Shamim Sarif is perhaps one of the most honest Desi filmmakers. Taking from her own experiences and situations she has encountered, the writer-director went on to make one of the most coveted films based on her own written novels “I Can’t Think Straight” and “The World Unseen”. Interestingly both films feature a similar theme set in different times. While I Can’t Think Straight talks about a lesbian couple in today’s world who deals with society and a cultural divide while The World Unseen deals with a comparable situation however set in 1950 South Africa. However whether its I Can’t Think Straight or The World Unseen, individually the scripts talk about women who need to break boundaries as they deal with a taboo subject in homophobic societies. The festival circuit has taken quite a liking to both films which independently won much acclaim and awards and is now gearing up for release in India. BollySpice speaks to the bold and modest filmmaker about her journey through both films.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I began as a screenwriter quite early on, adapting one of my published short stories into a script, and always had parallel careers as a novelist and screenwriter. But it was Hanan who suggested the move to directing, and I began taking courses and learning all I could. But the opportunity to direct ICTS came up more quickly than I had realized, and I took it!
Let’s begin with I Can’t Think Straight. How did you develop the idea?
It began as a novel, with streaks of autobiography, and I had a hard time finishing it. I think the similarities in terms of the trauma Hanan, my partner and the producer of ICTS and The World Unseen, and I had gone through in coming out to our families, made it tough. So I began working on it as a script, and went in the very different direction of a romantic comedy. I then went back after the movie and completed the book and it was a great experience.
At any point did you feel that such a thought may not be accepted by Indian audiences? What audience did you write the script for?
Honestly, an Indian audience did not cross my mind, nor any audience in terms of disapproval of the central relationship. I write with a reader or viewer in mind, but that means I am trying to make sure the characters feel real and the storyline works so the audience is not left unsatisfied. I don’t write with other people’s potential prejudices in mind, but rather hope people will be open enough to see things differently than they might usually.
How did you develop the characters? You chose two women from two strong faiths and “made” them fall in love. Intentional?
As I say, there is an element of autobiography and Hanan and I are from different faiths. Of course, it added to the layers that I could explore as a filmmaker, and that is always wonderful to be able to do. Because I think progress depends on all of us being able to question the ideas and traditions we are brought up with, if required.
How close to real life would you say the screenplay of I Can’t Think Straight is?
I think the background is quite real in terms of faith, culture and so on. Hanan was not engaged when I met her, nor did I have another girlfriend in between – those kinds of plot lines were added and enhanced because the key was to make great drama, not an accurate biography.
What challenges and obstacles did you face while making the film? And were you at all skeptical about the performances or any apprehensions the actresses would have towards their roles in the film?
On the production we had tremendous challenges as our initial investor was very difficult. So we had days cut out of our shoot in the middle, we were thrown out of locations – the kind of things that make it harder to get what you need for the film. But the people whose support never wavered were Hanan, Aseem Bajaj, my amazing cinematographer who had flown in from Mumbai to shoot with me, and Lisa and Sheetal.
I had no apprehension about the actresses playing these roles – neither they nor I think in those terms. We got on well and enjoyed the process. I was concerned that they should be relaxed and comfortable on set and during the love scenes.
How did you decide on casting Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth as the main leads in the film?
I had problems casting early on – the British Indian and British Arab actresses I had in mind were anxious about the love scenes. In the end, this worked out well, as I was forced to cast internationally, and when I spoke to both Lisa and then Sheetal, I don’t think I ever had a conversation about the characters being lesbian. They both just loved the script and the story.
The film went on to become popular at various film festivals; did you anticipate the reaction and curiosity the film developed?
I didn’t anticipate the way the film would sell out and the audience reaction, or the awards! We’ve won eight now, and every screening I’ve been to has been more like a rock concert, with people lined up and interacting with the movie, clapping and cheering. It’s an amazing feeling.
What reaction did the film receive from gay and lesbian communities?
Extremely positive. People were happy to have a romantic comedy but one that also explores some serious issues around tradition, culture and integrity. Audiences have really supported the movies and DVDs and the novel.
How much research goes into a film like I Can’t Think Straight? Especially since both faiths are relatively homophobic.
I had some personal experience to draw on! But yes, research is very necessary and when I was working on the novel I traveled to Jordan to research. I think a lot of homophobia is fear-based, and by putting two characters on screen that you like and care about, you can erode that fear and make people realize that sexuality is not a way to judge people, any more than color and race is.
ICTS is now getting ready for release in India and you’ve been asked to not only delete a love-making scene but the film has also been given an A rating. What was your reaction when you were told of these instances? And also the film is releasing later than it did overseas, what was the reason for this?
I was surprised at the A rating – it has been rated 12 at the most elsewhere. The love scenes are sensuous but reflective of the love between these two women, so it was disappointing to get one of them cut by half. No director in the world wants their work censored. I did smile when they gave the reason that the scene was ‘too long’. Considering the movie is 80 minutes, around half a standard Bollywood release, I would think they would want to put more in, not take it out!
Are you going to fight the Censor Board on both matters?
No – I have to weigh our responsibility to our distributors who need to get it released. And overall I would rather people saw it than didn’t. I’d like everyone to be aware that these cuts have happened though, and for no good reason.
You also have The World Unseen. When will it release in India?
We don’t have a firm date yet, but we hope later this year. As well as Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth, the movie stars Parvin Dabas and Nandana Sen, and has won 20 awards.
What is the premise of the film? Is it a sequel or prequel to I Can’t Think Straight?
It’s a completely different film. It’s a period drama set in 1950s South Africa, whereas ICTS is a contemporary romantic comedy. But it also has a subtle love story between two very different women, one a traditional housewife, the other a rebel.
Why did you choose to recast Lisa and Sheetal?
I really enjoyed working with them both the first time around. Lisa loved the book and story so much that she wanted to be involved in any way possible, and I knew she had the ability to switch characters entirely. For me, in The World Unseen, she has a difficult role to communicate an interior life without much dialogue. And Sheetal also switched characters completely from one movie to the other.
How as the reaction to the film been thus far?
The reaction has been great. The LA Times reviewed it as ‘sensual, witty and elegant’ but much more important to me than reviews are the reactions of viewers, and we get emails daily from people moved to tell us how much they loved it.
I read somewhere that you have actually written the novels for both your films, then directed them both. How hard or easy is it to turn a book into a film?
It’s a very different skill, and the hardest part is putting aside the novel completely, and doing what is right for the script. You have to be ruthless, and as David Hare said about adaptation, you have to be promiscuous to be faithful.
What is coming up for you next?
We’re working on two different film projects – The Dreaming Spires, which will shoot in Oxford with Aseem Bajaj as my DP again. And Despite the Falling Snow, based on my second novel, about love and betrayal in cold war Russia. Also, we’re looking at turning ICTS into a TV series. It’s been a great journey but we rely on people to support our films and books – it’s not easy working in the independent film world, especially with piracy. So, although piracy is rife in India, as in so many countries, please ask your readers to think twice about using illegal downloads or pirated DVDs.