'LOEV': A love story that could change Bollywood

In an early scene in “LOEV,” two young men drive off in a rented BMW convertible, listening to Kanye West as they leave the city behind. On the way to their weekend getaway destination, they discuss the pressures of career, family and love.

The movie is shot and set in India, but it may not be what Western audiences are used to seeing from that country. “LOEV” isn’t a tale of shantytowns like “Slumdog Millionaire” and features none of the exotic imagery seen in Gurinder Chadha's "Bride and Prejudice."

Instead it is a drama that explores the contours of love and friendship between two men, told through middle-class characters who chat in English as they spend their time in expensive hotels and restaurants. Their topics of discussion aren’t poverty or religion but romantic and professional fulfillment.

Director Sudhanshu Saria said presenting this vision of India made “LOEV” a tougher sell. He had to settle for a December premiere at the Tallin Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia after bigger-name festivals passed on “LOEV” because, he says, the movie doesn’t conform to stereotypes about India. “Festivals often look for a very specific kind of India. There’s gotta be slums and poverty, women in saris and snot running down noses,” Saria said.

The main characters are Sahil (Dhruv Ganesh), a talented but disenchanted musician trying to cross over into artist management, and Jai (Shiv Pandit), a heavy-hitting New York-based businessman back in India to close a deal. “LOEV” takes place over 48 hours they spend together amid sexual and emotional tension.

Instead of a story about men attempting to negotiate the challenges that same-sex couples face in India, Saria wanted to tell a universal story about attraction. The narrative in “LOEV” is complicated by a lack of certainty about Sahil and Jai’s relationship. It is never made clear whether they are friends or lovers, or how long they have known each other.

Saria said he withheld such details to allow subtle cues in their interactions tell the story. “What’s interesting to me is behavioral exposition, seeing who these characters are by observing them,” Saria said in an interview at the Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea, where “LOEV” was screening.

To some observers of Indian cinema, a film with homosexual characters that doesn’t place their sexuality at the center of the story is a fresh take. “What 'LOEV' does very beautifully is present an emotional journey by characters who are gay but seem to be comfortable with themselves,” said Aseem Chhabra, a New York-based film writer and director of the New York Indian Film Festival.

In India there is a raucous debate over a colonial-era law that mandates imprisonment for sexual acts that are “against the order of nature,” legislation that has been used to criminalize homosexuality, making LGBT people fearful of living openly.

Though the law was deemed unconstitutional in a landmark 2009 ruling, the Supreme Court reversed the verdict in 2013. In February the Supreme Court agreed to review the law, raising the possibility that it could be struck down.

“LOEV” had its U.S. premiere at South by Southwest in March but still hasn’t been screened at home; Saria is hoping for an Indian release in July or August. Timing may be on his side, as this year has seen two other well-received Indian movies that present mature depictions of same-sex love, suggesting Indian audiences may be becoming more welcoming of such stories.  

The February release of “Aligarh,” based on the true story of a gay university professor who was fired from his job after he was filmed in his home having sex with another man, was met with critical acclaim. Soon after came “Kapoor & Sons,” a big-budget Bollywood hit in which the more successful of two estranged brothers is gay.

Both films feature, well-rounded, mature gay characters, a break from Bollywood tropes where homosexual characters are at times depicted as silly or threatening.

Though unlike those two films, the social context of same sex love in India remains mostly off-screen during “LOEV.” Yet Saria and the crew did have to deal with real risks to the 16-day shoot while filming. The team worried that conservative religious groups would learn that the film was a story of same-sex love and hold protests trying to shut it down.

When crowdfunding to raise money for the production, Saria says, he and his colleagues had to be careful not to mention the film’s theme of same-sex love, telling prospective donors instead that they were making a story about friends. “It’s easier to say you’re making a film about friendship than it is to say you’re making a film about two men getting it on,” he said.

Saria said that, when making "LOEV," he wanted to make a film that would play to his uncle and aunt, whom he stayed with when he moved back to Mumbai last year after more than a decade working and studying in New York and Los Angeles.

He describes them as “unintentionally homophobic,” saying that their disapproval of same-sex love is caused by a lack of exposure to stories featuring same-sex love. He hopes that “LOEV” might change their way perspective. He said, “Maybe the next time they see two men being a little romantic while walking down a street in India, they’ll have a little more empathy.”

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