From the Editor - Radhika Chandiramani

Welcome to this issue of In Plainspeak that brings you special articles from Films of Desire: Sexuality and the Cinematic Imagination, a four day event that was organised by CREA and the Resource Centre in March 2007 around sexuality and films. CREA is an NGO, based in New Delhi, India, that empowers women to articulate, demand and access their human rights by enhancing women’s leadership and focussing on issues of sexuality, sexual and reproductive rights, violence against women, women’s rights and social justice.

Why did we want to put sexuality and film together, well might you ask. What comes to mind? Sexy movies? Porn? Sitting in the back row of the theatre with someone? Perhaps little else, unless you work on sexuality or with film. But if you think about a little more, you will see that almost every film made, has something to say about sexuality. Not just in what is shown in terms of sex or romantic scenes, but also by way of the assumptions about the characters and events in the film. Who does the main character romance? What are the messages about romance itself? What happens when sexual codes are broken? If there are any ‘deviants’ (sexual or gender non-conformists) in the film at all, what roles do they occupy? Are they objects of veneration or of ridicule? Are they centre-stage or do they lurk in the shadowy margins? See, there’s more to even a seemingly girl-meets-boy, they fall in love and live happily ever after movie. It’s telling us something about the world we live in, even though it is ‘only a movie’. 

These ideas were discussed and worked on through a year long planning process culminating in Films of Desire with a team of core organisers that included Geetanjali Misra, Shilpa Phadke and Shohini Ghosh, and myself. The team worked together to craft an event that would focus on the ways in which cinematic representations interact with ideas of sexuality, gender, sexual identity, erotica and censorship, sometimes challenging them and at other times reinforcing them. A space for activists, film lovers, academics, students and film-makers to share in the pleasure of watching films, and also to engage with each other in critically discussing issues of sexuality and representation. Films of Desirewas a happy mix of film screenings, panel discussions, interviews with film directors, and many discussions that continued late into the night. This issue of In Plainspeak brings you some glimpses from there.

As we all know, films are a very powerful medium of communication. Films reflect what is going on in society at a particular time, they reflect or allay social anxieties; they sometimes solidify social norms and, at others, offer an alternative vision of being.

Films of Desire put the power of visual representation together with the lure of that most forbidden of subjects, sexuality, and the result was fascinating. Sexuality, itself, whether as lived experience, or as a field of study, is a space of contestation, bursting over with a multiplicity of tensions. Sexual desire has its own potential to liberate. 

Sexual desire is not always only about the ‘sexual’, but comes imbued with layers of power, and sometimes not-so-sunny motives, like anger, control, retribution, and even death. The dark places of desire are as important to understand as its power to revolutionise, through cinematic representation.

So also, cinematic representation is complex, in content, form and its effects. How artists or film makers choose to represent visual images depends on their imagination, craft, and aesthetic preferences. Films screened at the event took many forms – short films, features, experimental films, music videos, documentaries. 

Viewers are not passive observers of visual images. Different viewers do not see the same thing when they watch the same movie – they interpret things according to what they bring into their movie-watching experience. People ‘read’ films differently. It’s what the spectators bring with their gaze, or the way they look at something. Thus a queer gaze can queer a film. As Shohini Ghosh often says, 'Think of the male-bonding sequences in Bollywood films, the older ones like Sholay (Embers) orYaarana (Friendship), and the newer movies like Kal Ho Na Ho (If Tomorrow Never Comes), or even in older Hollywood films likeBen Hur, or newer ones like Alexander, where part of the audience reads the scenes as male-bonding sequences and others see them as covertly or even overtly, homoerotic'.

Today, there is a proliferation of visual images all around us – newspaper photos, TV, films, videos, DVD, MTV, Webcam shots, and many more. These may be impelled by artistic, political or economic motivations; whatever the case, they are thriving. Images talk not just with their audiences; they also ‘talk’ with each other. More so, with globalisation, these conversations between representations of visual images are not restricted by geographical boundaries or by ‘form’.

The interrogation of images and diverse readings of them was the focus of discussions at Films of Desire. Because of the undisputed power of the image, it is important for us to look at how different sexualities, sexual practices, sexual expectations, gender roles, and messages about sexual and gender conformity are depicted in cinema, and how they are read. Films work in our imagination, our cinematic imagination. This imagination is both personal and collective. That is why films speak to more than one person and hold the power they have.

The authors of the articles in this issue of In Plainspeak, through their reflections on films they watched, panels they attended and conversations they had at Films of Desire, discuss how questions of sexuality and representation are often fraught with anxiety and ossify around a set of stereotypical binaries: heterosexual-homosexual; masculine-feminine, sameness-difference, family entertainment-pornography, to name some, and show how moving away from these binaries of black and white allows us to enjoy the full spectrum of the exhilarating range of human experience and emotion.

Just like what Aparna Sen, one of India’s doyennes of cinema said at a public interview with Shohini Ghosh at Films of Desire: `I think people have sex appeal and that is irrespective of gender, or age, or anything. One person finds another person attractive. It doesn’t necessarily have to translate into physical intimacy but it could, it needn’t but it can be an attraction. Like, I have had so many women friends with whom I have enjoyed hours of chatting because I just find them so attractive as people and I cannot analyse why, just like I can’t analyse my films. I can’t analyse why I find them attractive. I mean you just buy it, and if that happens with a man then of course it is expected. It is expected both by society, and by the man, and possibly by women, that it will translate into some sort of physical intimacy. It is rare when it doesn’t in case of heterosexual people, but I’m an incurable romantic, of course. This is true. In any case, I think of something that an American actor, whose name I have forgotten, said – that he approaches a role through that character’s sex appeal. What is the sex appeal of a character? It may be nothing tangible. It could be a limp. It could be a crooked smile. It could be anything, but there is a certain attractiveness in everyone, and to find that attractiveness is a very attractive process.’