Q directs a stirring documentary called Love in India, which I saw recently at Hot Docs. It´s a fascinating look at sexual freedoms represented in mythology through Lord Krishna and his consort Radha, against the challenging facets to romance in contemporary culture, rampant with domestic violence, arranged marriages and lack of sexual education. Q travels across India to discuss the development of attitudes towards love and sex, and his passionate romance with Rii advances along the course.¨
Q: What or who propelled you to develop your documentary Love in India?
A: I would credit all my lovers for that. Especially Rii, who is unlike any other woman I have ever met. The film was born out of the constant struggle to form and maintain relationships.¨¨
Q: The film early on states the influence of Bollywood films representing popular moralistic sexual tales. How do you see the ways films you’ve seen are addressing love and sexuality?
A: Films consciously and unconsciously affect the way we look at love and sex in India. Indian films, either Bollywood or the very popular regional language ones, have formed mindsets over generations. And there is no sex in our cinema. The films I watched as I grew up never even had a kiss. But there was always the latent energy that was impossible to contain. Cinema fed us that too. It got us curious, but never lifted the fog. However, our folklore and epics had always depicted sex as something that was not only important, but also undeniable, and used as a catalyst for the most volatile dissection of humanity.¨¨
Q: Do you favour certain Indian films and their depiction of amorous processes?
A: Apart from a handful, most Indian cinema has only mystified the amorous process by romanticizing it. There has been very little inroad into the depth of sexuality.
Q: Do you see the various consumerist approaches to sex in India as problematic?
A: The consumerist approach will further disillusion the already confused. We have to look back with clarity and unearth information that is buried within time, wrapped with chauvinism and morality.
Q: There’s a radio figure who seems to be informing the public of sexuality and personal concerns. Are there radio and other media forums in India that address sexual education in India?
A: Yes. The gap that the administration has in sex education is filled to some extent by the free market and many gurus of love like the one used in the film. Agony aunts have always been there, but only lately have they have been openly talking about sex.
Q: It seems in the West the Kama Sutra is linked to some New Age sensibility. What do you think of the Kama Sutra and how it’s perceived in India?
A: It’s definitely postmodern, that’s for sure. We are aware of the Kama Sutra. But only as a book that’s been there. Very few people actually read it. Everyone thinks it’s about sexual positions. It is actually the first recorded documentation of human sexual behaviour. A Sutra is an important strand in Vedic literature. Not every piece of writing became a Sutra. The fact that it has been there as a bestseller forever is proof enough that, in the past, we were much more aware about sex – about it’s implications and complications.
Q: It’s fascinating how your narrative focuses on the myth of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha. How did you first encounter this tale and what were your impressions of it as you sought more about it?
A: Everyone in India knows Krishna. He is a much-loved God. Each part of his life has a metaphorical quality, mythically documented in songs and stories. I was always most interested in his youth, when he plays the role of the God of Love. His relationship with Radha has been the most important spiritual symbol of the interaction between man and woman. However, like everything else in India, though their story is widely known, people don’t dig deep into the story. By making them divine, we forget the details of their congress, thus missing out on the layer dynamics that make Indian myths so powerful.
As I made the film, slowly I started to unearth different facets of their story: That she was older than him. She was his aunt. He raped her thrice before she consented to sex. He had numerous affairs with other women of the village, but still there was no doubt that he was in love with her.
These were all symbols. They are metaphors, to be understood and applied to our lives. Through the film, I found many people who have spent their lives trying to unravel the philosophical context of this divine relationship. I realized that within each so-called religious iconography lay a complex but accessible knowledge.
Q: How do you think this myth is experienced in Indian society? It seems an idealization, in contrast to dominant social structures – arranging marriages, the rampant marital violence.
A: A myth relies on the interpretation of the mass that experiences it. The story of Krishna clearly points to the fact that society has always tried to dominate the individual. And the basis of this domination has been control of sexuality. The stories exist to keep reminding people that reality has been adverse to the idea of love. This abstraction has always been an obstacle in the march of chauvinism. So at any given time, the world will be brutally desecrating this natural human tendency. The stories, though, are far from ideal. As I said before, there are issues in the stories that have been cleverly hidden behind religious paraphernalia, but they exist nevertheless. The idea of Krishna is to understand the idea of love despite reality. Because love is never real.
Q: What do you think of the character of Radha and what she’s representing? Do you find men are romanticizing her more readily, as she’s depicted with abundant sexual qualities? Do you think women are finding it more difficult identifying with her openness, given the constraints they feel in contemporary society?
A: This abundant sexual quality that we talk of in the film is not something that people will like to admit in India. This fact is hidden behind stone walls of symbolism. She has been given a washed down, morally correct and sexually clean form in mainstream belief. In some regions of India, they believe that the love that they shared was never sexual. It was completely philosophical. But that is the beauty of India and it’s stories. That they are open to infinite expressions. And the truth (that which is shifting with time) is placed within the cracks of the tales.
