When we think of desire, we think of a very specific kind of longing. One which entraps us, obsesses and caresses us. In its most basic form, desire in that longing to obtain what often seems unobtainable. Indeed the origins of the word desire comes from desiderare, which means to await what the stars will bring. Desire originates in this longing for the stars, those things so beautifully and unfathomably beyond our reach. And as a part of that, to long for change, for the stars to bestow a different fate for the planet. I was led to trace the origins of desire because of Varsha Panikar and Saad Nawab’s new short film Bodies of Desire (2020) - a poetic testament to unbridled, celebrated tenderness, which when proudly reciprocated with others, is transformed into radical intimacy, a sort of solidarity of the body. Confronting the normative manner in which sexuality is discussed in Indian culture, Bodies of Desire establishes desire as world-making, world-protecting - as a space in which we reach not just for nearby bodies but for a future which if we permit ourselves to imagine, can be located in the present.
“For as long as I have known myself I’ve been dark, black and white, and all the shades of in between - but one day right there in the shadows she saw me. Somehow, she found me.” Panikar’s poetry carries us through the intimate footage (beautifully shot by Kaushal Shah), consisting of four sets of lovers entangled in each other’s companionship and care. But the film’s opening lines establishes something crucial about the body as spatially confined and defined. A world before desire’s touch is not just dark but ‘in-between’ the shades of darkness. These lines resonate as we witness a shot of two people in the same space, separated by a wall. As much as Panikar and Nawab’s film is a testament to genderless, queer, body-loving love, its also a compelling dream sequence about how space relates to desire. Space can inhibit desire, block it off. It can also accommodate it, bringing bodies into private, delicate proximity. And of course, the body is a space in itself, a stage or screen in which desire is constantly being reoriented, finding new ways to express itself. “A warm embrace to envelope our tragic world” as Panikar recites. In Bodies of Desire, embraces are their own private space, their own world ameliorating the pain of an old one. What’s particularly notable about the film is the use of interior space. We witness love as it appears in bedrooms and apartments. From this we get a hint of melancholy that underlines the film - that this bliss of genderless love is only performable behind closed doors. Panikar and Nawab have described the film as “free from shame and prejudice” - and the characters are certainly free from self-consciousness as they surrender to each other’s beauty. But Panikar recites how through such intimacy, they experience “a moment locked in perfection.” That perfection is something to be locked within, I wonder if it’s also dependent on the doors remaining locked; its this sort of ambiguity which adds to the sense of longing, that their sweet privacy could one day express itself in public. “As a team” Panikar and Nawab explain, “we wanted to create an image of what queer-urban India could look like, of course, only to an extent, because it is a really broad and ever-evolving compass.” Could is a powerful word, here and in general. It’s a word in which the future intoxicates the present with possibility, with hope. There’s a shot early on where the angle is inverted and we see one of the lovers upside down; immediately, the private sphere is inverted, confronted. After all, this is a privacy made cinematic, and therefore, inevitably public. Panikar and Nawab make the most of the power of film to create such a stage-presence of intimacy.
Though the film has a habit of turning intimacy into something repetitive - the footage doesn’t build or evolve with the shifts of narration. Voice and content sometimes move away from each other as the intermingling of bodies keeps hitting the same note. But despite this, Bodies of Desire makes a moving impression. Despite the moments where we witness bodies alone in their rooms, they never appear lonely. In fact, having been nurtured by others, they appear totally capable of loving themselves. We see lone bodies feeling their own weight, kissing their own skin. “As I reach the peak I look out onto her nakedness … and I think of my own nakedness and in that moment, I love myself ”. These lines demonstrate how the nature of desire is not just a surrender to the sublime object, but a reciprocal process of care. As bell hooks writes in All About Love, ‘love’, as a verb rather than a noun, is ‘the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth’. As for Bodies of Desire, love is not surrender. It is reciprocation. It’s sharing a space that is internal and external. It is joyous. It is, well, love.
Writer and Filmmaker
Varsha Panikar 2020 3:41Mins India Hybrid Short Film