‘Sheer Qorma’ has been making waves across the globe. How does it feel to receive all this love?
I feel it is a thrilling space for any filmmaker to be in, especially for a queer, brown, Muslim filmmaker from India. To be able to get so much recognition, not only from across the globe, but also from the media, is an overwhelming feeling. It also makes me feel humble and grateful for the love that ‘Sheer Qorma’ has been getting. When we won the Queer Oscars as they are called, in San Francisco the festival which is BAFTA qualifying, it was such a huge badge of honour because no other Indian film has ever won it. I am very grateful to the director of IFFM for this opportunity. We couldn’t have asked for a better Australian premiere to be a part of IFFM which has really championed the cause of Indian films in Australia and to be their centrepiece film is very thrilling. I am very happy about it.
What makes the film different from the other queer films out there?
What makes this different is the fact that it has been written and directed by a queer person. 95 per cent of the cast of ‘Sheer Qorma’ happens to be women. It is something that has not happened before in any other Indian film for that matter. Most of these women identify on the queer spectrum. What happens when you have so much representation behind the camera? Everything that happens on the camera also starts to change. It becomes more sensitive and nuanced. It becomes more sublime. That is why I chose to have so many women involved in the making of the film as well.
Secondly, ‘Sheer Qorma’ is a family film. Most queer films that are made, are either to titillate the audience, or to make it comic, or to make a statement against society. ‘Sheer Qorma’ is none of that. It is a film about a family on its journey through acceptance and love. It has women actors as protagonists. I think it is also the first time in Indian cinema that you have a non-binary protagonist played by Divya Dutta. It really brings forward conversations about not only sexuality and gender identity but also about womanhood, nationalities, and faith. It really brings forward the idea of religion and sexuality in one sentence without making a mockery of it. It throws a progressive light on Islam as a religion. It talks about how one of the most important principles of Islam is to be accepting of one another. We always choose peace over everything else. I think for that conversation to happen in mainstream cinema is very important. It is also a deeply political film. People will only understand when they watch it.
I personally think that filmmaking is a privilege; not everyone gets to do it. When you get an opportunity to make a film, you really need to push yourself harder and further to be able to open bigger dialogues.
Is there a story behind getting power-packed performers like Divya Dutta, Swara Bhasker, and Shabana Azmi on board for the film?
There is only one story behind this and that is I am a dreamer. I love to dream. My mother always tells me that you aim for the moon and you get the stars. But as luck would have it, I aimed for the moon and I got the moon. In fact, I got three moons in my film. Swara, Divya and Shabana ma’am are international award winners, and celebrated actors of Indian cinema.
This film happened because of only one reason and that is that they all believed in the message of the film. It is so important, given the times, world, and the country that we love. The film gives the message of love and acceptance. All these three actors, even in their individual lives, are such champions of this message. So, all this aligned for them as actors and human beings to support a film like ‘Sheer Qorma’ and amplify it to its full potential. No matter where you are in the world, you can watch and connect with it because the message is universal. That is the beauty of the film really.
What was it like on the sets of the film with all these lovely ladies?
On day 1, I was very overwhelmed because it was early in my career as a director. To be able to work with a legend like Shabana Azmi ji was very overwhelming. I remember, during our first reading session, Divya, Swara, and I were lying on a couch and laughing when suddenly Shabana ji walked inside the room and all three of us jumped on our feet, and stood up in attention. Shabana ma’am was like, ‘What is wrong with you three?’ and we were like, ‘Nothing, we are just scared of you’.
Initially, all this madness happened but on the second day of the shoot, we had suddenly found this deep connection with one another. We bonded so well and that energy can be felt in the film. The environment on the set is very representative of the environment in the film as well. Shabana ji and I got along really well. I don’t know if everyone knows this but her sense of humour is out of this world. The kind of jokes she cracks and one-liners she comes up with, it is out of this world. I have never seen an actor as dedicated as Shabana ji. Before the shot, she is just sitting in the corner, meditating, and going over her lines. You don’t get to see such dedications these days. That really made me work harder as a director. They are all really great actors already so I thought my work was going to get easier but it got more difficult because they were giving such good performances, I was challenged as to how to take it to the next level.
I also remember shooting the climax of the film. It was an emotional scene with all the actors. Everyone on the set was crying. People were encapsulated by the sheer power of these ladies and their performances. It was unmatched. I have never experienced this in my career so far.
What is the best compliment that you have received for ‘Sheer Qorma’ so far? From whom?
During the film, and it was from Shabana ji. On the first day, when we were shooting, she wanted to see all the takes that I was okaying. She wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. She thought I was very young. She walked to the monitor, sat down, and saw the take with headphones on. My entire set was silent. After watching the scene on the monitor, she took off the headphones, looked into my eyes, and said, ‘You have a gaze and that is the gaze of love. Tum mohabbat ki aankhon se dekhte ho’. She patted my back and resumed shooting. After that moment, she never sat behind the monitor again.
The second biggest compliment came from my mother. She watched the film three weeks ago with Shabana ji, Divya, and Swara at a private screening. She cried buckets but when we were driving back home, she turned to me and said, ‘How are you so brave, beta?’ That is all my mamma said and I will never forget that. I told her I am brave because she is brave. The film is dedicated to her.