The trailer for Hearts, a film by Somali-American filmmaker Afdhere Jama about gay couples across the world, was released on YouTube the same day the Supreme Court upheld the view that homosexuality is a crime. The irony was not lost on actor duo Nolan Lewis and Nakshatra Bagwe, readying for their international debut.
"It must be a strange quirk of fate that the Hearts trailer made it to YouTube on the same day that India's apex court re-criminalised homosexuality," laughs Lewis, the first Indian to make it to the top 10 of the Mr Gay World pageant held in Antwerp in July last year.
The Bandra resident is making the most of a break from a photo shoot with South African photographer Blake Woodham as he tackles both this writer's questions and his lunch — a salad bowl — with equal felicity.
Antwerp was a turning point. More a hunt for LGBT ambassadors to represent the community internationally than a beauty pageant, Lewis was pleasantly surprised at the reception he received on his return. "I'd discussed the pageant with my family members before entering it since they would potentially face as much flak as me," he recalls. "But I've had nothing but good reactions. In fact, some boys who bullied me in school for being effeminate actually congratulated me and expressed remorse. That's a big personal victory."
Jama spotted him in Antwerp. "It didn't take too much convincing for me to agree. Jama's offer was bringing me back to the screen," the 30-year-old says. It had been a decade since he performed in a music video with girl band Viva."
Los Angeles-based Jama candidly reveals that he noticed Nolan at Mr Gay World because of his nationality. "It was wonderful as it broke stereotypes about India. Through friends involved with the event, I tracked Nolan's progress and thought, 'Hey! This is not just a pretty guy. He has something to say about the world he comes from'," Jamal told dna.
He picked his second actor, 22-year-old Thane filmmaker Bagwe, for the work that he has done. "I chose Nakshatra because I really appreciate his short films that speak to this generation of young Indians — gay or otherwise. He's not just a filmmaker. I see resonances of myself in him. He's someone interested in the advancement of the LGBTQ community. "
Unlike Nolan, Bagwe was tougher to convince. Jama got in touch on Facebook and Bagwe could only think it was a hoax. "Till I read the script and met him personally I was worried that it was a trap. Whoever makes such an offer for an international project on Facebook, I wondered," says Bagwe.
He read up on Jama's work before taking a final call. "His themes are unique and involve a brand of activism that I identify with."
The two lead actors had only heard about each other before Hearts. Nolan recalls, "When I met Nakshatra for the first time, there was a lot of tension. I assumed that he would be an uptight pseudo-intellectual, in keeping with my own stereotypes about filmmakers. I soon realised how wrong I was. Nakshatra's quite a humble, sweet and compassionate chap."
Nolan remembers his inhibitions about being in an intimate scene with his co-star. "I have done nude shoots by myself but here I was with another person I didn't fully know."
The younger Bagwe had no such qualms. "I was quite comfortable even while doing a shirtless bedroom scene," he points out, remembering the giggling fits both had after the shoot while watching the scene. The two are now good friends and often hang out together.
Nolan and Bagwe are forging new paths as they go their separate ways. Nolan, a tarot-card reader and crystal-healer, admits being disappointed at not winning the top pageant title in Antwerp, but that hasn't dipped his enthusiasm one bit. Especially considering the sheer number of opportunities knocking at his door since. His photo shoot with Woodham is part of a coffee table book on the OutGames, which he describes as "the gay version of the Olympics".
"I've also been approached by the cruise company Amazing Cruises to be its Indian ambassador," he says.
But his biggest catch is the official nomination to become the Mr Gay World pageant director in India. "It'd involve setting up an official Mr Gay India competition and arranging funds for candidates for the international pageants," he explains. "I would like to see future contestants not having to struggle like me."
Hoping the recent developments and the not-exactly-friendly socio-political climate will allow for a pageant like this, he says, "One does live on hope, after all."
Bagwe, is off to Chennai for a month to shoot for a full-length feature My Son Is Gay, a film that looks at the travails of parents coming to terms with their son's coming out.
His Logging Out had won an award at India's only and South Asia's biggest queer film festival Kashish two years ago. "One sleepless night I decided to make a zero-budget, one-man-effort short film. Its success was special as the competition included professionals from across the world."
Logging Out has since been screened at the Queens Museum of Arts (New York), The Old Cinema (London) and was also a part of Queer India European tour 2012. The debutante made five more short films over the year. "I depict what I already see out there in my own experiences," says the young collegian who adds, "People wrongly believe a bad incident in your childhood makes you gay. I'm gay but my childhood was picture-perfect. I just hate when a child merely two-three is fed ideas about marriage by parents. We need to stop taking its sexuality for granted."
His parents were also upset when he came out to them but finally came around. "I never made my coming out look like I'm begging for acceptance. I personally believe it's not one's sexuality but work and talent that gains respect."
Nolan and Bagwe believe that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises homosexuality, is a blemish that needs to go and hope their film will raise awareness and help mobilise like-minded people.
Jama agrees. "Hearts is a romantic story, but at the heart of the project is the idea that love is the same regardless of what genders give or receive it, and whether they are of the same gender or opposite or both. That is the social level. Then, of course, there's the political level. We all need allies who stand with us.
"Queer Indians need non-Indian queers around the world to stand with them, so that government bodies are pressured to rethink their policies. But we need to make sure our allies are working with us, rather than against us. This collaboration with both Nakshatra and Nolan is a step in that direction."
Asked about the censorship-loving Indian rabid Right and whether he fears his film could also be targeted, Jama says, "In the internet age, we're more connected. In the Arab Spring, youth came together on the Net and overthrew tyrants their parents couldn't unseat. We don't need to think about those who don't like what we do. We'll do our part and the rest will fall into place. After all, others are doing their part too."
It is this hope that makes Jama, and his actor duo hope to make a film like the French L'Inconnu du lac (Stranger By The Lake, a compelling gay art-cinema suspense film) out of India someday. Jama says "Who knows? Maybe in the future. It's a great film... reminded me of Hitchcock." We can hardly wait.