Paromita Vohra is an award-winning film-maker, author, columnist and curator whose work focuses on urban life, popular culture, gender, politics and art. Along with all this she is also the founder of Agents of Ishq, a multi-media project on love, sex and desire. In a two-part interview with TARSHI, Paromita tells it to us as only she can: frank, articulate and free of male cow poop!
TARSHI: You have said that everything must be done in an atmosphere of pleasure and fun, for the gesture of invitation would determine the nature of the response. Are children in Indian homes able to talk openly about sex with their parents?
PV: No, absolutely not. Inter-generational conversations around sex are zero or may be 10%. In some homes today, people are able to discuss sex in the abstract. Like there will be many homes today where the petition on Section 377 will be discussed between the generations. But actual sexual lives are very rarely discussed. But even more, the idea that you do something because you like it – not only sexually, but in almost any sphere of life, is not something many of us grow up with. The notion of individual choice within the culture of a group identity is viewed with suspicion and actively discouraged. Anything that will give you individual ideas – eg, art, fun, friendship, random roaming around – is denoted as superfluous and a threat to discipline. Which it is of course – it is these things that ‘give us ideas’ and suggest that life can be lived differently than it has been so far! When it comes to shifting this though, where it comes to sex and sexuality-education, my response to that is that there are two levels. One, we have to stop berating parents for not knowing how to talk about sex with their kids because nobody taught them how to. They can’t magically become good at it. There are parents who are trying and there are parents who don’t try. That’s one thing.
Two, my insistence on pleasure in art in general and in AOI in particular and the way that AOI is shaped does derive from my own personal experience within my family. Which is to say that it’s not like I come from some highly progressive family where we are discussing sex with each other over dinner. Not at all. I come from that kind of an average Indian modern family where while you are given freedom to be the person you want to be, but there is the same kind of hesitation in my family as in many others (when it comes to talking about sex inter-generationally) and some comfort with convention. But what was present in my family, for example, was that pleasure was not frowned upon. Enjoying yourself in life was not something that was disallowed. You must come first in class and not think of anything else – that is not the family I grew up in. You must do well in school was certainly part of my upbringing like most middle class people. But you will also have fun and discover what you like, what you are good at, was also naturally accepted.
It makes a huge difference. One, it is about acknowledging children’s individuality – that is a big thing. I am very grateful that my parents did not tell me that I had to be cookie-cutter successful – (get into) engineering, medicine, teaching, whatever. So,“find out what you like to do and then do it” was an option in my family. And for that I am forever grateful. Two, the fact that liking music, enjoying yourself, making jokes, eating what you like, dressing how you like, looking good – all these things were not frowned upon.I know that in many families all of this is seen as unnecessary. Because I was given that freedom to explore and indulge in what I enjoyed, to know what I like, it helped me through my life to define my own journey and not feel permanently devastated by mistakes.
At the same time, I didn’t just live in my family, but in the world – and well, they are as much part of the world as anyone. So, I had shame about the way I looked, I had uncertainty around what’s correct sexual behaviour or not, and I had also internalised some notions about gender as families are not the only influence and we grow up in a society which also influences us. It took me time to make that journey (to get over internalised shame and patriarchy) and it is an ongoing journey where I fall back and move forward in different phases. It takes all of us time to make that journey away from our conditioning. But the fact that pleasure was not frowned upon in my family helped me to navigate my way through life. I could tell when I didn’t like something because I knew what I liked. I could say,“I don’t like the way this guy is behaving with me”,“I don’t like the way this guy is looking at me”,“I don’t like what I am expected to do in a romantic relationship; I want it to be different.” And I knew it can be different and I wanted to work towards that different. Also – that I wanted to work towards that different, not only critique the world and wait for it to change. There is a way that pleasure makes you know that you wish to make a livable life for yourself and that involves changing yourself as much as pushing against things that try to constrain you.
In AOI, we try very much to bring that possibility of change to people through an atmosphere, a context of pleasure and fun and tasty options. That’s why we used to do something like Sexy Saturday Songs where diverse definitions of sexiness can be shared in a non-verbal way. We have music, humour, emotion, philosophy, information but there is also an envelope of fun and play. We have a section called Mazedaar Matter. We are saying mazza, enjoyment of life, is important. Sex is a part of that enjoyment of life – one part of an overall life lived with enjoyment, interest and choice.
