Review: Ka Bodyscapes
‘Poila Baisakh’ or the Bengali New Year commenced with the dark, unfortunate, disturbing and brutish news of Bangladesh’s banning of its annual ‘rainbow rally’, held during this time of the year, to celebrate sexual diversity and promote LGBT rights. The arrest of four queer activists in this regard added further grimness to the already brewing air of insecurity and woe. This led to the birth of a Facebook page/group that invited and incited people to beat, bash and batter queer folks, any of who dare to show up on the streets! While friends, comrades and activists from Bangladesh shared their anxiety and vexation, there is a feeling of helplessness, sorrow and anger, for there is little or nothing that one can do from an urban, metropolitan centre in a neighbouring country; other than offer words of empathy and assurance. Amid such a backdrop comes an invitation to the special screening of Jayan Cherian’s latest film, Ka Bodyscapes, which failed to procure certification from the censor board and is presently under the review committee. None of these came as a shock or struck as an ‘event’, not extraordinary occurrences by any means; with a global turn to conservative politics and the state being more neoliberal, censorious and surveilled than ever, violence has started seeming ordinary and commonplace.
Someone who has watched Cherian’s previous film, Papilio Buddha, which too was denied release in India for denigrating political figures, depicting grotesque violence and use of foul languages, knows the radical, political stable that his films come out of. Ka Bodyscapes was being approached with a certain degree of minimum idealization in this regard, that did not betray with regards to its politics and artistic sensibilities. To put it simply, the film surrounds three characters – an urban queer painter, a rural kabaddi player, and a young, middle-class, activist – trying to negotiate, survive and fight out odds within networks of deeply misogynist, feudal, brutish hetero-patriarchal alliances. If the icon of the ‘Buddha’ was at the heart of Cherian’s previous film, the ‘body’ becomes the matter in hand in this movie, looming large over the screen and the audience with all its limits and possibilities, occupying much of the textual space. The brilliance of the film lies not in its textualisation of the body – Haris shoots and paints Vishnu’s body in all its muscular multifariousness – but in its use of the body as a method and mode of inquiry into the ‘political’, the ‘social’, and the ‘religious’. From the camera slowly rolling over the dark, sweat soaked, muddy, muscular, oily, perspiring bodies of the kabaddi players in the opening scene under the saffron flag to the stripping of menstruating women in a factory, trying to keep a vigil and police female sexuality; the body becomes a placeholder for the director to offer a critique of several prejudices, injustices, and inequities. It is through the moniker of the body, that, the director manages to forge a queer and transgressive aesthetics that moves from the level of the plot to the art of filmmaking itself. The long, slow shots of showcasing the ordinary – and as I started by saying that the ‘ordinary’ is violent – testify the departure from normative filmmaking, something that one can witness in Pasolini’s films.
Ka Bodyscapes poses the difficulty of theorizing the queer subject with all its fragmentations, ruptures, splits and contradictions. Vishnu, the dark, hunky, rural kabaddi player, who is also the model for Haris’ paintings and photos, owes his allegiances to Hindutva politics. He frequently moves in and out of the screen, sharing the filmic space between Haris’ rented apartment where they engage in zealous, searing romance and passionate lovemaking and his workspace, a newspaper office committed to ultra-nationalism and Hindu right-wing politics. But he is not the Vishnu of Hindu iconography, but “my Vishnu” as Haris refers to him throughout the movie – one who is claimed and appropriated by a budding Muslim, queer painter. Through Vishnu, Cherian attempts to bring out the complexities and contradictions of desire and politics that seem to fly in polar directions, difficult to reconcile and negotiate. How do we then read Vishnu and Haris as queer subjects – fragmented not only along the lines of race, religion and class but also fractured within, in politics and political vision? Given the Hindu right wing’s position on homosexuality, Cherian makes the irony and the contradiction come alive not only through the representation of Vishnu but showcasing the ‘shakhas’ as all-male spaces – traversing the frail lines between homosociality and homoeroticism. Somewhere amid all these the figure of the Hanuman broods – as a deity to whom Vishnu prays or as an address by Sia to Vishnu for their physical resemblances – with all its associations of celibacy, asexuality, sexual sanitation and devotion. As a homo-Hindutva individual, Vishnu intervenes in this asexual space, and struggles to carve a niche for himself, being rebuked both by Haris and the manager of the newspaper office who takes him to an aversion therapist.
It is interesting to witness that Ka Bodyscapes does not register the body as a depoliticized site of the erotic but as a locus of newer political possibilities; of countering the phobic with the power of the erotic and deploying the latter for purposes of dissent and protest. The film draws inspiration from the ‘Red Alert Campaign’ in Kerala where women sent sanitary napkins (used or unused) to the company authorities to protest against the strip search of women, after a used sanitary napkin was discovered in the washroom of the company. Sia takes it to the streets where she is joined by other women and queer groups to protest against this heinous and barbaric act of disciplining bodies, only to be heckled and detained by the police in the name of protection. Cherian’s brilliance gets executed in the filmic representation of these protests, pushing the boundaries of art with politically charged knives; conjuring an air of savagery, violence, and ferity against a landscape of lushfulness and serenity of Kerala. It is a generation that is not only living in turbulent times but searching for newer politics and alternative political possibilities against the dead, worn out stratagems of the state.
It is indeed ironical that a film centered around censorship itself gets stalled by the censor board. Ka Bodyscapes indeed turns out to be meta-cinematic in this regard, speaking to itself about itself. Haris is forcefully evicted from his apartment, his art being destroyed and rainbow flag burnt by right-wing extremists and conservatives; Cherian registers another level of contradiction – the carnivalesque, flamboyant, agile subject and artefact of ‘pride’ (rainbow is the icon for queer prides globally) and the pained, censored, writhing, traumatized queer painter. Within this dialectic of pride and prejudice, the punch of the political comes when a stone hits Haris’ face as he is looking straight into the camera while lying on the beach; behind him hangs a queer painting of Hanuman, his last and only surviving work, that does not carry mount Rishabha on its hand but the burden of IPC 377. He disrobes himself in front of his attackers and enters and disappears into the sea naked, the body being used for the one last time. The film does not offer any resolution towards the end, and perhaps comes across as bleak, grey and dark; what it has is residual anger, rage, fury and smoke, of the kind that comes out from burnt paintings and rainbow flags. But pushing for newer politics and imagining political possibilities also implies demanding newer forms, newer genres and artistic protocols, playing around with academic artifices and turning around not only texts but reading practices. “The making of the film itself was a political act” says Cherian during the discussion after the screening. Rage becomes an important motif here; from building communities around rage to forming collectives along the lines of solidarity, perhaps it is the only response that those who live in this censorious climate can give. We all are keen to see the events that follow up from here, and what avenues open and close for Cherian’s film.
Written by Rahul Sen
Edited by Pallab Deb
Rahul Sen is pursuing his MPhil at the Department of English, Delhi University.