[Note: The film was featured in the diaspora panel at the South Asian Film Festival of Montreal (October 2017) and generated a dynamic discussion, with the director in attendance.]
“Egalitarianism isn’t always a by-product of education and upbringing.” This thought kept surfacing as I watched Pallavi Somusetty’s film Escaping Agra. The 23-minute short documentary allows us to view the challenges that Naveen Bhat faces to simply live a life of dignity – a basic human right for all.
From the outset, the title of the film intrigued me. Having grown up in India, I was familiar with a phrase often used by people for anyone acting a little crazy: “You will end up in Agra’s asylum/loony bin!” I therefore came to associate Agra with its huge mental asylum even though the city is most known for its beautiful mausoleum, the Taj Mahal, a symbol of eternal love. The title offers viewers multiple levels of interpretation as they engage with this work. In the film, the city becomes a scary confinement for Naveen. What does one do when their own family thinks they are crazy? Where do they find solace?
The film is a bold portrayal of Naveen’s strength in overcoming various obstacles to express their sexual orientation. I was struck by the confidence of this young person who, at the age of five, immigrated with their parents to the west. Naveen is later taken back to India by their parents under the pretext that their grandmother is sick. All this occurs when Naveen is of legal age. Naveen is detained in their home in Agra once the family learns of their sexual orientation and thinks “treatment” is necessary! In the course of the film, we are introduced to a queer feminist activist, Rituparna Borah, who helps Naveen escape and gives them house protection in India. During that time there were threats, and the police detained some of the activists for no reason other than the fact that they were not straight.
The film documents Naveen Bhat’s point of view interspersed with some exchanges with Madi Kuss (Naveen’s friend and partner) and their family. It is clear that Naveen has not had any positive parental figures, and parenting was introduced to them more through an authoritarian method than a relationship where one could find support and strength.
The exchanges with Madi Kuss’ parents provide insight into how conversations can and should be held when one is trying to understand unfamiliar issues. Madi Kuss’s parents politely ask about the various terms used in relation to gender constructs, allowing Naveen to elaborate on their understanding of gender and their body. The scene towards the end where Naveen goes through medical treatment is captured very poignantly.
In 23 minutes, Pallavi Somusetty unravels the challenges that this young person faces in battling their parents in and out of court in India, and shows how Naveen later pieces a life together in California. I see this film as an engaging tool that can be used to pique people’s interest in such struggles, whether or not they’re sure of their beliefs, to start important dialogues and discussion.
At the end of the film, we learn that the mother had not agreed to provide any interviews with the filmmaker and are left wondering about her stance and her own journey. I also wondered why Naveen Bhat mentions meetings with their mother and siblings, but not with their father.
Somusetty succeeds in capturing a range of emotions felt by Naveen, their friend and their family, but unfortunately doesn’t manage to bring Naveen’s parents and family members on camera. This leaves viewers with unanswered questions and unresolved concerns.
As I wrote this review, Article 377 of the Indian penal code that criminalized same-sex activities in India was finally scrapped by the Supreme Court, cracking open one of the legal barriers against those who felt trapped within their own country. But cases such as Naveen’s remind us that bigotry and prejudice still prevail in many societies. We need to remember what Naveen impresses upon us: “there is no wrong way to have a body – I know my body cannot be wrong.”
 From a quote by Suprateek Chatterjeein the article, “A crisis of Indian Masculinity”(Hindustan Times, July 22, 2012). https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/a-crisis-of-indian-masculinity/story-a2eqtNekCs515i5TaG2mEL.html
 Editorial note: the film’s main character, Naveen, is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.