Films portraying same sex relationships are not common in the Kannada film industry. So, when director Teshee Venkatesh decided to make Best Friends, based on a real-life incident involving a lesbian couple from Hassan in 2012, he had enough reasons to be anxious.
Teshee worked quietly and did not reveal the topic of the film to anyone outside the project. He knew that he had an uphill task in front of him, but after the film obtained a certificate from the CBFC last month, he could smile at last.
Speaking to TNM, a relieved Teshee opens up about Best Friends and his struggle to make a film on a taboo subject.
"I wanted to wait till my movie was cleared by the censor board as I didn't want any hindrance," the director says.
Best Friends is the latest in Teshee's career, which is dotted with films on socially relevant and sensitive topics. His previous film Olavina Ole examined 'honour' killings, and was based on the real-life story of a grandfather who kills his granddaughter because of caste prejudice. Another film, Gomukha looked at the case of Premalatha, a woman who accused a seer of sexual assault and rape.
Best Friends, set to release in February, depicts a real-life lesbian relationship between two college-going students in Hassan, Karnataka.
The film was not just cleared by the CBFC but has also obtained a U/A certificate.
This, Teshee believes, is because he's chosen not to depict same sex relationships in a "vulgar" way as many mainstream films have in the past.
"My motive was not to show their relationship in a vulgar way but to show people the problems faced by lesbian women in our society," he says.
On making Best Friends
Making Best Friends was anything but easy. Teshee had to stand and watch, as a merry-go-round of lead women actors came and went without explanation.
He first held an audition for 100 women for the role and narrowed his choices down to ten, but the women never returned.
"Most of the actors were scared about society and family. A few were very bold but their family and friends didn't allow them to take up the role," recounts the director.
Two more women actors were roped in and the shooting began. But then, they too left without explanation. They were replaced by two others and the shooting was progressing well. However, their family members disrupted the shoot and they, too, abandoned the film.
That's when he found Meghana from Bengaluru and Dravya from Chikkamagaluru - the actors who finally made it to the final cut of Best Friends. This time, the women withstood pressure from both their family and their social circles and completed the project.
The film plots the real-life story of a couple from Hassan and their trials and tribulations in finding social acceptance.
Shruti and Rashmi fell in love while living together in a college hostel. However, when their parents came to know of their relationship, they separated them. The story took a dark turn in real life when Rashmi attacked Shruti with a machete, injuring her. She was sentenced to two years of imprisonment by a Hassan court in 2017.
When making the film, Teshee did not rely on the media's reporting of the incident. He organised a team to examine the case and went to the scene of the incident to investigate the details for himself.
In conversations with the victim, perpetrator, family members, friends, hospital staff, investigating officers and advocates connected to the case, Teshee came to know of what had happened. "After speaking to the people involved, I came to know how strong their love was and is," he says.
And love is what Teshee hopes to portray in the film.
"I've seen same sex people suffering in all aspects in society. I've seen transgender persons who are struggling to survive and begging in order to fill their stomachs. And also how society is misusing their helplessness. Seeing all this and the incident which took place in Hassan, inspired me to make the film," he says.
Of threats and censorship
However, due to the topics he has chosen to portray on screen, Teshee has had to contend with threats for most of his career.
"When I was making Olavina Ole, I received a threatening letter from a well known swamiji supporter. Mandya's Vokkaligara Maha Okkoota, also threatened me for mentioning Mandya in the film," he alleges.
"When I announced the title of the film Gomukha on the Premalatha case, a man pretending to be a fan came to meet me in person from Mangaluru to Bengaluru and then followed me to Mysuru to warn me against making the film. Fortunately, I met him along with a friend, otherwise I do not know what would have happened. I have faced problems like this whenever I'm doing films on subjects with social causes," adds the director.
Undeterred by the threats, the filmmaker is now set to break barriers and take Kannada cinema to where it has never been.
2015 film 141 is considered to be the first Kannada film to take up the taboo subject, but its director Balaji V was not allowed to publicise his film or put up posters.
Best Friends has faced no such restrictions so far. The release of the film will hopefully go down as another milestone in taking the conversation on same sex relationships forward in a film industry that has so far shied away from it.