Changing the Conversation on Consent with A Nayi Emotional Bhasha

Marzi marzi marzi marzeeeeee…… hai minimum!

If you’ve seen our new video: Love in the Garden of Consent/Ishq ke Garden mein Marzi hai Minimum, an item number – on consent – to end all item numbers, you will know what we are singing about. If you haven’t – see it now! It’s a song that talks about the nuances of consent with an addictive tune and playful lyrics, in a lush garden of love that looks like a miniature painting, with romantic dancing under the stars, and appearances by some very special guests in a very special happy ending!

In 2016, we made the video you’ve all loved so much – The Amorous Adventures of Megha and Shakku in the Valley of Consent aka #SuperhitConsentLavani, in collaboration with Sangeet Bari. For Love in the Garden of Consent we have collaborated with Nirantar, a feminist NGO, and responded to their study on gender-based violence which emphasises that we need to look at sexuality not just as a form of violence, but also as a cause of violence.

With this video we take the conversation on consent further, to make it wider and deeper, and wade into the complicated waters (or lotus pond) of how consent plays out in different relationships and contexts.

After months of work, on August 12th, we gathered at Kala Studio in Mumbai, along with many of the people who worked with us on this fun video, and with some of you, dear agents, for a sneak peek ahead of the video’s launch. The event also included a chat with Avinash Das, who wrote the lyrics to the song, and Paromita Vohra, the director of the video and Agents of Ishq’s founder.

The conversation, steered by Parmesh Shahani of Godrej India Culture Lab, centred on how this Bollywood-style video was made – what were the processes that went into making decisions about how to portray rarely discussed issues like shades of consent, like female desire, like sexual violence? And ultimately, how can we use art to talk about them?

Changing how we talk about consent

India’s romantic and sexual life is changing like never before.

Dating apps like Tinder have opened up a whole new world of choices, decisions and unknown etiquette. Movements like #MeToo have changed the conversation around consent, making it very personal, revealing its many complicated facets.

Even as young Indians seem to be playing in a beautiful new garden of love, dating and sexual openness, they also face many important questions about the rights and wrongs of new kinds of relationships, and the complexities of consent in relationships which are hardly discussed around us.

Consent is a difficult word after all – when we do talk about it, it is mostly in categorical terms – and we’re used to talking about it primarily when consent is violated. But can we think about different ways in which we might consent to things – in positive terms – and what that might actually look like in real life? If we filled the world with more depictions of consent, would we be helping to create a normal culture of consent and choice?

In the video, we wanted to demonstrate many contexts in which people are consenting, and create a world in which consent can be taken for granted as an idea. That’s why we begin with the very premise that no matter the kind of relationship you’re in – gay, heterosexual, lesbian, polyamorous – #MarziHaiMinimum.

Marzi, the Hindi word for consent that connotes active choice rather than grudging or passive permission, is the sexy starting point in the gorgeous, colourful romantic universe of the video.

“Sex is often talked about in the context of sexual violence, and we try to counter that violent gaze at Agents of Ishq by talking about sexual pleasure, enjoyment, and about sex in positive ways,” said Paromita during the conversation at Kala Studio. “One of the things colleagues from Nirantar said that I found very powerful is that very often women also perceive a violence done when it wasn’t meant to be violence. Not because they are narrow-minded, but because women are not brought up to think about wanting to have sex or having sex in different ways. How do you recognise the reality of their experience, but also recognise that we’re all in this social reality together, with pleasure, violence, possibility and impossibility all in the same place?”

Marzi, Majboori, Mazaa

The video expressed this spectrum of consent issues by talking about three sorts of instances: Marzi (choice), Majboori (weakness), and Mazaa (fun), portraying each as shades of consent related to shades of relationships. In other words, consent is not just a moment – it is an entire relationship ecosystem threaded with attitudes to gender and sex.

“We didn’t want a linearity to the video, and didn’t want to start with Majboori,” Paromita said when asked about the video’ structure. “Not like, pehle aap majboor ho, bechari ho. Phir aapki upliftment ho jati hain kyunki aap marzi aur maze se yeh karthe hain. We wanted to portray consent in relationships as a continuum.” The three key experiences portrayed in the video might well be the experiences of the same woman, in different relationships as much as of three different women, she said.

“We believed that the starting point for the video has to be desire. Not just consent, but recognising that all people have desires and can act on them,” she said.

Why do naach-gaana to talk about marzi?

Arre, how else?

“So much love happens through songs in India,” says Paromita. “We wanted to make one that was like a popular song – which was folksy, Bollywoody, the kind you enjoy listening to, but is also saying things that really matter. I think it’s not like you are trying to sugar-coat a bitter pill, I genuinely feel that this is the way we have traditionally spoken about love and relationships in poetic forms. Because poetry allows a register of many emotions, many shades of how people love each other or like each other.”

Samvedna Suwalka, one of the actors in the video, believes that art allows you to tackle topics that are difficult or sensitive. “The video makes you think but does not hammer the idea or bore you in any way. Without making light of the subject itself, a certain sense of dreary heaviness is taken away from it and that is enabled by art.” “It’s a quirky way to have a very necessary discussion” agreed actor Shikha Talsaniya. Fellow actor Tuhinaa Vohra says, “Nobody likes a lecture, even if it’s about the situation they’re in. But in art – films, books, stand-up, etc we always relate to the characters and see ourselves in them. When you make consent seem like something beautiful and celebratory through song and dance, it is easier for those uninterested in looking for it earlier, to delve into it.”

