Using Varsha Panikar’s poetry series by the same name, as the point of departure, Bodies of Desire is a queer spoke-word film co-directed by her and Saad Nawab. The film captures four sets of lovers amid passion; to create a portrait of tender intimacy, of longing, of discovery, of desire, of embrace and care, of profound companionship. It is a sensual celebration of universal love and desire, inspired by the poet’s lived reality. The text follows the poet’s journey of healing and self-acceptance as she rediscovers love, passion, and identity after encountering her muse, her lover, who acts as an encounter, a rupture that awakens the poet and her desire to express her inner truth, and inevitably puts her on a path of discovering her own power and uniqueness.
Varsha Panikar is an upcoming filmmaker, poet, and artist who likes to tell stories by blending the medium of poetry, performance, art, moving images, and sound. Driven by an unyielding desire to constantly create, regardless of the medium, she likes to do a bit of everything; from commercials, independent audio-visual endeavours to delving into the sphere of art, poetry, and performance. She has been working with some brilliant directors from within and outside India, in different capacities, for a decade. Her debut music video Maya featuring Coshish, a Mumbai based prog-rock band was produced by Universal Music and listed in the top 10 music videos by Rolling Stones.
Drawing inspiration from dreams, memories, and the innate need to understand the pattern of her own existence, she aims to provoke and evoke certain emotions and ideas in her audience, the kind that compels them to question, introspect and unravel the mysteries that hide within them. Her themes range from slice of life to identity, gender politics, the quest for discovery, existential dread, mental health, to new-age romance. She is interested in stories that are so personal that it becomes universal; the kind that riffs on fear, pain, passion, and the struggles of leading a human existence.
She also moonlights as a voice-over artist apart from performing Spoken-Word. She is an aspiring narrator and enjoys collaborating her voice in and with art, photos, or videos. Her poems and artwork have been published in ‘Rogue – The Zine’, available on Amazon Kindle. Her artwork has also been showcased and sold at various events and exhibitionsRecently, her photo-poetry digital zine ‘Whisperings To My Shadows’ was showcased at “Queer Futures Archive” at Sydney, alongside some pieces from “Bodies of Desire’, her ongoing sketch- poetry series.
Director’s Guild of America (DGA) student award winner Saad Nawab’s journey to be a storyteller of consequence has led him from the conservative landscape of the Middle East to a strict boarding school in the mountains of Western India to the hallways of the royal Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda where he graduated with an honors degree in English. He ended up in Bombay by chance and caught the eye of some of India’s most respected filmmakers for his creative prowess.
Always yearning to take precarious roads, one fine late-night, he chanced upon an unattended portal that led him to the prestigious College of Motion Picture Arts at Florida State University where he graduated with an MFA in film direction. Since then, he has embarked on another journey in search of a mythical book of untold stories that might be the key to changing the course of his undefined future.
Saad’s film “Frankenstein’s Light”, a kids fantasy, has played and won awards in over twenty-five film festivals across the Americas, Asia, and Europe.
He loves to utilize the visual medium to explore themes of the human condition related to innocence, loss, and religion against the backdrop of worlds brimmed with science fiction and fantasy.
He resided and worked in New York before moving back to Bombay, India where he indulges in writing, directing, and editing narratives, commercials, and experimental films. In between, he finds the time to create customized memes that satire his friends and the conundrums of the film industry.
Using Bodies Of Desire, poetry-sketch series as a point of departure, we wanted to create a portrait of intimacy, of longing, of discovery, of embrace, of empathy, and companionship that was tender. As filmmakers and queer individuals, we know the importance of visibility! It serves two purposes – it shows people that fall outside the hetero-normative and binary identities that they’re neither alone not abnormal, and it helps make sexuality and gender, less of a target for bullying. Someone once said, “It is hard to be or understand what you can’t see”. I am not saying that necessarily everybody needs to see themselves represented in every book and film, but from personal experience, we need that sense of connection. We need to live in a global sense now more than ever. When you see yourself depicted and represented, it gives you hope and the world needs hope right now more than anything. There is an almost tangible validation in seeing people who love as you do on screen, and we wanted to portray the kind of love that we could relate to, the kind of couples that we knew, and were longing to see in films for a long time, and as a team, we wanted to create an image of what queer-urban-India could look like, of course, only to an extent, because it is a really broad and ever-evolving compass, in hopes that this might compel others to take back the narrative, and make more queer content, which is told from their perspective, and not how it appears to an outsider. Intimacy amongst lovers hold immense political power, and as filmmakers, we wanted to use it as a means to resist the bias and stereotypes that continue to segregate our society. For everyone involved in the process, Bodies of Desire is a celebration of love and desire, and we hope people see it as we do, universal, genderless, and free from shame and prejudice.
”Bodies of Desire was originally conceived as a sketch-poetry book, which is an attempt to tell stories through art of erotic sketches and poems of endearment, and by looking at it outside the context of sex and allowing it to become means of expression and exploration into themes of identity, curiosity, discovery, passion, female sensuality and intimacy. The aim was to create an emotive work that would combine a variety of disciplines from visual poetry, spoken word, the movement to fashion film, and would have a spontaneous and romantic quality, like scattered pages of a diary.”
