Mixed Messaging

The contradictory queer films of a small-town director

Principal photography in progress for the queer short film Sleeping with a Criminal (2023), in Haryana's Faridabad. Ambrish Bhatia's low-budget films have achieved quiet success, with over 119 million views and nearly three hundred thousand followers on YouTube. Ambrish Bhatia
30 April, 2024

Sitting in a vibrant room riddled with Wi-fi routers and cables, and his YouTube Creators Award perched upon the top shelf, Ambrish Bhatia lit a cigarette. “I didn’t even know the ABCDs of photography and filmmaking. I had never owned a camera,” Bhatia said. The 58-year-old’s story is a curious one. Though he currently runs a software company in Haryana’s Faridabad, his claim to fame is his diverse portfolio of short films exploring queer themes, such as Marichika (2014), Invisible Anguish (2017), and My Father is Gay (2014), among others, where he takes on the roles of producer, director, cinematographer, narrator and, in some instances, actor. His low-budget short films, despite their visibly amateur production and acting performances, have achieved quiet success, with over 119 million views and nearly three hundred thousand followers on YouTube. But the source of his films is unexpected for someone from small-town northern India—a place where traditional values still hold sway and queer identities are often marginalised or ignored. As a queer director, who prefers not to label his sexuality, Bhatia is a beguilingly bold specimen.

Bhatia’s films range from heart-warming stories of self-discovery to darker narratives that depict the harsh realities faced by queer individuals in India. Sleeping with a Criminal (2023) is, according to the online description, a romantic thriller about “a young hot boy who is looking for a place to hide,” and touches upon politics, radicalisation and need for social harmony. Invisible Anguish deals with loneliness and social isolation among older people. Paribhasha (2015) deals with friendship and transgender identity. Among the films that do not have queer themes, Dharam (2016) is about poverty and religious conversions. Some of his more recent works, like Defining Love (2022), also touch upon themes of religion and class. The viewership of his films ranges between tens of thousands for most and, in the case of Invisible Anguish, a staggering 11.7 million.

Bhatia’s journey into filmmaking began as a casual experiment. He bought a camera on a whim, intending to use it for weekend trips to Delhi’s historic sites. When a couple of handsome young men he met at a shopping mall asked him to take their portraits, he realised he could do more with his camera. Soon, he began to explore the idea of making short films. Relying on YouTube to learn the craft, he said, he quickly began producing films. Eventually, he focused on queer identity and themes that tackled issues rarely discussed in the conservative circles he hailed from.

His choices led him to be ostracised by many. “When I announced the film My Father is Gay, my software industry clients began to sideline me,” he said. “And almost everyone, with the exception of my family, began to sideline me in one way or the other.” But he found encouragement in the popularity of his films on the internet, which even secured him a deal with a prominent queer social-networking app that purchased some of his films.