Loev, the queer Indian film about consent

Loev is an independent film that had to be shot in secret for a number of reasons. Featuring a small cast painted against the vibrant palette of India, the film’s strength lies in the simplicity of the concept. Loev follows the relationship between three Indian men: Sahil, Alex, and Jai. The films opens with an argument between the irritable Sahil (played by Dhruv Ganesh) and the playful Alex (Siddharth Menon). But we soon see that the film is really about a much awaited weekend getaway for Sahil and Jai (Shiv Patel), the chronic workaholic. Sahil moves in a different way when accompanying his friend visiting from New York, and it is clear that they both need this break, but their relationship is unclear at the start of the film.

Writer-director Sudhanshu Saria. [IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A brown man looks into the camera, smiling while wearing black rimmed glasses. His face is topped by short black hair. He wears a pink button-up that is rolled up to the elbows as well as blue jeans. He sits on a brown couch.]

First time writer-director Sudhanshu Saria purposely leaves all of the relationships in the film ambiguous, hooking the viewer by slowly revealing the answers to the questions we hold.

Are Sahil and Alex just a little too friendly? are they in an open relationship? Is Jai queer? What history do Jai and Sahil have together?

Throughout the film many of the questions are answered through subtle hints communicated primarily through body language.

Loev worked the festival circuit before Netflix acquired it, increasing the racial, cultural, and national scope of queer cinema that is often a specific — and rather exclusive — brand of white, physically fit, and North American. Even better, messages from people who needed to see themselves represented started flowing in as soon as the trailer was released. Question and answer sessions with audiences after watching the film brought up the need to talk more regularly about differing understandings and definitions of sexual assault.

Speaking on the phone last year, Saria and I delve into body image, trigger warnings, and the uncomfortable topic of consent within queer communities of color. Please note that this film and conversation include references to sexual assault. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Williams: Were you thinking about colorism when writing and casting this film?

Saria: Um, to be honest I wasn’t. I think I was thinking of intersectionality, but in different ways. I was thinking about it in terms of economic status. And then while casting it there is a whole other class system that exists in our society based on appearance. And I wanted, in the casting, to definitely focus on that. I didn’t want people who you fell in love with the minute that you saw them. I wanted people you looked at and you looked right past them. And then as the film continues you fall in love with them and by the end they become your best friend.

So the contrast in physical stature for Sahil and Alex or for Alex and Jai — that was very important for me. The actor playing Jai, Shiv Pandit, is an established Bollywood actor. He’s required to be shaved and have big muscles. I made him put on a whole bunch of weight and I shot him from all these what he would consider “unflattering angles” [we laugh]. It’s like your suit is your armor. You’re struggling and fighting and working on different parts of you and same for Dhruv.

He [Dhruv, the actor playing Sahil] was horrified. He was like ‘I never wear shorts, I have chicken stick legs. And I’m never taking my shirt off, that’s never gonna happen. Believe me, I’m no one’s idea of a gay icon.’ And I’m like ‘I know you’re not, we’re not trying to go after icons we’re trying to go after real people.’

How strong was this [sexual] tension between these characters in the original script and did you alter any of this element for fear of the [Indian] censor board or to make it more palatable?

I didn’t do anything to appease anyone, really. I was like, we’re too far down the other way for me to worry about appeasing anyone now. That being said, instead of focusing on the needs and tastes of a queer audience, I did definitely try and think about what I could do to ease non-allies into the film, you know? Someone who isn’t an ally, who isn’t a champion, but isn’t a homophobe either. Someone who’s maybe just a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of, you know, two men kissing or two men holding hands.

And of course once all the information comes together and the game is set, that’s where you sort of begin your rocket ride. And if I’ve done my job right, that [reluctant] audience hopefully by then — they’re invested enough in the characters that they actually want them to win. And so by the time more in-your-face elements of sexuality come to the picture, they’re already in bed with these characters and they’re not pushed away by the superficial part of it.

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Theatrical poster for Loev, a film by Sudhanshu Saria. The two main characters, two brown men, sit atop a mountain and kiss. We look on from the back, taking in the view of the blue sky and green hills.]

What informs your desire to center these discussions around what many would classify as rather triggering sexual assault scene? And I’d add that it felt like such a different tone from the rest of the film.

You know, honestly, I’m very conflicted about it. You want to prepare people for what’s about to happen but, at the same time, life doesn’t have that. This film is about that. I feel like we surprise ourselves with our actions. I mean, think of a day when you did something that was so dramatic and drastic. You know, I don’t think you woke up that morning thinking ‘this is going to go down today.’ It was an ordinary day until something happened, you know?

We have very clear perspectives when these things happen to our friends. But when it happens in our own lives I feel like we don’t have such a clear perspective. When you’re in that line of impulse, you’re in that line of impulse. You know what’s right, what’s wrong, but you have a million reasons on what you’re gonna do. I just feel like making a movie which assigns the roles of victim and perpetrator assigns blame. I was trying to create a scenario where there was enough ambiguity that one person could just as vehemently get up and defend the scene and another person could just as strongly attack it. That, to me, makes for a very fruitful discussion and allows us to discuss this topic of consent.

One of the reasons I think it’s really smart, this film, is that it brings up that conversation that we don’t want to have around consent. Particularly among queer communities.

And you can see how problematic having this conversation when the three characters are men. But just imagine had I made Sahil into a woman.

Thankfully we live in a culture of ‘no means no’ which is so strong that even the slightest hint of ambiguity in that discussion just would be a complete call to arms. And I love that. But at the same time we’ve lost something. Because this is happening. These things are happening in real life and we don’t have any mechanism to talk about it. And we don’t have a mechanism to talk about it. I don’t think shoving it under the carpet and simply pretending it doesn’t exist or beating people down over the head with ‘you are wrong’ is going to do anything. I feel like you have to create a mechanism where you can talk about it. And I’ve seen festivals where I’ve seen men stand up and say ‘this is not rape.’ And I’ve seen people’s eyebrows shoot right off their faces when someone said that.

Whew, so switching gears a little bit. Do you have any closing words for the folks reading or something I didn’t ask you that you want to address?

I definitely don’t know what to do with that subject of trigger warnings. I know it’s the right thing to do. And on the other hand it robs them of their experience of watching the film which happens in a nonsurprising way. I would love any advice, I don’t know how to handle that. I hope people reading this will watch the film, will spread the word, will sort of continue to build the discussion around these things.

Loev is streaming now on Netflix.