Popular media is saturated with vapid tales of romance, but Roopa Rao’s web series The Other Love Story breaks through the clutter. Set in the late 1990s, the series depicts a romantic relationship between two college students, Aadya (Spoorthi Gumaste) and Aachal (Shweta Gupta). Seven episodes have released on YouTube, but all 12 parts are available for rent or purchase online.
Although the crowd-funded production is being celebrated as the first Indian web series to portray a same sex relationship, Rao refuses to call it a lesbian love story. “I just wrote about a relationship,” she told Scroll.in. “I wrote about two people falling in love for the first time.”
The title of the series was inspired by a Rumi quote popularised by the Hindi film Rockstar: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.” Rao wished to illustrate that the “love between the girls belonged to that other world.” She had been waiting a long time for a film that depicted an organic and heartfelt love story between two women, and eventually decided to make it herself. Rao struggled to approach producers, and the thought of finding distributors was particularly daunting. “This way, it is just between me and my audiences: let them decide what to make of the story,” she said.
The series reflects the simplicity and effervescence that marked popular culture in the 1990s, while acknowledging the ostracism faced by them. “Anyone who does not fit predefined norms is conveniently labelled as the other,” Rao said.
The ideology behind the story might be uncomplicated, but Rao found some aspects of the production immensely difficult. She had a tough time finding young actors willing to play the leads. “They would say yes, but they were still at that age where they had to ask their parents for permission,” she said. “So they would go back home and stop calling me or avoid my messages.” Eventually, the internet came to Rao’s rescue. She found her leads after she put up posts on social networking sites.
Shweta Gupta, who plays the dainty Aanchal, was cast first, followed by Spoorthi Gumaste as Aadya, a studious introvert. Neither actor specifically discussed her decision to play a lesbian character with her family. Gupta, however, had previously played a homosexual in a short film.
She studied memorable performances of lesbian love, such as Shabana Azmi’s Radha in Fire, to prepare for her role. “My understanding of acting is that you draw on your experiences to portray a character,” Gupta said. “So I am always amazed at how convincing some actresses have been as homosexuals.”
On the other hand, Gumaste decided not to look for external inspiration and let Aadya “grow within herself”. Although she was very impressed when she read the script, Gumaste had trepidation about her own abilities. “I really hoped I could do the script justice,” she said. She eventually had no difficulty partly because Rao was “very clear about her expectations”.
Gupta and Gumaste made concentrated efforts to convincingly play a couple in the throes of first love, taking workshops to enhance their physical camaraderie. “To build the chemistry was challenging for us, but we helped each other,” Gumaste said.
Despite their preparations, all three women found the intimate scenes between Aadya and Aanchal particularly difficult to tackle. “Intimate scenes can make you very vulnerable,” Gumaste said. However, neither actor was uncomfortable romancing a woman. “It’s a love story between two people, their gender really doesn’t matter,” Gumaste added.
Rao found it easy to direct a love story between two girls, because she could easily get into their shoes. “If it were a boy, I would have found it harder to get into his psyche,” she said.
Although the interactions between Aadya and Aanchal sometimes appear stilted, the setting of the story remains scrupulously real. Rao deftly captures the typical middle class ‘90s home, complete with noisy landlines and huge television sets. “I just wanted it to look like it could happen in your neighborhood, or in your own home,” she said.
The unadorned approachability of The Other Love Story sets it apart from conventional filmic depictions of homosexuality, which are too often oversexualised or stereotypical. Consider the sleazy Girlfriend or the cringe-worthy Dostana.
“It’s a huge responsibility to be making a film,” Rao said. “We are creating generations with our work.” Writers and directors can find exciting and diverse ways to sensitively depict homosexuality, but they should conduct assiduous research and be careful to not lose their fidelity to realism, she said.
“I hope that the series will bring audiences one step closer to accepting same sex relationships,” Rao said. “But if not that, just a smile on people’s faces is good enough for us.”