Radha is a stunning character. The strength and resolution that she displays has few parallels in the mythical world. Her role in the relationship will perhaps never be properly acknowledged in a male-dominated India. That is one of the key reasons why we say what we do in the film. This may lead to severe problems, because the conservative forces in India will be hugely upset with this depiction.
Q: How do you see the presence of artisanal figures depicting sexual poses or genital forms?
A: Erotic temple art is pure cliché in India, much like Kama Sutra and Tantra. The interpretations have been almost lost in translation over time, and now they are merely tourist attractions. I wanted to show the art as alive and not redundant. We found an artist who belongs to an illustrious family of temple erotica artisans. But now, the size of the statues he sculpts has shrunk, and his art is vulgar for even his family. I did not want to get into the politics of this shift. Instead, I focused on the fact that what we see as erotic art is the depiction of the 64 arts of sexuality.
Q: What do you think of the sequence of the costumed boys performing the variously gendered, philosophical flows of the 64 arts? I found it moving.
A: It is one of the most important, and undoubtedly the most beautiful, sequences of the film. This is a lost art. The Gotipuas that we have shown are the last group practising the pure form of this dance. As we were shooting them, I realized that gender is something that’s only in our minds. The boys display that original Indian thought, that we embody the spirits of both man and woman within every one of us. Something that mainstream Indian society has consistently tried to suppress.¨¨
Q: What was it like to embed elements of your personal relationship in the film? It was moving when your partner relates the violence she faced in trying to love openly.
¨A: My lover, Rii, my aunt and Deepti ... they are women that inspire me. They are a part of the system that successfully suppresses women. And they have themselves been inflicted upon repeatedly. In the film, all of them talk in a way that few Indian women would actually be able to say openly, though they all know this.
Towards the middle of the filmmaking process, I realized that I had to put myself in the film. And strip off. I shared this thought with Rii. She is one of the bravest girls I know, and she was willing to speak her mind. It was a cathartic experience for both of us.¨¨
Q: You travelled to some of the poor, remote areas in India. How do you see the way relationships proceed in the more outlying areas, compared to the urban centres in India?
A: Finally, it’s about the same thing: sex. And since society is based on the idea of people reacting in relation to their circumstances, the way people behave in cities and villages varies. In India, the divide is great, because of the difference in resources. However, India is a terribly large country with many subcultures, so it’s difficult to generalize.
Q: It’s interesting your friend Deepti in the film speaks candidly about love. How it’s selfish yet everyone wants it, a witnessing to their lives. What do you think sustains the shame, which hinders expressions of love and desire in public?
¨A: Shame is a tool that men invented to inhibit women. Over time, shame grew in stature in India, till it became a necessary jewel to be worn by the woman. In the film, we talk of only one part of the Kama Sutra: the difference between a man and a woman with regard to shame. The venerable book states that men have propagated, and thereafter accepted, the idea of shame as a cultural reality. But women, who have to bear the cross, do so all the while, but do not really believe in it. They can break the barriers of shame any time they want. And do so.
Q: Do you hope the film can speak to those wishing to effect loving change?
A: I only hope that this film demystifies some aspects of this global problem called love, and alternately mystifies sexuality in a way that people start thinking about the idea of sex as something deeper than a simple basic desire.
Q: Towards the end of the film there are philosophical expressions, stating the need to come to know self. How do you think the process of making the film has altered your understandings of love?
A: Before making the film, I knew that my ideas about romance were radical and difficult to explain or understand. While making the film, I realized that there are things that I have absolutely no clue about that were critical to deconstruct the idea. My ideas completely shifted when I found, at the end of the film, the idea of Dehatattva.
Dehatattva (the theory of the body) is the primitive precursor to Tantra. It’s a practice that spans thousands of years and percolates through violently differing religious beliefs. It’s the root idea of understanding one’s anatomy and physiology. It’s a form of science that uses your body as the lab. The link between love and sex, the crisis of the genders, the philosophy behind romance, every aspect of the human experience is explained simply by illiterate but illustrious people. The ideas are so radically simple that it’s impossible for society to comprehend with the complications that we have created in society. Most of these issues are external, as is the life that we lead. The idea of Dehatattva is to look into one’s own body, and unravel the joy of love.
Love in India has altered me completely. More than anything else ever in my life.
Q: Have you heard other stories of love since this film was finished? Are you interested in uncovering more stories of love in India?
A: More than love, I now want to delve into sexuality. Till the time that we don’t understand sex, we shall never be able to understand love. I am finding mesmerizing stories already that are shifting my paradigm. I would love to move on from romantic love to organic love. From the heart to the vagina. The vagina is the most daunting piece of equipment in the world, and hardly anyone knows how to use it now. That’s what I would really want to do now. The story of the genitals.
Louise Bak is a poet, with books including Tulpa and Gingko Kitchen. She co-hosts Sex City, Toronto’s only radio show focused on relations between sexuality and culture (CIUT 89.5 FM). Her performance work has appeared in numerous spaces and in video collaborations such as Partial Selves and Crimes of the Heart.