How often have you come across a mainstream movie that celebrated gender diversity? I'm sure there aren't many. For a very long time, we have been actively suppressing any questions about atypical gender identities as shameful, weird and repulsive. Though our society hasn't changed much, it's refreshing to see a conscious and deliberate effort being made to acknowledge queer lives in cinema.
Naanu Ladies, Shailaja Padindala's debut feature film is set to premiere at the 16th Tasveer south Asian Seattle film festival (TSAFF) on 1st October 2021. The film explores the experience of gender variance and tackles the shame and stigma associated with the LGBTQ+ communities.
When asked as to why she chose such a complex subject for her first feature film, Shailaja said: "I've been queer all my life, and I've taken the most embarrassing situations in my life and turned them into a queer dark comedy family drama in Naanu Ladies."
"I wanted to do justice to those who had gone through similar experiences, but did not survive or were unable to tell their stories, explains Shailaja Padindala, who is the director, writer and actor in the film.
Naanu Ladies, meaning "I am a lady" in Kannada, revolves around two women who fall in love and struggles to maintain their love in a heteronormative society.
"This film was inspired by a lot of my own life experiences. When it comes to the film's title, for example, Naanu ladies means "I'm a lady" in Kannada. Most people thought I was a boy throughout my childhood because of my non-binary appearance, and I am often caught explaining my gender and myself in public places. But these kinds of situations only got funnier as I grew up and became a part of my film's title" she elaborates.
Apart from gender, the film also questions our obsession with beauty standards, body image, and glitz, among other things. The insidious nature of heteronormative society and middle-class economic systems complicates love for the two protagonists in the film. Their struggles reveal many aspects of Indian society, like the economics of marriage, gender and age gap.
A postgraduate in film making from LV Prasad Film & TV Academy, Chennai, Shailaja Padindala has worn many hats in a short period, including that of a director, writer, singer, and actor.
A native of Bangalore, Shailaja admits "Though I am a trained Cinematographer, my interest in filmmaking shifted to directing and writing over time. However, my desire to express myself as an actor was almost sabotaged since my non-binary teen years. The film industry's imposed beauty standards prevented me from landing any decent roles in front of the camera."
Shailaja had to take a step out of her comfort zone when it came to acting. As a performer, she says, you cannot afford to be self-conscious on camera.
"Through this film, I was able to give myself a chance to be an actor by training myself for it. It was my first time in front of a camera when I played the lead in Naanu ladies. No, it wasn't a problem for me. Since it was my first time on camera, I couldn't afford to be self-conscious, so it was easier for me to get the job done. Also, the cost-effective production method we followed did not allow me to be camera conscious" she says, laughing, her voice deep and resonant.
Shailaja's debut short film 'Memories of a Machine' has been screened at film festivals in India and abroad, including the Seattle South Asian Film Festival 2016. The 10-minute film played by Malayalam actor Kani Kusruti "explores sexuality through human instinct". Though a feature-length version of this film was planned earlier, Shailaja had to scale back because no producer was willing to fund the project.
Yet, despite being an experimental film, Shailaja explains why Naanu Ladies has been treated as a commercial movie.
"The film Naanu ladies was written in 2017 after I had completed my first short film, "Memories Of A Machine". I know this film was going to be an experimental narrative. However, as a director, I felt that most queer films or offbeat films have experimental narratives, which could be avant-garde, but still distance the viewer from a common man's emotions and experiences. As a result, I felt the need to make this film in a "commercial" style that would appeal to Indian audiences."
The film also features 'Vote Haaki' song, written and sung by Shailaja herself. "The film has 2 songs, all in an attempt to bring queerness to light with utmost sensibility. The song vote haaki, which was written and sung by me is also a part of this film. The song was released earlier on May 1st for world labour's day."
In addition, the film is also notable for its all-female crew. "The film was made on a budget with primarily women crew members. It was a great challenge as the majority of the team members, including protagonist Medina Kelamane, had no prior knowledge of queerness or its existence. However, they were all very enthusiastic and open to understanding it" she said.
Shailaja is all praise for Medini Kelamane who was her co-star in the film.
"Medini Kelamane has given her best as an actor to portray the role of a queer woman despite her reservations about queerness. Must say, it was also a challenge to understand how heteronormative minds might perceive this subject."
"I learned Kalaripayattu for almost a year for this film. I also performed a reinterpretation of Akkamahadevi's poem about the female body... I'm curious to see how the audiences react to it..." she added.
Sharing her final thoughts on the film, Shailaja said: "As the film's director and writer, I am attempting to hint at modern societies in the near future where science and technology will radically alter human culture as well as their understanding of companionship, marriage, parenting, and sexuality through this film"
Finally, when asked if she was looking forward to meeting the Seattle audience again, Shailaja confessed that she was ecstatic about it.
"I'm so thrilled to have my work screened at tasveer. One of the best experiences of my life was memories of a machine at tasveer!" she said.