By: Anjali, C and Tharun
In their poem “they/them”, 20-year-old Anureet discusses how people would rather invalidate one’s identity than just call one by the pronouns of one’s choice. While we were sure of which pronouns to use with Anureet, what puzzled us was who they are exactly. Poet, filmmaker, author, activist, performer… the list is neverending. So for the sake of this article’s word count, we decided to settle on the title, artist. Fresh off the launch of their first book of poems, Lustre of a Burning Corpse and currently working on their second short film, it’s safe to say that the Delhi-based Anureet Watta has no shortage of creativity and its outlets. We were extremely elated when they agreed to do this interview with us. Here, we chat about what inspired them to pick up the pen, the journey of making their first film, navigating the world as a queer artist and their dreams for the future of the community.
THEPC: How old were you when your love for words began?
In your poem Of Lipstick and Labels, you write “sometimes walking out of the closet is like walking into a new one” which I absolutely loved. When you look back, how has your poetry evolved with your personal growth? Has it always been reflective of your identity?
Anureet: Even as a kid I was always into arts and crafts. I think I was 16 when I started writing poetry. Back then, I was writing stuff that was pretty distant from my identity and emotions. It was only gradually that I started being more honest with my inner self through my work. As for the evolution of my poetry, I feel that I don’t necessarily see what I create in terms of poetry or films. In my head, everything is one singular bubbling entity. So when I play it out in my mind, I find outlets for it via films and poems.
THEPC: In one of your Instagram posts you talk about how you and your grandmother bonded over stories such as Das Rupay and Lihaaf which explore subjects such as rape, sexual grooming and homosexual relationships, which are considered rather “taboo”. How important have such interactions with family and friends been in forming your character as a poet and filmmaker?
Anureet: Frankly speaking, in my experience, the world around me was what majorly influenced me rather than my family and relatives. Even the bond that I shared with my grandmother blossomed only towards the last couple of years of her life. It was only then that I realized how cool a person she was (laughs)! Although I agree that it is extremely liberating to have that degree of relatability with someone who quite literally created you, I understand that not everyone can experience that. And that’s totally fine. The world is a huge space filled with many beautiful people. The beauty of being queer is having chosen family; having these people who chose you for who you are.
THEPC: Speaking of interacting with family, how was the experience of shooting Kinaara with your sister?
Anureet: When I started shooting, I had no prior knowledge of film. The only experience I had were a few reels that I had made. So if you were to think about it, those reels were my actual cinematic debut(laughs)! The letter that the protagonist reads throughout the short film was something that I had written and posted on my feed earlier and one of the comments suggested making a film out of it.
That summer when we were going to my ancestral home in Punjab, I thought that it was the perfect time to do it. I borrowed one of my mom’s sarees to take along. When asked why, I just told her that it was a journey that I had to take on my own (laughs).
I shot almost the entire film on my own using a PVC pipe for a tripod (they insisted that it worked like a charm). But then for the character shots when I had to shoot myself running, I bribed my sister with 500 rupees to help me with those!
The amount of attention the film garnered totally shocked me. When a few directors asked me to submit it to film festivals, my first Google search was “What is a film festival?”. My family found out about Kinaara through an article published about it. I don’t know man, sometimes I’m just (out here) disturbing the world(laughs).
THEPC: As a queer person, have you faced any challenges or barriers in the poetry/literary community? Would you say the space has been inclusive?
Anureet: No, it’s not. People appreciate me and my art in the sense that “Oh look, a queer poet. How cute!”. But they don’t really take you seriously as a poet. They see you as an office-bearer of the queer community and sometimes, that becomes too much of a burden to carry. If I were to write a poem on let’s say oranges, everyone would say, “Oh look, a *queer* poet is writing about oranges”. But it’s just another poem, you know? This tag that people put on you isn’t something you can’t be free from. They just want the sobby, “forbidden love” type of queer tale; There’s just a single narrative of a queer story that people want to accept. This unidimensional gaze is normalized by the old upper-caste men who run the industry. But, a lot of spaces are being started up by the younger members of the community. My goal while starting my organization, “Forbidden Verses” was to create a safe space to celebrate all these different voices. We cannot keep having the same conversation every time. So at Forbidden Verses, we try to bring together people from all walks of life to participate in creating art.
THEPC: How would you describe your book Lustre of a Burning Corpse? Is there any one poem from the collection that’s closest to your heart?
Anureet: The thing about violence is that it’s everywhere, and it permeates everything. There are so many different forms in which it manifests. There’s violence against others, like various minorities in the country, including queer people. Then there’s the violence that you inflict upon yourself in so many different ways, and there’s also violence towards love. Lustre of a Burning Corpse is a collection of poetry in which my main goal was to delve into the theme of violence. I wanted to explore it in all these different ways poetically.
There’s a poem about my grandfather too. He was suffering from dementia during his later years. And during this time, he would have flashbacks of the India-Pakistan partition and the violence that was associated with it.
THEPC: That’s a grave commentary on the way we simply cannot escape from the violence that surrounds us because, beyond a point, it resides in our own minds as well.
My favourite poem at the moment is Holding Hands In The Delhi Metro. It’s a part of a trilogy of poems about what it’s like to be queer in the public space, along with a poem called Street Full of Desire and a third one that’s in the works right now. Holding Hands In The Delhi Metro is special to me because if I knew the world was ending, I wouldn’t want to do anything grand or fancy. All I’d want to do is hold my lover’s hand, and I think there’s a certain beauty to the mundanity of the action.
