part of the cast and crew. “The story has its own logic, but follows an existing historical and socio-political background, and the characters although fictitious are amalgamations of real people,” he says. It has been inspired by real incidents such as “Kiss of Love” protests against moral policing, and the napkin protest against the strip search of women in a factory in Kerala, after a bloody sanitary napkin was found in the toilets. “All we wanted to do was tell our story, straight and simple,” says Cherian.
Ka Bodyscapes has made a mark at film festivals abroad, including BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, Torino Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, Italy, and New York Indian Film Festival 2016.