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  • Three years ago, I was bursting with stories waiting to be told. I laugh when I think about it now.

    I talk about it in the past tense because I have just gotten back to my script writing recently (I have been writing for others for the last year) and it has made me trace back paths to all my earlier projects, to reflect, to see where I've come from, and where I am now. I was just out of film school, just completing the edit of a project I had labored on for more than 7 months and I was filled with the energy from the outcome to tell many more.

    It was the first project in which I came face to face with ‘the audience’. The protagonist of my film was Raju bhai. A 42 year old man from a small village in Andhra Pradesh, who found he could dance when he was a child, preferred playing ‘house’ with the girls, and wanted to be an actress when he grew up. When he came face to face with the realities of his environment, he took to dancing instead, on stage, where the audience paid at the entrance to watch.

    I met Raju when I was eating an omelette outside my design school, I was laughing with some friends, drained, red-eyed, unslept, and bang in the middle of a project, he was sitting at the next table with the owner of the stall and watching me laugh. It didn’t take us long to start talking, especially after I found he was a dancer. My friend was making a documentary on dance at the time, on the Mughal form of Kathak*, and I had spent many days as part of the crew, listening to the sound of ghungroos**, I had many questions to ask about his form of dance, whether he taught it, where he trained, how it all started. He had a great sense of humour, and I liked his deep throaty laughter. We got on well from the very start.

    I visited his home a few days later, in a slum, near the lake in the industrial part of our old city of Ahmedabad. He waited for me at the entrance of the slum. I saw him, when my rickshaw drew to a stop, he looked restless. He hugged me on sight, and quickly guided me through the interconnected pathways of the slum into his house. It took me some time to discover his world, why it was so secret, why he didn’t want me to be seen with him. Once we were in his house though, in his space, he relaxed and got down to boiling a kettle of tea for me. I met his friends there, others just like him, all dancers, all surprised at my arrival.

    I spent days in that dwelling of his, and each time we went through the same drill. He watched, I spoke. I felt like I was going through a series of tests, Raju bhai was gauging me somehow, seeing how I spoke to the others, answering my questions, watching me tie my hair while speaking. He was observing me, and I knew it. I didn't find it uncomfortable, I was wary of people too, I knew how it was to build oneself a cave right in the middle of a community. I stayed, and spoke. Till one day I was talking about the boy in my life, and love, and he burst out laughing.

    That’s when he told me his story, He laughed and drew closer, set himself to braid my hair into a neat plait, and told me his story of love. I heard about his lover, his dancing, the private birthday parties thrown by elitist businessmen, where entertainment meant watching men dance in women’s outfits to film music. I wanted to come and watch, I told him, he laughed, pulling my head straight so he could continue setting my hair,.. and continued talking. He told me the story of his sexuality, and what it meant to be gay in a low income family in India, he told me about friends who had died of AIDS in front of him on that couch in his room right before us, he told me about the meaning of Kathak, the Mujra***, the art of it. And then, he danced for me on the last day.

    I made a film on him later. It started from my footage from his first dance for me in his living space. He trained me for my trade, because I had to keep so many of our conversations safe, but I still had to tell his story.

    I had to tell it in the way any person, old, young, homophobic could understand him and his lost love, the reason why he never let anyone in, why it hurt him that no one recognised him without his show make up, why daylight made him a 42 year old man again in everyone's eyes, and how the nights meant it was daybreak in his other world.

    I could not allow my anger to take root in my own storytelling, and that has been the biggest lesson ever. I had to be just the messenger. And I took on that role, whole heartedly just for him at first.
    Today, it feels like every person is an ocean of stories. It felt like that back then as well, but Raju bhai made film making more than just telling a story for me.

    This film making process I learnt from him is hard. It needs you to look at the surroundings, look into the context, it speaks in hard uncouth, unfamiliar tongues, makes you fight you your own prejudices, your own suffering, to be able to relate what happened and who's life changed because of the sequence of events through which life plays itself out. It demands you be truthful, it demands responsibility.

    The image up there is the first draft of a poster my friend Jayakrishnan made for me when he saw my film first. He mailed it to me the morning after. It was unexpected, and it filled me with so much emotion. He said he tried capturing Raju bhai’s dance at the end, when he went into endless swirls in time to the music before he drew to a poised breathless stop, in his little home, in a slum in Ahmedabad.

    * kathak : It is one of the eight classical Indian dance forms.The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘katha’ meaning story, and ‘katthaka’ in Sanskrit means he who tells a story, or to do with stories.

    ** ghungroo: A musical anklet tied to the feet of classical Indian dancers

    *** mujra: A poetic dance form, with a lot of stress laid on lyrics, the mujra was a cross between art and exotic dance, with the performers often serving as courtesans amongst Mughal royalty or wealthy patrons.
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