There is love and then there is “loev”, the mispronunciation of the universal emotion that is also the title of Sudhanshu Saria’s debut feature. Loev unfolds over 36 hours in the lives of a gay musician and his former lover, a non-resident Indian corporate executive who comes to Mumbai to close a deal and open a window on a possible romantic relationship.

Sahil (Dhruv Ganesh) and Jai (Shiv Pandit) head out for a getaway that brings their mutual attraction and tensions to the surface. Sahil has left behind his advertising filmmaker boyfriend, Alex (Siddharth Menon), for whom he nurses fondness tinged with exasperation, and when Sahil and Jai return to Mumbai and meet Alex for dinner, the volcano of emotions finally erupts.

Loev made its debut at the Black Nights Film Festival in the Estonian capital Tallinn in November 2015. Upcoming festival appearances include Guadalajara, Austin and London (at the LGBT event BFI Flare) in March. On Valentine’s Day, the movie is showing at the European Film Market at the Berlin International Film Festival, after which it will travel to the Istanbul Independent Film Festival.

A still from ‘Loev.’
A still from ‘Loev.’

Not a bad initial journey for Saria, who has previously directed the short films A Tight Spot and His New Hands, but the film’s exclusion from mainstream and LGBT festivals has come as a surprise to him. “I guess it is an unusual film that does not fit into the expectations of poverty porn or gay cinema from India,” the 31-year-old filmmaker said. “The film doesn’t have crying babies and runny noses and missing children. It is a tweener, in the middle of genres, and it has been shot to appear unassuming, which is why it appears dismissable. To be told that your film isn’t gay enough is insulting.”

Films about homosexuality in India, such as Fire, My Brother Nikhil, and the February 26 release Aligarh, focus on the uphill climb faced by men and women who openly identify themselves as queer, especially since the law remains intransigent on the matter. Loev, on the other hand, is set in a liberal bubble that exists in pockets of mega-cities such as Mumbai and Bengaluru. The conflicts faced by the characters have nothing to do with their sexuality – they are openly out and about – and everything to do with their inability to communicate with one another. Sahil and Alex spar like a couple that has been married for far too long, with Alex playing the part of the flitty partner. The roles are neatly reproduced and reversed when Sahil and Jai meet – here, Sahil slips into Alex’s shoes, leaving Jai both seduced as well as irritated. The Hindi-infused English dialogue is conversational, the sexual orientation is inconsequential beyond a point, and the emotions that thrash about are universal and will be felt by audiences queer or straight.

“There are amazing and remarkable films about the more conventional LGBT struggle, and that narrative is very important, but there need to be other narratives too,” Saria said. “Setting the film in the context of a musician and an advertising filmmaker allowed the world to be a bit more of a utopia, where political realities were ignored. By choosing this setting, I could concentrate on matters of the heart – it liberated me. The film eases you into this world, and hopefully you are invested enough in the characters.”

Love by another name is just that, the director added. “It may look different, but it’s just love,” he said. “The heart is so merciless and indiscriminate and confuses all of us. Your sexual orientation won’t save you.”

Loev might remind viewers of Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, but Saria says he has watched neither of these iconic films about men trapped in love. Rather, events in the screenplay flow from his own life, he says. Saria grew up in Darjeeling and studied film at the Ithaca College in New York state. He worked in Los Angeles after his graduation on the financing and marketing of films and television series before embarking on his filmmaking career. The screenplay was written out of “deep shame and fear”, Saria said. He tucked the script into a drawer and tried to forget about it, thinking it would never get made.

But when producers Katharina Suckale and Arfi Lamba showed interest in the project, Loev could not be hidden away any more. The film was shot in the summer of 2014.

The project gained poignancy with the demise of one of its actors. Dhruv Ganesh died of tuberculosis at the age of 29 on January 28, 2015. “Dhruv was so talented, and the moment he opened his mouth, he made your material better,” Saria said.

Siddharth Menon was a “done deal” after his assured performance in Vasan Bala’s unreleased Mumbai-set drama Peddlers (2012). Shiv Pandit is the movie’s surprise draw. Pandit is best known as police inspector Hanuman Prasad Pandey in the television comedy FIR (2006-’08) and Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitaan (2011). “Shiv went to the same boarding school as me, and I saw this double personality – this intelligent and strategic careerist who is parading as a fun actor who is willing to do whatever,” Saria said. “I thought this matched Jai’s journey.”

The writer and director is “all three” of the main characters. “I aspire to be Alex, I have been Sahil for a while, but it’s not until you have been Jai that you can write a film like this,” Saria said.

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‘Loev’.