In Aarti Neharsh's film The Song We Sang, a peek into a world where women live unapologetically
The Song We Sang revolves around the romance between Krishna and Alia, an economist and an animator who meet in Ahmedabad during Navratri.
When was the last time you saw an Indian film about two women falling in love with each other, and not worrying about a violent backlash from their families, or even struggling with self-hatred because they do not fit into a homophobic world? Well, 24-year-old Aarti Neharsh’s directorial debut, a short film titled The Song We Sang shows just that and more. The 21-minute-long film revolves around the romance between Krishna and Alia, an economist and an animator who meet in Ahmedabad during Navratri. Though there is a beautiful kiss in the film, viewers are not told whether Alia and Krishna identify as lesbians, bisexual, queer, asexual, pansexual, or any other way.
The film was originally scheduled for a world premiere at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles on 3 April, 2020, but the event has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Neharsh co-wrote the film's script with Chintan Bhatt, who is also a co-producer in the project, along with Rahul Tejwani and Manan Bhatt of Green Chutney Films. The Song We Sang is due to be screened at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival later this year, followed by a prospective digital release as well.
There are no big names like Ayushmann Khurrana or Sonam Kapoor propping this film up as a pathbreaking love story, but its sincerity shines through. After the release of the movie's teaser, Firstpost spoke to Aarti Neharsh about the film, its intriguing premise, and the challenges faced in its making.
If you were asked to describe what The Song We Sang is about, what would you say?
The Song We Sang is about exploring the energy between two people who feel a connection the first time they meet. It’s the feeling you get when you exchange a look with someone in a room full of people and know that’s your person, as Frances would put it in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012). It is a story about this possibility, if given a chance.
I was struck by the fact that this film makes no claims about being a queer film or advocating queer rights; it simply explores what warmth, affection and love can look like when women's stories are not narrated through a patriarchal, heteronormative gaze. What do you make of this interpretation?
I think the film did its job if that’s how it was received. It was never conceived as a film on sexuality. Our attempt was to bring out a story about love and tenderness between two individuals looking for different things in their lives, and finding comfort. These feelings are human, regardless of gender, and that’s what I wanted to convey in my film. It makes no claims about being a queer film but I am glad it adds to greater representation of women and queer relationships on screen.
How do you place The Song We Sang in relation to other Indian films that explore LGBTQ+ stories?
Unfortunately, there has been little representation of queer stories on screen, especially in India. I have got the chance to see a few, like Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019) and Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) — two films that also have a love story between two women. But I wouldn’t put The Song We Sang into the same category, simply because it does not talk about sexuality as its main theme. The story is about love and human choices, and the possibilities that every choice entails.
What made you choose Navratri as a setting for this story to play out?
I have grown up in Ahmedabad myself and have done most of my schooling here. Navratri was always the time of the year I used to look forward to the most, more than Diwali and all the other big festivals, simply because this was the one time everyone would be out on the streets — flirting, laughing, eating, just being happy. The city would come alive suddenly, and that’s unique for a place like Ahmedabad which is otherwise an orthodox society. I was never good at garba so, for me, Navratri was about nine nights of just love and liberation. I loved the thought of two women walking the streets of Ahmedabad at night, laughing and feeling at ease. And what better setting than Navratri for it?
Was it important for you to work with a cast and crew that identified as being from the LGBTQ+ community?
My casting director, Manashree Jani and I did contemplate narrowing it down to having a cast from the LGBTQ+ community, but realised we would be ruling out a lot of good talent, so we kept our bracket broad. We had a pool of actresses in the age group we wanted, but the major issue was the kiss between the two characters. Automatically, half of the women we spoke to were out because of the kiss. It came to a point where there were discussions to even remove the scene from the script. That possibility was ruled out immediately as we would be diluting everything this film stands for if that scene was to be removed.
After eight months of rigorous auditions, we found Serena Walia (Krishna) and Ayushi Gupta (Alia). Their sensitivity and cooperation was all we needed. Since both actors are heterosexual, our rehearsals included quite a few physical exercises with each other to do justice to the parts they were playing. I also took the script to some women who are part of IIM Ally, the LGBTQ+ resource group of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, to understand how we could make our performances and writing better. Later, I found myself a crew member who identifies as lesbian.
How do you see this film in terms of queer women's access to public spaces in Ahmedabad?
Women definitely don’t have the same kind of opportunities that men do. I really wanted to see two women walking the streets at night absolutely unapologetically — something that almost never happens in reality, at least with me. Being a woman, it is a dream to walk the street at night without having to turn back. I wanted to create a world where my characters could just immerse themselves in the conversations they were having, feel at ease, and enjoy their night. Cinema, I believe, is a great medium to forget about the bitter truths of reality and escape into a world where one can dream. And I wanted this to be a momentary escape for all women watching this film.
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