A queer love story

Saad Ahmed

Vilom, an exploration of same-sex relationships in an intolerant society, was screened at the Cannes Film Market 2020 and B3 Biennial of the Moving Image 2020, Berlin. The 31-year-old first-time director, Sunder Pal, however, never set out to be a filmmaker. He wanted to be an actor.

“In 2013-14, I wasn’t able to get enough work as an actor,” says Sunder, an MA (Theatre) from Panjab University, where he is now pursuing his PhD. “I was greedy to act. I had a story with me so I decided to cast myself in the film.”

Ambika Kamal as Nivi

He became both the director and lead actor of Vilom. Sunder plays the titular character Vilom, who is attracted to Amay (Navpreet Moti), a hairdresser. As their relationship deepens, they move in together. When Vilom embarks on a video art project with Nivi (Ambika Kamal), their bond makes Amay jealous. The film chronicles the evolution of their relationship. Shot in Chandigarh, the film was completed in three schedules over a year-and-a-half to capture different seasons.

“The film,” says Sunder, “was inspired by an article I read about the police harassing a gay person. I researched on the abuse the queer community faced and started writing a story.”

After finishing the 70-page screenplay, he pitched it to various producers but many did not agree with his treatment of the subject. He finally decided to make the film himself. “I was a freelance teacher and conducted acting and personality development workshops. I used that income to fund the film.”

But there was a problem. Trained as an actor, Sunder didn’t know much about filmmaking. “I was clueless about how to break down a script, do shot divisions or design a production. I was not familiar with much filmmaking terminology. I researched online, read blogs and watched videos to understand the basics. Luckily, I was able to get an experienced cinematographer in Vijay Tomar. Whenever I got stuck, I looked for answers online. It took me five attempts to get the Digital Cinema Package [digital equivalent of a film print] right.”

Most of the cast and crew were his friends, many of whom also studied at the Department of Indian Theatre, Panjab University. “I couldn’t find people with all the required skills within my friend circle, so I had to budget in some professionals.” He found the film’s editor through an open call he’d posted on Facebook. The editor recommended a colourist to him. Amsterdam-based Ernst Spyckerelle composed the score of the film.

“I also handled production design, costume and art department. I had to check the lighting, the set, the shot, then act in the shot and review it later. I had to take on all of this because I didn’t have the money to hire people,” he says.

The lack of funds forced him to make certain compromises. “The production quality and sound could have been better. But I was an amateur when I started,” confesses Sunder. Nevertheless, the film has been garnering audiences across the world. “The release of the film has been delayed in France due to the lockdown there. It is also being shown on online streaming platforms like Dekkoo and GagaOOlala.” Vilom is being screened online at the I View World Human Rights Film Festival 2020 until December 20.

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