While cinema has long since opened its doors to representing queerness, there’s a sizable amount of progress yet to be made. Within the scope of queerness, there are several communities that are glossed over, the bi community being one of them. Bi-erasure in popular culture has long been a debate among queer circles and Shiva Baby is one of those rare films that represents bisexuality in all its glory. Not only does it write bisexual characters but also belongs to the growing number of films that articulate queer desire in tangible terms. This is a welcome departure from the standard relegation of queer desire to the sphere of the connotative.
Shiva baby is a delightful depiction of how queerness negotiates with localized communities on a quotidian basis. While public discourse eloquently elucidates the larger experiences of being queer, this film offers a nuanced insight into how queerness is spoken about within conservative families and communities. Often casual queerphobia creeps into conversations among family members, unmindful of the impact they have on young queer people. Progressive views regarding queerness, remain intact only so long as one’s own child is not a member of the community. Shiva baby presents to its audience these intricacies through remarkably well written dialogues, and exhilarating performances by the actors. In a world where popular cinema until very recently considered queerness an aberration, this film represents the metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel.
Streaming on MUBI, as part of their Pride Unprejudiced: LGBTQ+ Cinema curation, Shiva Baby is Emma Seligman’s debut film. Positioned within the context of the Jewish community of the United States the narrative of the film unfolds over the course of one day, when the protagonist, Danielle, runs into her sugar daddy at a Shiva, which is the mourning period for a relative’s death in Jewish tradition. A situational comedy, this film is a collision of family, queerness and power dynamics within relationships.
The very first scene comes into focus right after Danielle has sex with Max, her sugar daddy. The out of focus sex and the in-focus conversation between sugar daddy and baby serves to de-centralizes the value attached to the act of sex. For Danielle, it is transactional and she treats it with a dispassionate irreverence. One can’t help but chuckle at how out of his depth Max sounds when he says “I think it’s really great to support females, particularly female entrepreneurs”, and one can only empathize with Danielle’s inability to hug him back. This scene sets the tone of the film along with the satire that weaves itself into the narrative seamlessly.
The conflict of the film lies in the power dynamics between Max and Danielle and the difference in the way the both of them inhabit the same space in their community. The daddy is far less scrutinized and has the power to dictate the terms of their relationship. Though the act of sex takes a backseat for Danielle, significantly in her relationship with Max, being desired sexually does become an all-encompassing issue, especially as a young woman navigating her way through college. In a remarkably poignant scene, when Danielle tries to assert her power in their relationship through her sexuality, Max’s refusal to engage with her has an immediate impact on her self-esteem. This is only compounded by an incessant barrage of questions by her well-meaning but nosy relatives. Seemingly innocuous comments about her weight, the fact that she lacks clarity on her college major and that she is still single, create an environment that exacerbates Danielle’s anxieties exponentially.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the film is that her queerness is never a point of conflict for Danielle. When she runs into her former partner at the Shiva, the two of them share an uneasiness common to most former lovers who haven’t got closure. A lot of Danielle’s discomfort seems to stem from the fact that Maya appears to be confident, successful and integrated into the community, which is in stark contrast to how Danielle views herself. While the two of them seem to be comfortable with their sexuality, their families are at pains to keep them from engaging in any ‘funny business’. A particularly well written scene in the film lays bare the universal grouse of the bisexual community about being viewed as straight people going through a passing phase. When Danielle’s mother suspects that Danielle and Maya have been reigniting their flame, she rebukes Danielle by saying that she thought Danielle was past her stage of experimenting. To this Danielle remarks “you think everyone that’s bi is experimenting. You have no gaydar.” Just when her indignant mother vouches for her gaydar, a particularly frisky friend enters the frame. While this woman appears to be unequivocally queer, the mother seems to be blissfully unaware of her best friend’s disposition. Through this scene, the film also pays homage to all those members of the queer community who remain institutionalized within the structures of heteronormativity.
Shiva Baby is one among several queer films that has been provided a mainstream platform by MUBI, via its Pride Unprejudiced: LGBTQ+ Cinema collection. This curation has brought together a wide variety of films that represent historically overlooked identities, that in addition to being queer also belong to larger structurally excluded communities. These films pan across several genres and formats of storytelling and provide nuanced insights into queer communities located in different parts of the world. Not only does the collection have masterpieces from the realm of fiction films, but also outstanding documentaries such as Hide and Seek by Saad Khan and Saadat Munir, which follows the lives of cross dressers, trans people and members of the gay community in Pakistan. Similarly, Lemebel by Joanna Reposi from Chile follows the life of Pedro Lemebel, a celebrated queer artist and activist from Chile who asserted their queer identity when few dared do so. It is also worth noting that this collection in particular has given a platform to several debutant filmmakers to showcase their work on an international platform. It is therefore safe to say that MUBI has created a space that inclusive, entertaining and insightful cinema, that is also accessible to audiences across the world.
Shiva Baby, by Emma Seligman, is currently available for streaming on MUBI as a part of their ongoing Pride Unprejudiced: LGBTQ+ Cinema collection.
Text by Nabeela Rizvi.