Indian filmmaker Faraz Ansari was sitting in a cafe writing a feature script for a heterosexual love story when he heard the devastating news that the Supreme Court had struck down the 2009 finding of the Delhi High Court decriminalising homosexuality.
A cold winter’s day in December 2013, the unexpected blow to the progress of LGBTIQ+ rights floored him. “I stood in front of the TV helpless, feeling terribly out of place, uneasy and with this gnawing urge to cry,” Ansari says. “It was back to living a life inside the closet because it is a crime to be a homosexual and, if caught, you could be jailed for 15-20 years, or a lifetime for being who you are. Can you imagine how helpless that can feel?”
And yet, Ansari immediately set about resisting this re-enshrining of prejudice. “I wanted to yell, I wanted to scream, I wanted to express my helplessness on social media. I wanted to stand in front of the Supreme Court and beg them to reconsider, but I didn't do any of that. Instead, I went back to my table, opened up a new draft and started to write.”
That was the genesis of his remarkable short film Sisak. Screening at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne, it stars the broodingly handsome Jitin Gulatias as a Mumbai-based businessman drawn inexorably to a younger guy (Dhruv Singhal) on his daily train commute. All furtive glances and halting advances, the multiple award-winning short has no dialogue, set to a swelling sore by Dhawal Tandon.
“Sisak is a silent cry for a love that fears to find a voice for itself,” Ansari says. “As a filmmaker, I personally feel words are poor comforters and love develops in the silences shared between two individuals.”
Ansari’s passion for this project is palpable. Sisak took over three years to complete in these challenging circumstances, with the writer/director sacrificing a lot to make it happen. “After trying to find a producer for a year and a half and finding rejection, which lead to depression, I decided to produce it myself,” he says. “It was a decision I took in the middle of the night, feeling miserable. I had to sell off my car, move out of my apartment and back in with my parents. I even had to sell off many of my belongings.”
The tension between Gulatias and Singhal is magnetic, a remarkable chemistry conveyed in a longing gaze and the electric distance between touch. Incredible finds, in truth they were last-minute replacements. Two high-profile Bollywood stars pulled out five days before the shoot.
“I thought they would give the film a wider audience, but they cited foolish fears that they wouldn’t be considered for leading roles in mainstream Hindi films and might end up losing a lot of their fan base,” Ansari says.
Despairing, Ansari called for replacements on Facebook, with Gulati responding first. Neither actor had to audition, with Ansari determined to make it work with his willing participants. Workshops began the next day. “They spent the days interacting with my gay friends, listening to their experiences, and in the evenings, they travelled on the trains, exploring the spaces on their own. On the night before shoot, I travelled with both of them, at separate times, blocking all the scenes along with my DOP. They never met until their first shot together, because I wanted their reactions to be organic and not staged.”
Sisak also involved guerrilla filmmaking, without official permission to shoot on public trains. “The universe has been very kind to us since we could've got easily caught, but thankfully we didn't,” Ansari says, though the final shot of the two-day shoot, also the heart-swollen finale of Sisak, came close.
Shooting at Churchgate station in South Mumbai on the same day as an Indian Premier League match at Wankhede Stadium, the platforms were overcrowded and security on high alert. The small crew shielded the single camera as best they could, but at the last moment a cop spotted it.
“He yelled at us and started to run in our direction,” Ansari recalls. “My DOP 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 and crew disappeared in a minute. It was madness.”
The harsh reality faced by many LGBTIQ+ Indians imbued Ansari with a sense of urgency. “Many have been killed by members of our own families, just for loving someone of the same-sex. Just recently, I was reading an article where two girls were brutally murdered and thrown in the sewers. With Sisak, I am trying to open a dialogue to show people that love between two individuals is love.”
The message is cutting through, with Sisak screening at film festivals all over the world and accruing awards wherever it goes. “I remember when the film premiered in Boston, I was a nervous wreck,” Ansari says. “Sisak was the closing film and we got a standing ovation for two solid minutes. As I stood there, looking at an auditorium filled with strangers looking at me with teary eyes, something within changed. I realised what a huge responsibility it is to be a filmmaker. You are given this opportunity to touch the lives of people you have never met and, perhaps, bring in a change of heart and mind for the good.”