By Rahul Desai

A businessman bursts into tears by the side of a hotel bed. He is ashamed, frustrated, sick and horribly besotted. Moments ago, he mounted his lover – now motionless and numb – non-consensually on the bed. He is married, but not to the assaulted person in the sheets. What they’re doing is forbidden; what he has just done seemed painfully inevitable. In two hours, this man must go back to his life eight thousand miles away. This was his final act of desperation – and love. A messy kind of love. A jumbled-up kind of love. He won’t get another chance.

They’d never last, and it’s not just because they’re cheating. It’s not because they’re two men. It’s not even because they’re two Indian men. Jai (Shiv Pandit) is rich, and Sahil (the late Dhruv Ganesh) is not. And this is only partially their tragedy.

This torrid scene belongs to Sudhanshu Saria’s LOEV, an independent film that explores a different gaze of sexual orientation and companionship. Different, perhaps for how bereft of gaze their bond is. Different, because they aren’t looked at differently, or as closeted victims and uncomfortable adults. On the contrary, when the gardener of their rented mountain cottage eyes them suspiciously, we are the ones socially conditioned to expect something ominous to happen. We are the only ones hoping they don’t get lynched.

They’re not on the run, there’s no reason for them to be fearful. Different, because when they stride to the restaurant soon after Jai violates him, Sahil tries to grasp Jai’s hand; he wants Jai to know that it’s okay, that it’s not his fault and this isn’t one-way traffic; Jai lets him, for a fleeting second, before pulling away; one assumes this is a reflex reaction in a country where homosexuality is a criminal offence, given the number of waiters and ‘decent’ people around; seconds later, they’re seated with Sahil’s extravagant boyfriend, Alex (Siddharth Menon), who was waiting for them at the table.

The handholding was never the problem, the legitimacy of it was. Strangers aren’t the issue, the strangeness of their situation is. Jai has been uptight all this while because he is trapped in the life demanded of him. Sahil has been cautious because feelings are a luxury they cannot afford.

With the man-child that Alex is, Sahil is forced to feel like an adult and parent in their relationship. As soon as he sees the suave Jai – their body language hints that this isn’t the first time – he allows himself to feel like Alex. He feels free and taken care of for a change.

Saria constructs LOEV as a gentle film, giving us enough time and space to forget about who these three men really are, or what they signify, or why they got here. You stop wanting to look at the sides of the screen to examine passing expressions. All you want is to know why they’re incomplete. You wonder who is aware of what in this perplexing friendship. You stop wondering about how their families must have disowned Alex and Sahil – a possibility implied by the way they’re struggling to survive in Mumbai (the film begins with their little flat in darkness because Alex forgot to, or couldn’t, pay the electricity bill again).

This is a story of what may happen after the end credits of an against-all-odds love story. They’re way past fighting the system; they’ve probably spent so long trying to make this life that they’ve forgotten how to live it. Some couples are meant to perish, but Alex and Sahil adapt instead. They shouldn’t have. As a result, Jai is, both, a consequence and cause of this fading afterglow.

Saria’s handling of their resolution, if one can call it that, feels as crushing as it was back then. Only when you read terms like ‘Indian gay film’ or ‘LGBT movie’ (as referred to in international festival circles), you tend to replay their glances and quietness and despair and giggles in a restrictive context. When one learns that Sahil is actor Dhruv Ganesh’s final performance before his untimely demise, there seems to be a mortal poignancy to his sickly appearance, his empty sighs and crossed heart.

But unlike contemporary conversation-addressing efforts like Aligarh, (segments of) Kapoor & Sons, Onir’s I.Am and Bombay TalkiesLOEV isn’t designed around these identities and prohibitive environments. It has no statements to make. It just happens to be about some men and tortured love, not tortured men of love.

Mentally, one immediately labels Jai as the conflicted man and Sahil as the woman who deserves better: a self-defeating analogy, given that there is such wistfulness to Alex behind all his roguish antics. The irony here lies in the fact that even if Sahil was not a man, this film would still be just as affecting. It would still be as furtive and inaudible. It would still be about first and last glances, about close-ups of turmoil-ridden faces at airports and in roofless cars. And it would still be spelled as LOEV.

[A version of this was published in THE HINDU]

LOEV, directed by Sudhanshu Saria, is now streaming on NETFLIX. 

IIF Link to the director’s interview: