As with many of the most intimate films, Sudhanshu “Suds” Saria’s “Loev” began with a breakup – just not a personal one, but a professional one.
Born in Darjeeling, Saria had resettled in Los Angeles to work in the film industry, rising his way up to become an development and distribution executive over seven years before trying his hand at making movies himself. With that experience, he wanted to return to his native India with a film he was sure would be produced, but when things didn’t go as quickly as he would’ve liked, he changed course.
“Writing the script was helping me get over [the other film], so I cast off all those traditional concerns aside and just wrote it in a very naked way,” Saria said of “Loev,” which recently made its North American debut at the SXSW Film Festival. “This came out of heartbreak, and it only happened because I didn’t think it would ever happen.”
Perhaps that is why “Loev” feels like such a welcome aberration, a film that could so easily be defined by its setting or its subject matter – the story of two longtime friends who discover a romantic spark during their reunion, which in India is taboo because the two are men. Yet Saria’s nuanced drama isn’t concerned with raising controversy, only pulses – yours and the characters onscreen – as he pulls you into the lives of Jai (Shiv Pandit) and Sahil (Dhruv Ganesh), a Wall St. banker and a humble man living in Mumbai, respectively, who have used the occasion of one of Jai’s all-too-rare business trips to take a detour through the breathtaking mountains of Mahabaleshwar to blow off some steam. However, little can cool them off as they discover a new depth of feeling for each other, largely told by way of stolen glances and roundabout conversations in which the the pair try to eke out hints from one another about where they stand. Yet Jai and Sahil never stay in one place too long, either emotionally or physically, traveling through the countryside into the city in a way that makes the journey constantly alive with possibility.
In the past few months, Saria has gone on quite the ride himself, this week in England for the BFI Flare Film Festival after “Loev”’s premiere in Austin last week and an earlier date in Estonia at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival last November, each stop bringing a more incredulous smile to the writer/director than the next, given he never thought the film would be made. While he was at SXSW, he was joined by Pandit and one of the film’s producers Katharina Suckale to talk about realizing the seemingly impossible, filming in locations that he didn’t block off for shooting and waiting to show it to his parents.
Suds Saria: Honestly, I was going through a hard time [professionally], and I only started writing about it only because I never thought the film would actually get made. I’d gone to India from L.A. to do a much more traditional film, much more strategic, cast-able, bankable, salable film, and that was taking a while to get started. That’s also how I met Bombay Indian Film Productions, the people I produced the film with. They wanted to produce that movie, which we weren’t able to raise the financing for, and I wrote this one, which is 100 times more unlikely in a country where homosexuality is criminalized. [Since] a film like this is likely never to be released and because the Indian film industry has a prevalent sense of machismo when it comes to how actors like to project themselves, no producer, distributor, financier, or actor is going to want to invest their time and energy. When I arrived back in Bombay, I was confident I was going to be laughed out, but I actually found Bombay to be such a generous place where actors were very much more concerned about the quality of the writing, and the intent behind the work as opposed to the expectation I had that they would all be like, “How many screens is it going to go to? How will this make me a bigger star?” When I went back to the producer, they pretty much signed on right away and I started the casting process.
Shiv, what got you interested?
Shiv Pandit: The script did not hold any vice. It wasn’t important for it to have any particular gender and what really jumped out to me was the emotion involved. Films we made out of this [subject] of the LGBT community in India, in my opinion, are sensational, and this did not have that agenda. It wasn’t pushing any kind of movement. It was purely a simple love story, and stories like these need to be told in full. I looked at it more like an opportunity rather than a career ladder [since] nobody was offering me a part like this in Bombay. I’ve been acting for a few years now, but this is a part which came out of the blue and I just thought maybe there’s a reason I’ve been selected for this, so I should not let the opportunity go.
Suds Saria: And [Shiv] passes that off as a very easy decision, but I don’t believe that. He’s acted a lot in these 3500-screen Bollywood releases as well as like [having] his own TV show for around seven years, so he’s got a very strong base in India, and expectations that his audience has of what he does and does not do. This is the kind of thing that makes people go, “What did you do?!?” And anybody can do “Brokeback [Mountain]” with Ang Lee, but a first-time director comes along and [Shiv] says, “I want to do this”? It would make a lot of people nervous – it would make me nervous if someone brought me the project and asked me to produce it.
Even the structure at the script level itself is very nontraditional. There is no inciting incident, and halfway through the film, you are trying to get a sense of like, “What the hell is happening?” And” Where is this guy headed?” In that way, the risk component from an actor’s point of view must have been [crazy].
To me, it was very unlikely that we ended up working on this. In the other bit of small world tiny surprises, we actually were in the same boarding school together a decade ago, completely unrelated. I found out only after our first meeting from mutual friends. Like, “You know he went [there]?” People from our school don’t end up in the film industry.
Shiv Pandit: It’s produced a lot of you guys.
Suds Saria: I think back when we were going to school, we were groomed to be CEOs and bankers. If someone said I want to work in Bollywood, then it better be like a sentimental film.
