Sudhanshu Saria’s Loev opens with a stereotypical scene between stereotypical gay lovers in a flat in Bombay. It is a lover’s tiff between an anal, organised, super-efficient queen, and his lazy, disorganised, and callously male and artistic boyfriend. It is not just the pitch-perfect performances by Dhruv Ganesh and Siddharth Menon that redeem the scene from its stereotypical moorings; it is these very moorings that redeem the stereotype from itself.
All three main, male, gay characters in the film are psychically grounded in stereotypes. But these stereotypes are the psychic formations in which all South Asian men are trapped: anal queen, butch man, artistic, funky butch man. These formations are not totalising, and in the most disarming scenes in this visually stunning film, they drop, even if only for a second or two. Those moments allow you to breathe as a viewer.
The film’s other framing stereotype is that between corporate culture and artistic pursuit. One of them is a corporate cog; the other two are artists in Bombay’s music and film industries respectively. The concluding scenes of the film alternate between the banter between the two artists in their beat Ambassador, and the frozen stoicism of the corporate cog at the airport. It is clear whose side Saria is on. Yet Saria does not resort to stereotypical binaries and stears clear of pandering to the viewer. The overlap between the stereotypes bubble up.
Despite, or perhaps because of, these two overarching stereotypical framings, Saria's depiction of landscape highlights the limited nature of these framings. From breath-taking vertiginous shots of the ghats to mesmeric long shots of Bombay, the landscape is used to show the limited nature of the dance these characters are dancing, and their own faint realisation somewhere that another world is possible. But that world is never realised.
For gay cinema in India, this is nothing short of a milestone. From complete invisibility in mainstream cinema, to mere caricature and insult; and from sleazy cameos to sanitised portrayal in what was earlier arthouse, and is now called multiplex cinema, the figure of the homosexual has not had an exciting history in Indian cinema.
Loev, though it falls in neither category, might change all that. Released on Netflix with arthouse public release in select European countries, Loev is a third kind of film in India: the festival circuit, Indie film. But like some of its predecessors (Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus comes to mind), it might break out of that ignored portal. If Gandhi’s film was backed by Kiran Rao and inevitably Aamir Khan, this one has the blessings of Shahrukh and Gauri Khan. But unlike Gandhi, Saria will hopefully move on his own and not flounder after this.
However, even if he does, Loev is enough of an achievement. In a little over ninety luxuriant, carefully paced minutes, Saria has changed the landscape of gay cinema in India. It takes its own time to build its universe but it keeps you interested in that space throughout.
At the heart of the film is an act of violence. It is violence that erupts from the toxic combination of corporate and male insecurity. It is essayed superbly by the vastly underrated Shiv Pandit, who has the best performance in the film. But almost equally stunning is Dhruv Ganesh whose limpid, transparent face is an incredible mirror. Both these intense performances are offset by the goofy over-the-topness of Siddharth Menon. But all three actors carry the particular burden of their respective masculinities with effortlessness.
If Sahil (Dhruv Ganesh) is fooled by his apparent capaciousness in absorbing the male violence he secretly desires, Jai (Shiv Pandit) is burdened by his own masculinity and the selfishness that leaves him trapped in it. Alex’s (Siddharth Menon) goofiness masks a sensitivity and acute awareness of his imminent, or immanent, loss of Sahil. His is the question that gives the film its title. Half-mockingly, half-terrifyingly, he asks Sahil after his weeknd with Jai, as he lovingly strokes the guitar Jai gifted him: “Are you in loev?” Sahil quickly shifts into queen boyfriend who must placate artistic boyfriend’s equally fragile ego, as fragile as the corporate ego he has just soothed.
It is on such small scenes and moments that Loev rests. Blink and you will miss the scene. Blink too much and you will miss the film altogether. At the end, all three men remain locked in their psychic frames. While the couple has more breathing space and even some space for fun, the final solid frozen shot of Jai. Yet all three men are trapped in their subjectivities. Loev, above all, is a searing critique of masculinity and its toxicities, whether of the aggressive corporate type or the masochistic queen gay man type.
It is a film that can teach not just gay men but all men the need to break out of psychic frames, and how "love" may not be the way to do it. Hauntingly shot with a moving soundtrack, and foremost, a directorial vision that is so sensitive, it is almost invisible, Loev is a masterpiece of contemporary Indian cinema, gay or otherwise.
Ashley Tellis is an academic and an LGBTQ rights activist.