Reel Review: About Elsewhere - Ponni Arasu
A review of About Elsewhere
29 mins / 2007 /English / India
Many LGBT people in India spend a significant amount of time trying to catch every remotely LGBT-themed film in town in theatres, film festivals and gatherings in friends’ houses, given the paucity of images restricted to the historic but sometimes inadequate Fire2 to the flawed and often insensitive Girlfriend3; the comedy track of Kal ho na ho4 to the more serious My Brother Nikhil5 . With regard to documentary films a few films have been made discussing the position of LGBT people in the country and their rights or the lack thereof. Few other documentaries like Nishit Saran’s Summer in my Veins, for instance, tell poignant personal stories. It is in this context that Public Service Broadcasting Trust, New Delhi stepped in and commissioned various films about themes relating to sexuality, sexual and reproductive rights and health. Priya Sen’s About Elsewhere was made as part of this. The film has had small screenings, showed at film festivals abroad and had one screening on Doordarshan6. Apart from the smaller screenings I also got to watch the film on Doordarshan. The experience of watching a film on sexuality on Doordarshan itself merits analysis.
About Elsewhere is not just another gay movie for many reasons. It casually and beautifully talks of the lives and images of queer people7 (even if you don’t read the other endnotes, do read this one. It’s important!), while not taking a simplistic or compartmentalised approach to this expression. In fact, it challenges notions of fixed identities within the sphere of sexuality and refers to sexualities as journeys. It traverses two cities the filmmaker cherishes as her own while not losing sight of the different cities within the city. The film is as much about the two cities in question as it is about sexuality. Through images, it makes constant connections between the inhabiting of spaces and the processes of life, including experiences of sexuality. It juxtaposes various articulations of gender, sexuality and desire on a popular medium such as the radio with queer expressions that the filmmaker has experienced in her spaces. It subtly brings in a discourse of control in general which can then be read also within the context of sexuality among other things through a child’s voice showing simultaneously the idiosyncrasy and grimness of these articulations. Using an interesting method of separate sound and visual tracks at different points, the filmmaker manages to leave us with a few stunning moments. The film addresses issues of the natal family and other support structures and the filmmaker’s perceptions of both, not through a talking heads method, but by a barrage of crisscrossing images that often flow with one another and at other times aesthetically conflict with each other.
The image of the ‘shell’ is an important part of the film. The film sometimes seems like a photograph of the inside of the filmmaker’s personal shell that she inhabits. Having said that, it is not a simplistic portrayal of her journey through notions of gender and sexuality but makes clear comments on the context of queer struggles, lives, as well as heteronormative structures. All these articulations echo for us as viewers, from within that shell. The filmmaker’s voice is hardly heard in the film (except for the occasional background sound of which she might be a part) and neither does she provide us with her ‘personal journey’ - a trend common among many South Asian, diasporic and other queer filmmakers. Rather, she describes her shell which consists of many images, sounds, cracks, processes and conflicts.
Having said all of this, one needs to go back to the experience of watching it on Doordarshan and contrast that with another time I saw the movie with a few friends. Many of us in the latter gathering were LGBT people and believe in a broader queer politics as well. We related to the film at a rather emotional level and it did reflect some parts of some of our journeys. I then saw the movie again on Doordarshan at a friend’s place. I couldn’t help but wonder how the film would be perceived by someone who has not embarked on these journeys the filmmaker describes or is not aware of or willing to acknowledge them. The film has no fixed agenda and so it is hard to state anything about it within the trope of ‘impact’. It might however be perceived as ‘abstract’ and ‘confusing’ and maybe even pointless.
One is not sure, if this is entirely fair as the film has enough images and sounds to not know what effect it might have on a viewer. The crisscrossing images, sounds, non-traditional methods of filmmaking may leave some perplexed and others touched. On the whole, Priya Sen’s About Elsewhere is a relief from the usual ‘showing discrimination and demanding rights’ documentary film genre while not falling comfortably within the sometimes self-obsessed and often non-contextual ‘my personal journey’ genre within films about sexuality. It goes without saying that the significance of these two genres in queer filmmaking, their limitations notwithstanding, within the Indian context are beyond measure.
I wouldn’t screen this film in isolation for a workshop on the theme of sexuality in India, for instance, for an open audience, but would couple it with a few more straightforward films that set the basis of LGBT people not being ‘diseased’ or ‘abnormal’ and that sexuality is an important issue that has to be discussed. Once the stage is set, About Elsewhere may ring a bell with many trying to traverse through notions of gender, sexuality, space, structures and so on; LGBT or not. About Elsewhere is a welcome addition to the list of queer Indian films that explores the layered context of queer lives in India including the city, space, philosophy, body, popular culture, individual processes and social structures.
Another Gay Movie is an American gay chick flick made in 2007. The plot description on IMDB.com reads as follows: In the dirtiest, funniest, most scandalous gay-teen-sex- comedy-parody ever, four young gay friends make a pact to lose their virginity by the end of the summer. The boys soon face giant sex toys, naked celebrities, masochistic teachers and an uncontrollable romance with a quiche. With a dozen jokes a minute and a who’s who of gay celebrities (including Graham Norton, Scott Thompson, Ant and Richard Hatch) as you’ve NEVER seen them before, Another Gay Movie is a candy-colored romp where getting laid is all that matters!
Fire is a film with a lesbian theme made by Deepa Mehta in 1996. It was the first overtly lesbian-themed movie to hit the Indian movie scene. It saw a lot of opposition from Hindu fundamentalists in India and also led to public protests opposing the fundamentalists by LGBT individuals and groups.
Girlfriend, made in 2007, by Karan Razdan portrays the relationship between a lesbian, her woman friend with whom she has a physical relationship one drunken night, and the latter’s boyfriend. It evolves into a thriller portraying an emotionally disturbed and maniacal self-proclaimed lesbian from whom the innocent heroine and the hero protect themselves.
Kal ho na ho, a popular Bollywood film made by Karan Johar in 2003, has three big film stars. The two heroes of the film pretend to be a gay couple in front of a scandalised housemaid and this joke continues as a comedy track through most of the film. Namita Malhotra’s Kaun Mile Dekho Kisko (http://media.opencultures.net/queer/ is an interesting parody of Kal ho na ho where the two heroes actually do end up with each other in the climax; Bollywood style!
My Brother Nikhil made in 2005 by Onir Sen tells the story of a talented swimmer dealing with HIV/AIDS and the role of his sister and his male lover in supporting him.
- Doordarshan is India’s state run television channel. While it does not have a viewership as widespread as cable TV, a sizeable number of people still watch it. A screening on Doordarshan is an important recognition both for the film and the issues it hopes to address.
The term Queer offers a critique of heteronormativity extending beyond sexual identity. It is a perspective that engages with a larger world view that recognizes and critiques complex systems of class, caste, gender, sexuality, race, region, religion etc. For more, see Nivedita Menon, ‘How natural is normal? Feminism and compulsory heterosexuality’ in Because I have a Voice: Queer Politics in India, Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2005, pg. 33-40. In this review Queer is being used as a term to refer to those individuals who embark on journeys around sexuality among other things and are willing to acknowledge the same, irrespective of their sexual preferences/practices. Usage of ‘queer’ is apt for this review as the film in question does not work within fixed frameworks of sexuality but is about journeys.
Ponni Arasu is a queer feminist activist. She currently works with alternative law forum, Bangalore, India