T: Of the many AOI pieces, which ones have got the most surprising responses?
PV: I don’t know about surprising, but one of the most heartening things that we experience at AOI is that there is almost nothing that people object to. People have written very frank stories about their lives, and there is a kind of openness that people have, a kindness with which people engage.
What we have learnt is that there is no one ‘most popular’ piece. There is a spectrum of popular pieces… So, to give you an example, there is a piece on AOI called ‘Unfuckable me’, which is quite long, complex and dense. It’s also quite intense in the way a young woman writes about how the male gaze categorises women and makes love a very difficult thing to have as an experience. Now that has been a phenomenally successful article. Another piece that has been very successful is ‘Lost and found poems of a girl who liked sex’. It’s a very beautiful post with lovely drawings and lovely poems but it’s poetry and so we didn’t imagine it would be so successful. But it is one of the most successful pieces on AOI.
Similarly, there is a piece called ‘Savita Bhabhi and I’ that has been written by somebody who wrote three stories for the Savita Bhabhi comics. That has also been a very successful piece.‘For 25 Years I’ve Stayed Faithful To A Husband Who Refused Me Sex’ about a woman in a sexually unhappy marriage was also a very successful piece.
Other pieces that are very popular: ‘Everything You Need To Know About Condoms But Feel Embarrassed To Ask’; ‘What Intersex People Wished Everyone Knew About Them’;‘I Came Out To My Mom And Now I Think She’s Fomo sexual’;‘How I Helped My Mother Watch Porn and Other Stories’, a piece about a woman whose mother asked her how to download porn – and the woman’s relationship with the idea that her mother is a sexual person. Our ‘Consent Lavni’ video is a great hit.
People have different needs and desires depending on where they are in their personal sexual journeys. A one-size-fits-all approach is death, and so the variety on AOI meets the variety of needs out there and results in a spectrum of popular pieces Some people want to celebrate sex, some people want to express the lack of sex in their lives, some people just want to have more information, some people want to say “Hey! I have a positive coming out story too”, or some want to take heart from a positive coming out story.
T: You create content which can traverse the language barriers as you have both English and Hindi-speaking audience.
PV: Yes, our content is in English and Hindi, and we have a couple of pieces in Marathi, and a couple in Bangla. We are a very small organisation with not a huge budget. So, we don’t really have the resources to do it in multiple languages.Nor should we be doing it in multiple languages because language is culture and a collection of references and experiences that are rich and local.
So there should be multiple Agents of Ishq type things in different languages. Meaning, AOI is created by a group of people who have a certain linguistic knowledge, certain linguistic context and we can try to find out a little bit more about our context and be self-critical etc – but eventually Agents of Ishq is an arts endeavour. It is rooted in the idea that art is a powerful agent of change. And artistically, you can only speak from a certain familiarity, an intimacy with language. So one of the nice things is when people from different backgrounds contribute to AOI, they bring a flavour of their cultural context.
It is important for us to remember that there are diverse types of audiences. I don’t think it is okay to produce only for one kind of audience. I would like to have an inclusive kind of thing where different cultural contexts are alluded to, so that different types of people with different journeys can enter. So, though AOI is in English and Hindi, we are very careful that the English used should not be alienating. It should be Indian-English that people are comfortable with.
But eventually, there should be multiple types of projects like AOI in the country. What somebody will create living in Tamil Nadu or Assam or Orissa will be very different from what we are creating at AOI which is a good thing. Only the government produces things in all languages and we all know how much those languages have got to do with life!
T: You list pop culture as one of your interests. What do you think about the representation of sex and desire in contemporary Hindi films like Lipstick under my Burkha, and Veere di Wedding?
