Filmmaker Debalina Talks About Sexuality, Dissent, & Advocacy Through Her Films

Debalina is an independent filmmaker and cameraperson based in Kolkata, India but travels for work across the country. She studied comparative literature and worked in television before she started to freelance. She has worked on feature-length documentary films, short films, travelogues, music videos, telefilms and mixed genre. She is also a still photographer and that is how she started her career. Her films were selected in the Berlinale Talent Campus, Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), British Film Institute (BFI), International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, etc.

In this interview, she talks about all the things she is passionate about: gender and sexuality, environment.

1) Tell us a little about you – your childhood, your motivation to pursue filmmaking and about the films you have made so far.

I belong to a refugee family displaced from East Bengal. My father’s business made it possible for me to grow up amidst newspapers that came from all corners of the country. My interest in documentaries could have its origins in my habit of voracious reading of anything I laid my hands on.

2) How has your filmmaking journey been? Given the pulse of our government, do you consider your films to be a voice of dissent?

As an independent filmmaker my body of work, which has mostly dealt with gender and sexuality so far, can be considered dissident. However, my present work in Gujarat has made me realize how in certain “politically sensitive” matters the state is much more vigilant and dictating.

3) When did you make “More than a friend?”

‘More Than A Friend’ was made in 2010. The film was discussed in the Indian film chapter of  ‘Queer Cinema in the World’ by Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt along with the film ‘Fire’.

4) Tell us about your latest project – “if you dare desire”

In a small village of West Bengal, India – Swapna and Sucheta-two young women in love with each other – took their own lives. No one from their families came to claim their dead bodies. They remain unclaimed…what if they were not dead but alive today? What if they had decided otherwise? Like many other couples, Aparna-Kajlee from Bongaaon, Moyna-Bandana from Purulia… who had died for love but still live among us, for us. What if Swapna and Sucheta ran away and survived? How would their life be, how would their desires take shape? ‘If You Dare Desire…’, is a film of possibilities… within this hetero-patriarchal world, the women resist with their bodies, with their hearts, their love and desires. They live many lives. They die many deaths. Through this living and dying, they love. They resist and they dream and they create new families, new claimants… new spaces of living, loving… In the daily struggles of a far-away village. In the dark glitters of a big city. And in the spaces in between. ‘If You Dare Desire…’, is a wish-fulfilling film. A hyper-reality of desire.A politics of hope, resistance through desire, through daily living.  Welcome to the many worlds of Swapna-Sucheta. 

Dare to dream, and desire!

5) While filming …and the unclaimed, how did you manage to maintain objectivity in the film, considering how this topic is so close to your heart?

I did not maintain objectivity in the film. This topic is too close to my heart to claim any kind of pseudo-objectivity or illusion of neutrality I tried my best to do justice to the diversity of life-stories, experiences, giving space to the kinds of negotiation queer life is made of in a deeply patriarchal and heteronormative society. Revolving the film around the tragic suicide and its aftermath, there was no question of maintaining so-called objectivity. A balance of truth yes, a balance between contradictory voices yes, a balance of images of the individual pain, collective suffering and the brutality of the mainstream society yes.

6) Do you think the liberal left is just as bad as the right?

You might consider that there are some problems that are endemic to both right and left wing formations– problems that are a reflection of any social reality, in India, casteism and sexism. The commitment of the liberal left must be to constantly eradicate these, within their own structures and polity. However, right-wing politics is inherently exclusionary, in terms of marginalisation and violence in terms of caste, religion and gender, and flourishes through such exclusion.

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Dare To Desire – Details (duration, year, spoken language): 52 minutes, 2017, Bengali, English subtitles. For screening and other information, contact Debalina.