How Vqueeram and Vishal Jugdeo Challenge Political Faultlines

In Does Your House Have Lions (2021), the filmmaking duo explore the meaning of friendship, community and freedom against a backdrop of inequality and state violence

BY Skye Arundhati Thomas AND Pranav Kuttaiah in Film , Opinion | 15 MAR 22

‘I see cameras in my face all the time,’ says vqueeram, a teacher and researcher who is co-author and protagonist of the 48-minute cinéma-vérité Does Your House Have Lions (2021). In a scene from the film, they are seated on a smooth rock in a park in New Delhi, a red flower tucked behind their ear, silver earrings slinking in the breeze. ‘I don’t necessarily have a history of feeling violated by it,’ they add. Sitting next to vqueeram, holding a DVCAM camcorder, is their co-writer Vishal Jugdeo, an interdisciplinary artist and academic. We are shown slow flashes of an afternoon in the park: people splayed over uncut grass; two puppies rolling a plastic water bottle between their wet, open mouths; a person jumping into a fountain with their clothes on. ‘You have to realise when to stop,’ vqueeram says. ‘Filming?’ Jugdeo asks, softly.

An undercurrent pulls through Does Your House Have Lions: what does it mean to offer oneself to the world from a position of the permanent ‘other’? The protagonists, a group of friends who live together in New Delhi – academics, activists, thinkers, who are queer, gender non-conforming, anti-caste and anti-fascist – are generous with showing us their world. But it’s not one that is simply ‘free’ to exist, an infrastructure of support must be built around it in order to keep its inhabitants safe. Here, ‘freedom’ is contested and redrawn. ‘Do you feel free here?’ Jugdeo asks vqueeram at one point in the film (the pair are at a Goan restaurant in Bombay, sharing a plate of fried fish). ‘Free?’ vqueeram smiles, taking a sip of water from a tall glass, ‘I’m going to blame this question on the air compression in your flight.’

does your house have lions still
vqueeram and Vishal Jugdeo, Does Your House Have Lions, 2021, video still. Courtesy: the artists and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles

Lions follows the group of friends in a landscape fractured by inequalities. We see the visible fault lines of caste, patriarchy and religion, against which an ascendant and virulent form of political fascism swirls. From within this hostile bricolage, the protagonists must eke out the potential for a life of non-normativity. The film takes us to an apartment close to the University of Delhi campus, in a conservative, middle-class Punjabi neighbourhood where vqueeram and Dhiren Borisa, a poet, activist and academic, live. The pair are repeatedly joined – online and IRL – by Jugdeo, who lives in Los Angeles. 

‘I like opacity,’ vqueeram says, back in the park, birds twittering in the background, ‘I much prefer opacity to transparency.’ This is a fitting statement for a film that flits between the two. Lions is a work that embodies transparency, highlighting the jibes, tears and chores that sustain a friendship, but it also shows us the usefulness of opacity, using silence and blankness to illustrate how concealment is a means of survival. Borisa is weary of the archive. He explains how ‘recording or archiving is a threat… it’s risky for our people to actually have evidence in place.’ He refers to theorist José Esteban Muñoz’s essay ‘Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts’ (1996), which discusses how it can be more dangerous to offer testimony toward certain acts than to intentionally erase them. Muñoz writes about how queerness forms its own epistemology, one that finds its shape in transience: ‘innuendo, gossip, fleeting moments, performances’. This system of knowledge is contingent on the audience being able to hold it, he adds, ‘evaporating at the touch of those who would eliminate queer possibility’.

does your house have lions still
vqueeram and Vishal Jugdeo, Does Your House Have Lions, 2021, video still. Courtesy: the artists and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles

Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal – student activists who after filming were imprisoned on false charges for protesting against state violence – also enter the film’s tableau. In a characteristically everyday scene, Narwal peels garlic over a plate, describing how her work attempts to ‘upset the traditional binaries between the researcher and the researched’. Lions also challenges the subject/author relationship: both parties hold the camera interchangeably, both ask the questions, each foregrounding their own voyeurism. It’s through this swapping of roles that the individuals in Lions learn to document, reflect and construct narrative together, and in doing so, show us how they imagine and assemble community. In certain moments, the camera lingers for too long, intrusively remaining above someone's face as they cry, or trying to capture the information on an identity card. In others, it’s more tentative. In one scene Borisa asks, ‘What shall I do?’ standing up from a chair as the lens moves slowly down his frame and his unbuttoned leather trousers.

Lions is about friendship, but also closely examines the different shapes of loneliness: how they are maintained, and also how we can ‘make them liveable’, as vqueeram explains, by building new worlds. The film is saturated by the utopianism of its protagonists: from the poetry that animates them, to the moments of tender reflection they have in spaces they have created together. This offers a new index for the utopian: one that centres on – perhaps even celebrates – the mundane. The film’s protagonists leave a trail of insights on how to absorb a subtle utopianism into the everyday: by, for instance, placing a higher premium on joy than on rage, or by recognizing loneliness as something that exists across different registers. As they reflect on their relationship with their families, the different characters each realize how sometimes you escape one form of loneliness only to enter a new one – that there is no final moment of freedom, only a drive that can often result in organizing and tiptoeing around different qualitative constraints. What the film puts in relief are the unfreedoms of not being able to express oneself freely within the normative constraints of family and neighbourhood, something its protagonist leave in order to build a new infrastructure of their own. This is not so simple, city life precipitates another kind of loneliness, one that comes from the difficulties of sustaining community.

does your house have lions installation view
vqueeram and Vishal Jugdeo, Does Your House Have Lions, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, photograph: Paul Salveson

Lions bears witness to different political indexes and shows how they can – indeed, must – co-exist. It moves between the macro-political and the micro-social, the home and the street, to indelibly etch, almost in protest, a reminder of the possibilities that dwell in the niches of our narratives of personhood. A quarter of the way through the film, we are taken to a tree-lined terrace where vqueeram sits cross-legged on a small cotton mat, painting their toenails a pearly shade of lilac. They are listening to a sultry Bollywood song, which washes over the scene; they snap their fingers and tilt their face, the sunlight catching their high cheekbones. The song’s chorus is Muskaanein jhoote hain (All smiles are lies) – vqueeram whispers the lyrics, slowly turning their face away from the camera.

Main image: vqueeram and Vishal Jugdeo, Does Your House Have Lions, 2021, video still. Courtesy: the artists and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer. They are co-editor of The White Review, and their essay-length book Remember the Details was published this year by Floating Opera Press.

Pranav Kuttaiah is a writer from Bangalore currently pursuing a PhD in City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley