A close look at Faraz Arif Ansari’s work reveals that they always place a great emphasis on visual story-telling. The filmmaker and director of the critically-acclaimed 2021 release Sheer Qorma says, “I have detailed notes about costumes, hair, make-up, and sometimes even the lipstick and the nail paint shade.” As a non-binary filmmaker (their preferred pronouns are they/ them) who loves to tell stories of the LGBTQIA+ community, the influence of beauty is an integral part of their filmmaking. In a tête-à-tête, the young storyteller sheds light on how beauty influences the visuals of their art.
ELLE: WHAT DOES BEAUTY MEAN TO YOU?
FARAZ ARIF ANSARI (FAA): I feel beauty, like love and happiness, isn’t external; it is deeply internal. It is about the radiance one finds when at peace with their identity. My sexuality and gender identity are a part of the celebration of who I am. I feel that to be visible by being authentic is a thing of beauty and courage. As queer folks, we have been denied existence, presence and visibility for generations. Hence, every day for me is an opportunity to reclaim spaces where generations of queer folks have struggled.
ELLE: HOW DO YOU USE BEAUTY AS A TOOL TO TELL YOUR STORIES?
FAA: I am a visual writer, and as a director, I make sure every visual speaks more than any dialogue ever could. Given the intersections of sexuality, faith, gender identities, nationalities, and languages in Sheer Qorma, I wanted the visuals to always have an inherent sense of beauty. From the right colour of red for the Rooh Afza sharbat at the Eid spread to the crystal cutlery, the namaaz rugs to the lace on the namaaz dupattas, the right colour of blush and gloss, to the designs of henna on the hands, every detail was researched and executed to perfection.
Also, I love giving distinct fragrances to each character. Shabana (Azmi) ji was asked to wear a concoction of jasmine mogra attar sourced from Old Delhi. Divya was given oud rose, and Swara was asked to wear Gucci Bloom. Fragrances have always fascinated me, and as a storyteller, it allows me to weave together a world. Shabana ji’s jasmine mogra attar reminded me of the summers I spent with my khalajaan (aunt); wandering together through fields of blooms where she shared many fairy tales with me. My khalajaan loved mogra and jas- mine so much that when I decided to bring Shabana ji’s charac- ter to life, I wanted her to remind me of my khalajaan’s warmth and love. Divya’s oud rose comes from the summer I spent in Germany with my ex-boyfriend. I had picked up an oud rose fragrance from the airport before spending a summer with him, so that fragrance stayed with me, and I weaved it into the film’s narrative. Swara’s Gucci Bloom was reminiscent of a summer I spent in Tunisia, where I wrote some of the pivotal scenes for Sitara, Swara’s character. When the time came to bring Sitara to life, Gucci Bloom found its way into the narrative.
ELLE: THE INFLUENCE OF THE WOMEN IN YOUR LIFE SEEMS TO GO BEYOND YOUR FILMS. HOW HAVE THEY INFORMED YOUR PERSONAL BEAUTY JOURNEY?
FAA: I have been fortunate to have been brought up by three strong, resilient, fiercely independent and courageous women; my mother, khalajaan, and Baby (my mother’s elder sister). I remember, as a child, my khalajaan and I had our own beauty rituals before any big event. On special occasions, rose water was used for bathing. Apart from teaching me how to use makeup as a teenager, I also learned to use perfume because of them. I have this habit of moisturising immediately after taking a shower which I’ve borrowed from them.
ELLE: APART FROM YOUR FAMILY, WHO DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR BEAUTY MUSES?
FAA: My beauty muses include Grace Jones, Princess Diana, Iris Apfel, Sridevi, and Audrey Hepburn. Each of them has been a part of my growing up years. They created a whole new horizon for beauty and fashion, truly reinventing classics with a twist of their own. Also, all of them have been such huge queer icons for generations, for they unabashedly celebrated their identities. For a queer child growing up in India in the ‘90s, they all became my muses almost instantly. And Billy Porter is my current muse.
ELLE: THE PRODUCTION UNIT OF SHEER QORMA WAS ALMOST 95% WOMEN. WHAT EFFECT DID THAT HAVE ON THE FILMMAKING PROCESS AND IN HOW THE CAST LOOKED ON SCREEN?
FAA: Filmmaking is all about energy. What’s written needs the soul and love of everyone who works on the film to find itself in its final form. It was a meditated decision to have many women behind the camera, as was the case with women’s representation in front of the camera. The energy that transpired behind the camera in the form of great nurturing, conversations, attention to intricate details, and how everyone interacted with each other manifested in front of the camera and eventually in the final film as our lived truths.
One of the greatest lessons on capturing the beauty on film was taught to me by Marijke deSouza, the producer of the film. Like me, she is fascinated with symmetry in frames. She guided me on balancing every frame, decluttering and letting a frame breathe, and finding beauty in the tiniest nuances that personified each frame. The beauty of Sheer Qorma is really the vision of my entire team, mostly women, coming together to create something sublime and breathtakingly beautiful.
ELLE: WHAT IS YOUR BEAUTY MANTRA?
FAA: I feel that everything in life is an amalgamation of all that we endure, live, love, experience, and finally, find the courage to em- brace. There is always so much pressure on external beauty and the parameters that have been traditionally set that, as a child, it did overwhelm me. As a teenager, I remember trying to always find remedies or products that would make me look ‘beautiful’ because I wasn’t at peace with myself. After (many) years of spir- itual growth and journey within myself, I realised that it isn’t about how one looks but feels.
ELLE: YOU OFTEN HAVE HENNA-ADORNED PALMS. IS THERE A STORY BEHIND IT?
FAA: Growing up, I was always denied this pleasure of adorning my palms with henna. When I went ahead and put it on secretly, I was shamed for it. And so, the simplest and a beautiful act of applying henna on my palms became an act of rebellion which has now become a habit. I don’t do it to get a pat on my back from strangers on the internet, or even stand up to forces denying such basic joys to other human beings. It’s simply a way to celebrate myself. My rebellion is now a celebration.
There is a certain power in reclaiming things denied to you at a certain point in life. I remember how I deprived myself this joy for the fear of ridicule from relatives or the boys at school. For me, to bring healing, it became imperative to associate happy times with henna. It evolved as an act of freedom for me now, to adorn my hands in henna. It is such a powerful expression of self—especially as a queer, non-binary, Muslim person to use henna as a gentle act of freedom and self-love.
ELLE: LASTLY, DO SPILL YOUR PERSONAL BEAUTY FAVOURITES FOR US!
FAA: I follow the basic five-step routine: cleanse, exfoliate, hydrate, moisturise, and protect. I swear by Cetaphil because it works for my skin. I am mildly obsessed with Burt’s Bees cuticle cream. L’Occitane’s Shea Butter hand cream will always be in my bag. On days I feel indulgent, I reach out for Laura Mercier’s Crème Brûlée hand cream. I use the quintessential Indian healing clay for facials, body wrap, clay bath, foot soaks, and knee packs.
When it comes to fragrances, my favourite is Chanel’s Coco Noir. It is really me in a bottle, in the form of perfume. I love how the fragrance is an extension of the magic of florals with so many more dimensions to it. It has an alluring mystery, a sense of warmth mingling with a sense of power and sexiness that I admire. It is sensual but also very self aware—something that resonates very deeply with me. It asks for attention in the most subtle ways. It really transports me to a whole new world, where I imagine love blooming and everyone celebrating themselves surrounded by endless beauty. I feel this fragrance embodies that celebration and, in a way, my being.
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