In the new film The Journey, director Ligy Pullappally presents a tale of two girls in rural India whose childhood friendship turns into adolescent love. Kiran (Suhasini V. Nair) agrees to help a neighbor boy woo Delilah (Shrruiti Menon) by writing love letters for him to present to her as his own. Through these letters Kiran comes to terms with and expresses her own love for Delilah, who eventually discovers who the letters’ real author is.
Delilah realizes she is in love as well, and the two young women enjoy a secret affair–until Delilah’s mother (Kpac Lalitha) susses out the nature of the girls’ relationship. While Delilah unhappily faces the prospect of a hastily arranged marriage, Kiran still more unhappily questions whether she even wants to live if she can’t have Delilah.
Before turning punitive, the girls’ families are seen to be a reliable source of protection and support. Delilah’s family dotes on her, the youngest of four children and the only daughter. Her mother treats her sternly but lovingly and her grandmother (Valsala Menon) showers her with love and unwavering support. But that nurturing environment changes in an instant after Kiran’s rival rats the girls out to Delilah’s mother, who beats her.
In the process she breaks the glass bangle–a family heirloom–that Kiran had given Delilah as a symbol of their love. Delilah’s mother punishes her and tries to sever the bond she shares with Kiran–violently, as the broken bracelet cuts the girl’s wrist. The once supportive family structure fails Delilah, punishing her for flouting compulsory heterosexuality.
Pullappally wanted her film to be a counterpoint to the popular sport of pathologizing homosexuality in Indian films like Girlfriend. Even more disturbing evidence can be found in real life. She says the situation is so severe in India that it is not unheard of for young women to end their own lives after being exposed as lesbians. “These stories are sometimes reported in newspapers,” she explains in my recent interview with her, “but most go unreported, as the surviving family members have an interest in keeping the shame and scandal fallout to a minimum.” She adds that such incidents are so frequent that there is even a watchdog organization in Kerala that keeps track.
These tragedies inspired Pullappally to offer a positive representation of queer identity through a popular medium that has the potential to reach a wide audience.
The Journey is the first film out of India to seriously address lesbian love since Fire in 1996. While Fire is ultimately affirming, Pullappally was intent on taking it one step further. She wanted to make a film where the women choose each other out of love, as opposed to something to fall back on after they become disillusioned with heterosexual relationships. She wanted to portray heterosexual relationships as expected and imposed by family, but ultimately not satisfying in that they lack the qualities of a lesbian relationship–as opposed to the other way around.
“My personal belief is that homosexuality has little to do with either the actions, or inactions of the opposite gender,” she told the Deccan Herald in a January interview.
It was also important to Pullappally that her film’s story take place in a rural setting. Whereas Fire features urban women who have available to them the resources that metropolitan life offers, she wanted to portray life outside the city and the isolation that often comes with is.
She acknowledges that there is an emerging queer community in Kerala but says that many young people have no access to that support particularly people who are neither male nor city-dwelling.
The Journey further distinguishes itself in its subtlety. It is a delicate depiction of a delicate subject, in part because Pullappally has always intended the film to be released in India. The sexual aspect of the girls’ relationship is hinted at but not explicitly portrayed. There’s a suggestion of impending sex as they gaze at each other in the pool, the water reflecting light across their faces, its lapping sounds serving as stark background music.
Little is said and the camera lingers, noticeably comfortable with the silence and stillness.
Much of the narrative is communicated visually rather than through dialogue, lending the film a mesmerizing lyricism as well as making the subtitles easier to keep up with. The film is in Malayalam (with the original title of Sancharam), which is the language of the South Indian state Kerala, where Pullapally was born.
She has lived most of her life in Chicago but returned to India in 2002 to make her film after winning a Sunshine Peace Award for exceptional service as an attorney advocating for women. Prior to filmmaking, she was a trial lawyer specializing in divorce, child support, and immigration cases and representing women who had been abused by their spouses. Before that she was a public interest attorney.
The Journey has won several awards, including the Chicago Award for best film. It has screened throughout the U.S. and in many parts of India and continues to tour the festival circuit. It was recently picked up for distribution by Wolfe, and hopefully will soon gain distribution within India as well.