As you mention, it’s a very subtle structure – how much context did you want to give throughout the film for what this was? Because it’s not easy to categorize, I understand it was difficult to get into festivals, but then again that’s what makes it unique.
Suds Saria: I didn’t deal with the real world implications of that until quite late in the game. Katharina and Arthi [Lamba] were the best producing partners to have, because they made me feel so safe. As you can imagine, instead of being crass and blunt, which is what I think all producers have to be, Arthi was the first person telling people “it’s not a gay film.” He was already creating this idealized, romantic bubble around me in which I could just create freely without worrying about what happens to this film [after it’s finished].
I remember [Arthi] telling me, “Look Suds, festivals expect poverty porn out of India,” and I thought he was being a bit naïve, but he turned out to be totally right. We started hearing from people in so many words that their audience expects in a world cinema [category] to go on a tour of the world and this [film] feels like this could happen in Boston, or Budapest, or Berlin, so it was like, “Why should I include this as one of the 10 films in the world cinema category?” It was like a very veiled way of saying that this is Indian, but it’s not.
Katharina Suckale: I think it’s really time to give a different image of India. I came to India 2004 when I made a documentary about musicians and people in Germany and in Austria were saying, “This is India? There are normal people there?” I was sitting there, talking to these people wondering where are we now? That was 2004 and here it is in 2016 and nothing has changed. People still think India is all slums and…
Suds Saria: People know that India is modern, but that’s not the India they want to see in the festival. They want to go on a more exoticized experience, which I don’t fault them for, but when it comes to being a gatekeeper of cinema – a film festival programmer – I think the only thing that should win is if the film is good or not.
But to get back to your question, while I was making it, [the producers] made me feel really safe, and I would be the most cynical person on the team. I would walk around set telling people, “The film will premiere on Vimeo or YouTube” just because I knew I loved the film, but it doesn’t resemble things I’ve seen. We worked very hard to make the film feel ordinary, quiet and subtle and that’s not the kind of shit that wins awards and goes places. It takes a festival like SXSW or Black Nights Tallinn, or Guadalajara to say, “This is worth looking at.” Then people start to pay attention.
Suds Saria: Yeah, I went from gay marriage rallies in L.A. to landing in Bombay and opening up the newspaper, going, “What the fuck is this? The Supreme Court has re-criminalized [homosexuality].” Then I’m looking at people around me [in India] and the LBGT community is healthy and functioning, out using apps and their faces are everywhere, and I found they were strangely okay, like being who they are [openly] was their own form of protest. Everybody was fully aware this is [only] a symbolic law that cannot be actually executed, and the dichotomy of the whole situation was very intriguing to me.
In terms of filmmaking, I was less concerned with being a pioneer in Indian cinema, or pushing the envelope of any genre. Having spent so much time outside India, and even the States, I definitely have my own identity as a citizen of the world, and I was just interested in making a cinema that’s interesting anywhere, which can be a little frustrating to purveyors of LGBT or Indian cinema. They want you cater to that niche, whereas I just wanted to make a good movie. Shiv was telling me how even on set we never used the word “gay.” He was saying at a Q & A, “Look, it wasn’t until I came to the festival that I became obvious to me that I’ve made a gay movie.” We always only talked about it as a love story, but there is this categorization of love.
Shiv Pandit: We were tackling this whole thing as an emotional love story, or that relationship dynamic [where romantic feelings] come in between friends. What really got me about Suds’ film was that it’s a love story which just happens to be about men. As dumb as it sounds, the first time I literally realized that I’m part of a gay film was when we went to [a festival in] Thailand and people started using the word “gay” and started saying, “It’s so courageous of you.” I’ve traveled to a few countries with this and I also think what happens is with India, people are always saying Bollywood, Bollywood, Bollywood, so it’s almost like whenever an Indian film comes, you are quietly dismissing an Indian film by saying, “It’s that section, it’s a Bollywood section.” I just feel it’s a bit of a categorization, and it’s a bit of a “You know you are on that side, buddy,” kind of a situation.
What happens with a film like this is that when [an audience] sees a film which could have been produced by an American or Estonian or a Mexican filmmaker and have those kind of characters and setting, it freaks them out to realize, “Oh my God! This is a film which could have happened here – how is it happening in India?” I really appreciate that, because all of a sudden, it’s on the same platform as everybody else in the world and you just want to be viewed from an equal perspective.
That said, you show off a number of distinctive locations throughout India. Did you have certain locations in mind when you wrote it?
Suds Saria: No, absolutely not. I did not tell my producers that I’ve never even been to Mahabaleshwar where I have confidently written this whole movie. They sent us a prep team to get these locations, and I’m like describing the [scenes] to them and my producer, who isn’t here, pulled me aside and she’s like, “Have you been to this place?” I’m like, “No, no, no,” and she’s like, “You’ve written this thing that you are convinced exists, and you have never been to the city?” I’m like, “But it must exist.” That meant we went through every single resort in the city to find the one that the two [characters] stay at. By the end, we had gone to 65 resorts.