“Indian society is highly segregated by conservative notions of gender and sexuality based on binary and hetero-normative norms, which have been detrimental for everyone, especially for those who fall outside the male/female dichotomy and have different sexual orientations. We wanted to break that notion and create an image of what queer India looks like, to an extent. Queer representation in India is almost always, stereotyped and presented as tropes, or completely excluded from popular narratives. There is an almost tangible validation in seeing people who love as you do on the screen so we wanted to portray the kind of love that we could relate to, the kind of couples that we knew, and had been craving to see in films for a long time. Most importantly, we wanted to see it represented from its own perspective and not as it appears to an outsider. The intimacy between lovers holds immense political power. In the lover’s embrace, the labels that make us look at others through the lens of identity retreat into the background, giving way to a presence that is more prismatic, nuanced, and fluid, and that is the visual image we wanted to create in hopes that people see it as universal and gender-less as we do.“
”Not all intimacy is erotic or romantic; there is intimacy in comradeship, friendship, family, and there is also intimacy in thinking together, and creating together, which emerges from the same source as love and desire, and so the approach to the film was also intimate and collaborative. It all started when Kaushal (cinematographer) showed interest in the Bodies of Desire – poetry, and sketches and proposed we capture the essence of the series in moving images, and the rest is history. The first step was the text. The final poem was created by stitching together different stanzas from the series to give it a seamless narrative structure with five acts.
The next step was casting, which was pivotal since the film is centered around people who exude a vigorous sense of empowerment, confidence, and self-love. Diversity was key so we spent a long time looking for the right cast, and in the process met some of the best people we’ve ever known. Our initial casting process was more of a questionnaire to understand what intimacy and desire meant to each one of them, what their sexual and gender preferences were with regards to their preferred-pairing with a co-actor, their inhibitions about their body, their take on queer representation, the gaze – all of which helped us shortlist a beautiful mix of people who could bring a certain rawness and realness to the film. We wanted to capture an honest depiction of the character’s individual sexuality and intimacy, without which they wouldn’t feel natural and un-inhibited through the lens, which meant we needed to do workshops and rehearsals with the cast. Since most of the cast members we shortlisted were first-time, non-trained actors, it was crucial for us to build a comfort level with them which would allow them to be artistically vulnerable in front of the camera and most importantly, just trust us. Hence, we took them through an intimacy workshop, designed and guided by Neha Vyas (Anat), to help build that trust. During the workshop – audition, everybody, including us got to chose a name for ourselves, a sort of alter ego, which would allow us to step into the character safely and tap out once the filming was done. Our aim was to create a safe space where we could discuss the cast’s inhibitions and boundaries of consent, define the degree of intimacy they were comfortable with, which would allow them to further explore physical and emotional dynamics with each other.
We had a diverse group of people from various genders and sexualities and one notable thing that everybody discovered through the workshop, was a certain fluidity most of them felt in their own sexuality which they hadn’t expected but were quick to embrace. Soon after we finalized the cast, the pairing, we discovered each couple’s physical language of intimacy. We had also created a Bodies of Desire playlist, which resonated with the mood and tone we wanted to achieve in the movements and action, which became quite a hit with the cast during the workshop. Eventually, they all chose their favourite tracks from it, to be played in the background, for the various emotions they were to perform during filming.
When it came to styling and the look for the cast, we wanted to keep it natural and real, by maintaining the authenticity of the various skin tones we had, unlike the whitewashed and photo-shopped skin tones we have gotten used to seeing in our fairness-obsessed advertising and media. We also wanted to let the cast retain their sense of personal styles so they would feel comfortable. Moving forward, Asawari (producer) found us the perfect location. We had exactly 10 hours to shoot and a very limited budget so it was imperative that we knew what we were going to shoot and how we were going to achieve it. Hence, right before filming we did the final choreography workshop on location, in the final costume, which gave the cast enough time to familiarise themselves with space, and feel comfortable in the presence of the camera and the rest of the crew. We wanted them to know exactly what we would be doing because once you are on set, everything gets very technical, and we didn’t want the cast to feel overwhelmed by it all, but eventually, everything worked out like a charm and we had a lovely shoot.
However, post-production was no easy task. We had a shoestring budget so it was getting very hard for us to find a team in India that could do justice to the film. Once again, Asawari (producer) tapped onto some contacts across the globe and found Cornelia (editor) from Romania and Mark (composer/sound designer) from Athens, and we couldn’t be happier. They resonated to the language we wanted to create. We discussed the film in five acts, maintaining the organic nature of intimacy, by embracing its highs and its lows and Cornelia pieced together the whole film with absolute brilliance. Mark designed a soundscape, that was sensorial by mixing electronic and live sounds. It heightened the reality depicted in the poetry, imagery and choreography. This whole film has been such learning for both of us. It has helped us evolve as humans and storytellers in ways we didn’t know was possible.