Lisa Ray (left) and Shamim Sarif present a one-two punch of dyke-themed films.
THE WORLD UNSEEN directed by Shamim Sarif, written by Sarif from her novel, with Lisa Ray, Sheetal Sheth and Parvin Dabas. A KinoSmith release. 94 minutes. Opens Friday (November 7). For venues and times, see Movies.
When I tell Lisa Ray that after playing in two dyke-themed films, she's close to becoming an honourary lesbian, she doesn't skip a beat.
"That's a good crown. I'll take it," she says, green eyes flashing.
We're sitting in a hotel room, talking about the two features in question - The World Unseen, opening this week, and I Can't Think Straight, which opens two weeks later.
The two are completely different. The World Unseen is set in apartheid South Africa in the 50s and tracks the friendship between abused wife Miriam (Ray) and the trousers-wearing cabbie Amina. I Can't Think Straight is a contemporary comedy about an Indian Muslim woman and Ray's Palestinian, Tala, who fall in love and aren't sure what to do about it.
"There's a basic driving force in humanity to find love. Not just love that's external, but a self-love. That's the same for both characters but in really different packages," she says, looking every bit like the former model who appeared on a Times Of India list of the top 10 most beautiful Indian women of the millennium.
Both films are written and directed by Shamim Sarif, a British novelist-turned-filmmaker, who joins us in the middle of our conversation. You can tell by the way Ray and Sarif interact that working together has been a happy creative experience. They laugh, interrupt each other and sometimes argue.
Curiously, both movies feature Ray and Sheetal Sheth as a couple coping with their emotional attachment. Sarif didn't plan it that way.
"We cast Sheetal late in I Can't Think Straight," Sarif explains. "One actor wasn't available. Another one I considered wouldn't do the love scene - she worried about what her family would say.
"Searching for some kind of authenticity, we looked at a few actresses: Palestinian, Lebanese, Arab.
"One of them said, "I'll do a little light kissing in a skin-coloured bodysuit,' and I thought, ‘Frankly, that sounds a lot more kinky than anything I had in mind.'"
The politics in these movies pack as much energy as the sexuality. In The World Unseen, a budding inter-racial relationship gets thwarted. In I Can't Think Straight, the Arab family's complex arguments are like nothing we've heard on the screen before.
"I've been privileged to be involved in that kind of Arab context," says Sarif. "We're talking about the upper echelon of Western-educated Arabs who are not suffering in refugee camps. That's the kind of stuff that comes out at the dinner table.
"If there's no trickle-down effect from the top for change, for peace, for a momentum forward, there's not much hope for the future. So, yes, the Palestinians have a just reason to be upset. But if you keep saying that all Jews should die, you're not going to get anywhere."
Whether for the politics or the sex, these movies may not get an easy ride in India or in Muslim countries.
"India's changing now, though. And besides, I'm the queen of controversy there," says Ray, referring to her turn in Mehta's Water.
"Really?" I reply. "So you want the tiara as the queen of controversy and the honourary lesbian tiara, too?"
"Oh, yeah," Ray laughs. "I want it all."
Ray had a choice between roles in The World Unseen. She talks here about how she made her choice.
Ray talks about her first encounter with the producer of both movies, Hanan Kattan (also Sarif's life partner).
Why the mothers in I Can't Think Straight are so conservative (and mean).
The full quote about the political conversation in I Can't Think Straight.