As shown with recent festival hit Rafiki, there is a constant struggle to get LGBT love stories to the big screen in countries where same sex relationships remain illegal. Although that Kenyan film was eventually shown in its native country after a few months of controversy, less high profile films don’t have a similarly easy path to overcoming censorship – such is the case with Ka Bodyscapes, Jayan Cherian’s slow burning portrait of a gay relationship in a conservative town.
Initially wrapping production in 2015, with a cinema released planned for 2016, the film has instead existed in legal purgatory for the last two and a half years. Eventually, it got rushed into a small handful of Indian cinemas in October, following the supreme court unexpectedly ending the law criminalising homosexuality. As with Rafiki, the resulting film isn’t scandalous or sexually explicit, but surprisingly tender – the sort of film that you would never have assumed would be so controversial if you didn’t have any prior knowledge. The infamous reputation preceding Ka Bodyscapes could work to its detriment, so be warned: this is a quiet, intimate character study, and if you’re looking for something with a substantial edge to it, it’s well advised you look elsewhere as you’ll be ill served by this film’s understated charms.
Set in a rural Indian town, Ka Bodyscapes follows the relationship between Haris (Jason Chacko) and Vishnu (Rajesh Kannan). Haris is a painter preparing for the unveiling of the exhibition that gives the film its title; sexually explicit artworks depicting gay sex at its most visceral, and the male body in its most homoerotic state. Vishnu, a kabaddi player, is frequently used as the model for Haris’ work – against the wishes of Vishnu’s family, who strongly detest that their son is so close to an openly gay man with a controversial reputation.
In terms of storytelling, Ka Bodyscapes doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking; LGBT cinema still thrives on tales of love in a location adverse to it, and considering it hails from a country where this topic remains taboo, Jayan Cherian doesn’t particularly need to innovate this formula. In fact, the most striking part about the film is how in its unconventional (and yet thoroughly realistic) depiction of intimacy. Likely due to fear of censorship, there are no sexually explicit scenes between the two male leads, and this surprisingly proves to be effective. We find out more about the relationship between the two via long, lingering takes of the pair lying together, hand in hand, running their fingers across each other’s bodies and gazing longingly at each other. It’s more effective in portraying the passion between the two than any sex scene possibly could.
The depiction of real, earnest male sexuality contrasts with the hyper-sexual artwork that Haris produces throughout. I’m not quite sure whether they were designed to look distractingly garish, but they contrast with the genuine portrayal of a relationship; an overtly masculine fantasy are treated as art, whereas the realities of a loving partnership are hidden from a society that can’t rationalise it in the same way they can drawings on a page.
Ka Bodyscapes is far from flawless, and it’s slow pace is as likely to invite viewers in as it is to leave them out in the cold. Once you’ve acclimatised to its carefully told style, you’ll find that there is a lot to admire here.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Ariztical Entertainment