PV: Lipstick under my Burkha didn’t do much for me in terms of thinking of a sexual revolution or even sexual evolution, which was the main reason it was praised. The reason I don’t care for a film like Lipstick under my Burkha is because it doesn’t leave you with a sense of possibility. The film keeps telling you that women can’t be free. Women do have sexual desire (in the film), that’s good that we see that – but it is presented to you as a doomed quest. The film re-inscribed that women’s sexual desire is bound to meet with disaster. To me it’s a completely non-liberatory message. That is the kind of message I see as a fake sexual revolution in which only the people who make the film get points for being seen as ‘bold’ but in a paternalistic, colonial way, as if they are uplifting women who are downtrodden rather than adding an insight that is liberatory. If the end result of every women’s sexual journey is going to be punishment – as it is in that film – what is the message you are really giving to people? That having sexual desire is a reality, but you are not going to win any wars here so best to keep colouring inside the lines. Such a film gives a false sense of venting, but doesn’t create a landscape of even limited possibility.
I think lots of people do live out very complex sexual journeys in a positive way in small towns too. Yes, negative sexual journeys also exist. But really, how feminist is it in 2018 to be repeating the same old same old that you can’t go out, that you can’t possibly have a life in which you can be free and sexually happy. What’s the new thing you are adding here?
It is also not reconceptualising men or providing any serious examination of masculine culture. Men in that film are all cut-outs, But that is not the only experience we have with men, right? We have progressive men who turn out to be complicated misogynists, we have seemingly conventional men who are wiling to question themselves, but are sometimes challenged by other men in this effort. Patriarchy functions in complex ways. This kind of very simplistic polarity is a little immature, and I think we are very much ready for a more mature approach to sex and a genuinely adult movie, not movies that are given an Adult certificate, but films that have an adult, grown up approach to life and people.
In contrast,Veere di Wedding is not a well-made film – in fact it is a bizarrely badly made film – but it is much more liberating in its depictions of women within a certain class context, down to them not being politically perfect by a long shot. The film takes sexual desire for granted but more than that takes all kinds of desires for different types of lives for granted. It is packaged as a film about female friendship but I feel it didn’t have much examination of friendship actually. What it did have was individual women who wanted different things and different lives and loves and didn’t always get it but their wanting it was not presented as exceptional. The film’s most important message was that you have the right to your own mistakes. Yes, sometimes the thing you think you want may be stupid but you have a right to try out that stupidity and learn and grow and make more mistakes and learn and grow some more. It’s called life, it’s called being human and guess what, women are included in that category.
It has also put out a message that there are people who are leading their lives differently and they have the support of their family. That for every family that doesn’t support its children, there are families that do – even while wanting the same garish weddings and bhagwanjo ko invitation as those other families. When we create a piece of art, we should fill people with a sense of possibility. This does not mean the same thing as having happy endings. It means creating films that understand us, that present our lives to us in affirming ways and let us believe that we have a right to our own imperfect selves while providing a reflective space to think about how we might be different in our relationship with others, with our selves, with the world and politics, love, environment, emotions – the whole kit and caboodle of life.
T: Do you think that AOI contributes to creating this sense of possibility?
PV: The whole purpose of AOI is to create a world in which people on different sexual journeys experience those as journeys of possibility, not schematic paths with pre-determined destinations. They are not journeys of triumph or defeat. The binary of triumph and defeat is a horrible binary because it tells you that either you have to come first in class otherwise you are a failure. But all of us can’t come first in class. And all of us are living our lives in our own ways. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we succeed, sometimes we make a mistake and learn our lesson and move on, sometimes we do something awesome that we never thought we were capable of doing.To reflect life itself, in all its complexity as a work of art is what AOI aims to do. And to provide people the information they need on sexual health and rights and concepts, within that landscape of relationships, emotions and lived life.
AOI is dedicated to: one, dignifying human experience through art – by making something beautiful out of people’s sexual experience. Two, to reflect the diverse journeys that people take today. Not to tick some boxes, but to say that whether you are a monogamous married person, whether you are a gender-queer polyamorous person, every person has their own sexual journey. And that sexual journey is that person’s lived wisdom about life that we all share when we put it out on AOI to learn from each other, to think about our own lives, to build on each other’s thinking. We wish to demonstrate what it feels like when you look at people with a look of love, not judgement and demonstrate what conversations are possible under such a gaze.
Part one of the interview.
Cover Photo: YouTube Still