THEPC: I love that, I think that’s something many would relate with. In my experience, I’ve found that poetry is as much about hiding as it is about unveiling. Would you agree?
Anureet: As Jeanette Winterson once said, poetry is a finding place – in that, I found myself. Even in our school English literature classes, we would be taught to question the most random things, like “why was the wall blue?”. It implies that there is something to be found even in the ordinary blue paint chipping off the walls. And another thing about poetry is how there are metaphors and analogies for everything. One thing is always like another, nothing is ever what it just is – it’s so much more than that. That doesn’t mean that it’s a puzzle to be solved, though. Every time I sit to write, I start off with complex ideas and concepts in my head and as I write, everything gets broken down into something simpler.
I don’t think anyone wants to hide in their poems. People want to be seen, that’s what it’s about. No one has written a poem without feeling vulnerable. Somehow, putting it into words is like setting the emotion in stone. Poetry is the opposite of hiding, it’s like stepping into the light; like going to a museum and seeing the clothes off the statues.
THEPC: Literature won’t out you unless you want it to. Poetry is about being seen and not recognized.
THEPC: The usage of the title track from Deepa Mehta’s Fire in your own short film Kinaara makes your passion for queer stories in cinema evident. How have films helped you to come to terms with your identity and what do you feel needs to change about the representation of the community in cinema?
Anureet: The usage was an ode to Fire. Just the way the story of the two nameless women in the film is erased from history, mobs burnt down the theatres screening Fire (the irony). It was a film that showed us the way to have this conversation on the big screen. As far as coming to terms with one’s identity, it just happens! Yes, art helps in reassuring you, but once you know who you really are and are even 5% comfortable in your own skin, you embrace it. You won’t need anything else to help you. The liberation of finding yourself will enrage you to let the world know who you are.
And about what needs to change… I don’t want to see sad queer folks being sad. We’ve seen enough of that. It needs to be more about what the future can hold. I would like to have complex and multifaceted characters; characters who have more to them than just their sexual orientation. That’s the mistake filmmakers now make. You can’t write stories about identity, you can only write stories about people. I want to write films about bad queer people, grey characters – I want trans robbers, lesbian serial killers(laughs)! That’s the multitude that we deserve.
THEPC: Do people restrict you from making political content, asking you to stick to the “queer narrative”?
Anureet: All the time. Recently when we went to a well-known production house with a script about a gay couple, they were all in to produce it because “this is in fashion”. But they wanted us to write off a secondary trans character and make them cis since it was “too serious” (laughs at the absurdity). Even if there is a dialogue about queer politics, people don’t want it to be angry. A word of advice that I’d like to give all movie aspirants is that if you’re a coward, don’t make films. Stick to your corporate jobs. If you’re too scared of the world, you shouldn’t be making films. It is because of these scared and regressive people in the industry that we don’t get the necessary resources. Even with my book, 2 mainstream publishing houses refused to print it. They were only willing to do it if I were to remove a poem or two from the collection that they deemed too controversial.
THEPC: Can you think of a recent example of queerbaiting in the film industry?
Anureet: Every single queer film! Ayushmann Khuranna’s Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is one that I can presently think of. Everything by Ayushmann feels like bait for that specific cause. It’s like he’s taken up the responsibility of changing the world with each script he selects. And then he contacts Anubhav Sinha to direct it.
THEPC: This is an audience question. What are the changes that you’d like to see in modern queer literature?
Anureet: That’s a good question. When you make films, there’s something that you’re trying to profess, which gets the shared power of the entire crew who’s working on it. Literature on the other hand is extremely personal. Unlike films which have a dozen mouths giving opinions, an author is usually alone with their thoughts left to figure out everything on their own; it’s a monolith, set in stone. I don’t think that we lack good queer literature. We just need to really seek out for it. The accessibility factor is something that needs to change.
The primary problem over here again is the anarchy of the mainstream publishers and the way they regulate literature, not the writers themselves.
THEPC: So do you think largely decentralized platforms such as AO3 and Wattpad help to fight this issue?
Anureet: Definitely yes. AO3, Wattpad and Fan Fiction especially help the community so much. I myself used to write 40,000-80,000 words long FanFics when I was younger (laughs). This sort of decentralization is very important to be more inclusive. The world is an extremely huge place with a lot of different voices in it. There shouldn’t just be a selected few of them which dictate it.
THEPC: “We deserve narrative plentitude. We triumph each time we laugh. And there must be rusted vinyl, the faded ink and the blackened polaroid to capture it.” These are lines from your poem There Must be Joy. What do you as an artist hope to contribute to queer art and culture? What’s next in your journey as an artist?
Anureet: I don’t know…that’s such a tough question (laughs)! I don’t want me or my friends or my art to just survive. A lot of my experiences and my life have been about survival, but I want my story to be more than just that. I’m completely obsessed with the future. I want queer films and identities to be portrayed larger than life. I want it to be like the typical cheesy Bollywood films – with the choreographed dances, Shimla trips and all of that. My lover calls me delusional for thinking so, but I think that all people deserve to take up space. As you said, I want my art to be about narrative plentitude.