Towards the end, I told them I locked a great location for the [hiking scene] and I would secretly do hikes on my own. I would tell them, “I’m feeling a little sick, I’ll come to the office around 11,” then get up at 2 to go on another hike, because what we had was not good enough. Much like casting on a film where we don’t have too much money, the locations had to be perfect. They have to be ready [for shooting] because I cannot afford to do a shit-load of [production design], plus I refused to do any cuts. I wanted to do shots which went from outside to inside — so you couldn’t have [the characters] go in and then cut to a room somewhere else, which would work perfectly and be much cheaper — because it was so important to make the audience believe they are watching an uninterrupted truth, unmanipulated and unfiltered, so that they could really experience the emotions. But that made [finding] locations a complete nightmare.
The five-star hotel [in the film] had to be in the right neighborhood overlooking the slum where there is construction so you can get a sense of new Bombay. The airport is one of the most secure locations in the whole country — militarized — so we had to go in and shoot there without permits, because I’m like, “If we are going to show people the metropolis of Mumbai, one of the financial hubs of the whole world, the airport has to look like that. It cannot be a dingy airport somewhere.” Having producers who step by step constantly [said], “You are crazy, but I’ll do this with you,” made a big difference. They could have made me compromise. And maybe they know this, but I was always half a step away from breaking, and if they added one more phone call, I would have been like, “Okay, I give up,” but they never did that. They were great.
Suds Saria: At the really fancy five-star restaurant, we had that after they packed up the place from [midnight] til four am before the morning light came on. We had control over it. That was the scene where we wanted to show a little bit of budget and we could afford a few extras to fill up the place, but for example, when they do the quiet restaurant date [earlier in the film], that was wild. People are eating, food’s coming and [other things] are happening. The airport was completely wild. For the car shots, there was literally a day where they were shooting on the roads, so [in the] BMW convertible [we have], my sound designer is sleeping in the backseat, Shiv and me are hopped up on the back with my cinematographer, feet down, with no harness and we are shooting and in the middle of this, I hear a motorcycle, and I’m like, “Who the fuck is this moron ruining my sound?” I turn around and it’s a cop. I tell him, “Let me get my take and I’ll explain things to you.” And he is looking at me like, “I’m a cop. I can take you to jail.” But I got my take. He was so befuddled by the whole thing, he was like, “I don’t even know what to say.” It was a healthy mix, I think. Sometimes we were able to control things, but more often than not [we didn’t] and I liked the real world element of it. [looking at Shiv] Does it help as an actor or is it unfair?
Shiv Pandit: No comment. [laughs]
Suds Saria: I think it makes it feel real. There’s an urgency that comes with it.
Shiv Pandit: I’m sure you’d love it if you could control everything, but unfortunately you cannot afford to, and I suspect the golden side of this is if [Suds] really starts controlling everything, he’d actually get bored. That’s filmmaking for you. At the end of the day, every one has hardships and the film is forever, so that’s what’s important. We can joke about the production problems, but the truth of the matter is this was a film being made for a DVD collection, and now we are here [showing it theatrically]. That’s what’s important. What I was really happy about this was from day one, there were no expectations attached to this project.
Suds Saria: People were very clear the film comes first. On the toughest days when I was putting them through hell, making unreasonable demands of people, hopefully it was always clear that it had nothing to do with me. It’s like, “We are all screwed here.” [Shiv and I] are both so cynical. We were both very comfortable with the fact that most things go nowhere. I didn’t even think [“Loev”] would get [into film festivals]. I didn’t even tell my parents because you know it’s going to have social repercussions for them. I never bothered doing it, because I didn’t think I would make it, then when it got shot, I was like, “Well, it’s going to be no good,” and then when it got edited, I was like, “Well, no one is going to want to watch this.” It wasn’t until mentors I respect and people I have done business with professionally, who have no reason to cuddle me, started recommending it that I had the sinking realization that, “Oh my god! Now we’ll have to be seen.” Most filmmakers probably go the opposite way where they are dying to get their film seen. I’d be telling people, “It’s okay, let it sit.”
Shiv Pandit: Let me say this on record, you did good.
Suds Saria: I refused to do any screening for my family. They were like, “Well, can we see it?” I’m like, “You have to pay for a ticket.”
Shiv Pandit: She literally had to fly to the U.K to watch her own son’s movie.
Well, it’ll be worth the trip, right?
Suds Saria: She falls asleep in every movie. They go to the movie [and it’s like], “What is wrong with your bed?” You don’t go to the theater to sleep. If I’m watching a movie with her it’s so stressful, though I don’t think she’s going to fall asleep in this one.
Katharina Suckale: This one will be very interesting. She is not going to sleep.
Suds Saria: I think she will be like, “What the hell did my son just make?” She’ll probably call my dad and go like, “I don’t know why cannot he just do things like the normal people do? Make a Sony movie – what’s wrong with that?”