What happens when a couple, apparently happy, live with the reality that the husband is gay but the wife is heterosexual?

This is perhaps an offshoot of contemporary changes in marriage and couple equations that exist, but is both difficult to confront yet possible. This is a reality of Indian life, not commonly known as it is kept hush-hush because neither partner is willing to face the truth that their conjugal life exists only in name.

Phir Kabhi (The Way We Are) marks the directorial debut of Nihit Bhave. It is a short film featuring two brilliant actors, Manav Kaul as the husband and Amruta Prakash as the wife. They are not given any names in the film as the stories could be as much the story of similar couples as it is theirs.

Nihit Bhave, who has also written the story says, "when I decided to make a short film, I knew that it had to tackle the issue of belonging to the gay community in India. I identify as a gay man, and I needed to talk about men in India who do not have the vocabulary to come out of the closet, let alone live their authentic lives. As I started writing the film, I realised that a good foil to my male protagonist would be a woman who has suppressed all her needs, desires and wishes. In my opinion, the experience of being a woman and being a closeted gay man have a lot of overlaps in a society as restrictive as India. An introvert myself, I have also often sacrificed a lot to avoid confrontation of any kind, so I knew that I had to marry these issues in The Way We Are." In Hindi, the film is titled Phir Kabhi.

The film is structured as two separate monologues first by the husband, then by the wife. Finally, the two converse with each other at the dinner table like any normal married couple in love. Self-denial is the primary force that compels a man/woman of alternative sexual preferences to accept that they are physically attracted to members of the same sex. They grow up with a sense of guilt for feeling 'differently'. It takes them a long time to accept their personal terms of desire, passion, sex and so on enough to refuse pretending that they are like everyone else. This is what comprises the husband's monologue.

In her monologue, the wife expresses how, because she was a girl/woman, she was conditioned to "make do" in everything from opting for a vanilla ice-cream over strawberry which she was fond of, to "make do" with a husband who kept his eyes closed tight and screwed up his face when they made love. The husband also told her that she must "make do" with the fact that they would never have children.

"I am done with this 'make-do' life and will now do exactly as I wish to," she says. Yet, when her husband asks her at the dinner table why she is not leaving him for a compatible partner, she smiles and says, "then who will look after you?" The husband smiles quietly.

The director frames his characters within their daily chores. The film opens with the husband trying to mend his wife's mangalsutra. Then, he is chopping beans, folding clothes or some similar household chore. We see him facing the mirror in a scene, trying to confront himself and his confusion, a life spent in self-denial and secrecy. He says to himself "to make you happy, I had to sacrifice my own happiness", which is partially true.

The wife, in her monologue, as she seasons the curry she is going to cook, or the tea that is about to boil over, confesses that she suffered from the pain of rejection when she discovered that her husband always had his eyes shut tight while making love. Her and her question is, "if you kept your eyes shut, who were you thinking of?" The husband tells himself, as if to her, that he imagined his love Saurabh, the tour guide he desired deeply, when he kept his eyes shut while making love to his wife. He was aroused by the smell of his sweat, his muscled, toned body, that tiny peek of his chest hair peeking out of his open shirt. The wife also looks at herself in the mirror, putting on the mangal sutra mended by her husband, perhaps to take stock of her bearings and also, of her marriage to an understanding husband who takes good care of her but…

Nihit Bhave was once a film journalist and critic with the Times of India and Hindustan Times. His screenwriting credits include Anurag Kashyap's Netflix drama, Choked, and the upcoming sci-fi thriller Dobaaraa to be released on August 19. He has also co-written S2 of the Netflix series, Sacred Games, and written the MX Player flagship show, Hey Prabhu.

Manav Kaul as the husband and Amruta Subhash as the wife are outstanding, stripped of make-up or the slightest touch of glamour, and perform organically. They tinted their performance with a slight smile here, a raised eyebrow there, spreading a deep sense of loneliness, deprivation and social distancing with their expressive faces and their controlled body language.

Asked how he managed to get such wonderful actors, Nihit explains, "Amruta Subhash and I have worked together in Choked and Sacred Games. I knew I could lean on her, and she would connect with the material. Manav Kaul on the other hand, was a stroke of luck. I messaged him cold, having had no interaction with him before. He was kind enough to reply and then read my script. The script worked for him and he agreed to be a part of it as well."

"The film was conceived and made at the height of the pandemic. One house was all I could think of. I wanted to create a sense of claustrophobia that would mirror the characters being stuck in their lives as well," he elucidates.

Responding to how he handled his sterling cast, Nihit says, "I handed the script over to my actors and my HODs, and waited for them to bring their experiences to the film. Manav wanted to go in blindly; he wanted to retain spontaneity. Amruta did a five-hour-long character workshop with me, as she wanted to understand the past, present and future of the woman she was playing. We did not do a lot of readings even with the HODs. That way everyone got to bring their interpretation to the table and we picked the best one."

What is his perspective on cinema, per se? And Nihit says, "I haven't attended a film institute, I haven't seen all the classics that one must see in order to be a "good film person," but I know that when I see a good story, or a great character or an unexpected ending, I'm driven to recreate that feeling in others through my work."

"A large part of Indian society still looks at marriage as a burden, a responsibility to be checked off. Women are expected to be subservient; men have a specific toxic masculine role to play. Sometimes, as in movies, chest-thumping acceptance of self is not instantly an option. I want to tell more stories of queer people and women in India, and I hope The Way We Are is a step in the right direction for it," he sums up. Phir Kabhi?