Reclaiming our sexy sanskars through a nayi emotional bhasha

Another way the video portrays desire is through its lush imagery. The sets used in the video look like pop-up storybooks, which invoke the Garden of Eden as well as our desi heritage of eroticism through Indian miniature paintings, starry nights and images of the moon – the “traditional repertoire” of love in our culture, as Paromita puts it.

“I think it’s important for us as Indians to reclaim the different ways of loving that we do have in our culture which are consensual. The idea of referencing miniature paintings was because they have an entire world of sexual enjoyment, of intimacy and romance. There’s an ease with which you see women longing for love, they’re full of desire, you see men and women together, you see the Krishna Leela, you see all of these things. I think those are great things to take as being natural, as opposed to saying that being sanskari means no sex. Because that’s not true – our sanskars are pretty sexy! So we also wanted to draw on all that imagery and make it so that you feel like, Yeah, this belongs to me, and I belong to it,” she says.

During the talk, Paromita said that when she, Avinash and Rohit Sharma, the song’s composer, sat down to work on the song, they were trying to come up with a “nayi emotional bhasha” to talk about these nuances. Avinash spoke about the language he used – simple Hindi with a few English words thrown in – saying that he wanted to use “janatawali Hindi”, not highfalutin prose, to get the message across.

Paromita mentioned that she loved Avinash’s line from the ‘Mazaa’ scene in which the woman is singing after she has sex with her lover, “Pyaar poora hua toh mulayam hui.” “Humein female desire ke baare me kuch bhi words nahin milte – this is poetic, but it’s concrete! And it talks about the female experience of sex in positive terms,” she said at the launch.

The video uses traditional desi metaphors of love, and in true Agents of Ishq style, doesn’t stick to traditional gender roles, but queers them organically. The lyrics sung by the woman in the Marzi scene, for example, are assertive – “Main khud apni marzi ki malik makaan,” and and the choice to have a man in a yellow sari and flower in his hair was a nod to a new masculinity that isn’t bound to narrow definitions of gender. And through typical Bollywood-style choreography, the women perform steps that men usually get to do, including tugging on the end of a sari to pull a lover in closer, or the standard Shahrukh Khan arms-outstretched move. Without needing to tom-tom or spell out these subtle differences, the video uses images and references that are familiar to us all with a twist, evening out the power dynamic between men and women.

Why are we talking only about consent inside relationships?

Most of the public conversations around sexual violence in India focus on scenarios in which the perpetrators are strangers. But data collected by the National Family Health Survey and groups like RAHAT show that the overwhelmingly, the perpetrator is known to the victim, and is most often their partner.

In this context, what could be more necessary than conversations about topics including consent, sexuality, acceptance, violence and pleasure, all within a relationship, between partners? This video opens the door to talking about these subjects in a gentle, loving way.

Shweta Radhakrishnan of Nirantar spoke to us about the NGO’s extensive work across India that recognises the link between sexuality and gender-based violence. She said, “One of the key learnings that has emerged from our examination of violence from a gender and sexuality perspective is understanding how many people are subjected to violence because they break gender or sexual norms or because of their gender and sexual identity. However violence against women interventions are ill-equipped to deal with sexual differences/conflict, and caseworkers do not engage with varied gender and sexual identities as most of their interventions are targeted towards ‘Good Women’ – heterosexual, married, female assigned at birth. Employing a sexuality perspective also helps distinguish cases of consent from coercion, particularly in cases of young people and conflict situations where the so-called honour of the family is considered to be at stake.”

She says, “This video is part of a diverse set of materials that Nirantar has developed to share these learning with various stakeholders including grassroots organisations and state/national policy makers working on VAW, and women’s rights groups working to address the current exclusion of marginalised sexualities, including lesbian and bisexual women, trans persons, and sex workers from gender-based violence interventions. Using this engaging medium of a music video format helps communicate nuanced ideas in a simple, accessible manner.”

Partnering with Tinder

For the video, we also partnered with Tinder India, which is at the forefront of the online dating culture in India. The rules of these interactions are new and unknown and need much framing. Agents of Ishq is at the forefront of understanding people’s experiences and making sense of these new interactions and relationships. We wish to help people make sense of this culture, to live its possibilities to the pleasurable fullest with mutual respect for all genders and sexual choices, and so it seemed a natural and necessary fit.

All the world’s a party!

For the video’s grand finale, we thought the best way to end would be to show a world party and the natural conclusion of a culture of consent and choice: a celebration of love, pleasure, choice and freedom for all genders, all sexualities, all people. That’s why the video ends with balloons, confetti, dancing, and some very special guests for a special happy ending! Agents of Ishq asked different folks who work on gender and sexuality to nominate people from their organisations to be part of the scene. Representatives came in from Point of View, Sexuality and Disability, The QKnit, Dancing Queens, Humsafar Trust and The Ladies Finger. Matlab, we had some real-life agents of ishq join our colourful video party! And in sharing this video with you, we hope you will join our awesome party too.

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