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Onir on homosexuality and censorship: ‘Why love threatens us so much?’

"Just like it is important to have women represent themselves because men have so seeped into patriarchy, queer representation needs more queer voices," Onir said

filmmaker Onir interviewOnir rose to fame with his 2005 film, 'My Brother...Nikhil' (Photo: Onir/Instagram)

A little over four years ago, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment, decriminalised homosexuality as it unanimously struck down part of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which outlawed gay sex. However, the country still needs to cross the bridge when it comes to embracing homosexuality as was seen when filmmaker Onir’s script inspired by the real-life story of a gay army major was rejected by the Defence Ministry earlier this year. While it may have disappointed the 53-year-old, the incident failed to deter one of the most outspoken queer voices in the country who went on to publish his memoir titled I am Onir and I am Gay later this year.

Onir started his career with the film, My Brother…Nikhil (2005), which was based on the life of Dominic d’Souza – the first known HIV-positive person in India. Featuring Sanjay Suri and Purab Kohli, the movie won several accolades as it was one of the first mainstream Hindi films to deal with AIDS and same-sex relationships. His anthology I Am (2010) went on to bag the National Award and Onir continued his impeccable contribution to Indian cinema with films such as Shab (2017), Kuch Bheege Alfaaz (2018), Bas Ek Pal (2006), Sorry Bhai! (2008) and Raising the Bar (2016), among others.

In an exclusive interaction with indianexpress.com, Onir, who recently graced the Tata Literature Live! 2022, opened up about his memoir, censorship, LGBTQI representation in cinema, and the need to empower the queer gaze. Edited excerpts:

What made you pen down your journey as a memoir?

My agent Kanishka has been, for the longest time, trying to convince me. I got in touch with him while trying to get book rights for some other thing and he was like, “Why don’t you write? It would help many because we are still in a country where being queer is not accepted or widely spoken about.” I was kind of reluctant in the beginning. Still, during the last days of Covid-19, I spoke to my sister and she asked, “How many times have you walked into a bookstore and seen a book about an Indian proudly talking about his/her sexuality and identity?” My identity as a filmmaker is also closely connected to my being queer, and the sensibility and views that I have been bringing into my work. I realised that when I grew up, I had no reference points in literature and cinema. I get a lot of questions from young people on social media about my experience and when they come out. I thought that a book like this empowers many more that it’s okay to come out. With a book like this, you learn from the other person’s story and my story is that of being open. It kind of empowers people to not be invisible. Visibility is very important. Today, I get messages from remote places where people are reading my book, saying, “I am glad you are talking about us”.

The title of the book puts forth your identity – both as a filmmaker and as a queer person. What does it suggest?

It suggests that my entire identity is something that I am proud of. I am proud of being a filmmaker and a filmmaker who is gay. And, I don’t want the latter part of my identity to be invisible. There are a lot of people, from my industry and elsewhere, who do not talk and there are many who say that coming out is a choice. Of course, you should not push anyone. However, I feel that if you are in an empowered position and you come out, you empower many others. For example, Dutee Chand coming out in the space of sports is a huge thing. It empowers so many girls who are fighting to be proud of their identity. When someone says that being in a closet is a choice, it’s important to understand that there is actually no choice. When you are straight, you don’t have to make that choice. It’s important that we all aspire towards a world where we don’t have to be in the closet.

How did writing happen to you?

I have written a lot of my own scripts. But, writing this format was different because I have always written poetry, short stories and scripts. This memoir was also writing about my own self and I wanted some distance. That’s why I have written it with my sister who not only is a person who knows me completely but is also someone who looks at me objectively without judging. Unlike me, her language skills are much better (laughs). She, I think, presents it in a much better way.

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Writing, on many occasions, meets censorship and you are no stranger to it. How do you navigate that?

It really hurts. You end up wondering why it got censored as you are just writing about the lives of people who are like you. Why should it trouble anybody? Earlier, queer content was censored because it was criminalised by the law. But even after that, there were some ministry differences with my last film. I feel it’s very frustrating as artistes and as someone who believes that my work is not about hate but about love, acceptance and diversity. It troubles me that it should trouble anybody. Why should love and affection be something that needs censorship? There are a lot of people screaming, shouting and abusing each other every day and you can see all of that. But the moment people want to express their love on Valentine’s Day, people oppose it. I am always surprised that these keepers of law and so-called social morality have a problem with love and not hate. We, as a society, need to question why love threatens us so much and hate fails to bother us.

Do you feel that much has changed in queer representation in mainstream cinema since the release of Fire, which was perhaps a breakthrough film representing the LGBTQ community?

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I would say, yes and no. Because I feel that mainstream cinema is in the habit of appropriating things. They do something and then jump around saying, “Oh my god! So much has changed”. In any of the recent queer films in India, I have not seen the makers exploring lesbian desire. Everything is very sanitised and people make a big deal out of it. We haven’t moved much ahead from what the discourse was in Fire. Very often, we forget things that have already happened and how we need to move ahead. After 377, everyone needs a tick mark that there’s something related to the LGBTQ community in their content. But, they are constantly telling stories which are from a heteronormative point of view. It is not seen from a queer gaze. People in the industry think that my gaze is too much. But, how is my life too much and why do I have to constantly please you? Of course, the number of films representing the LGTBQ community has increased and that’s because the number of films made per year has increased. So comparatively, the percentage remains the same. We often forget about Bomgay (1996) which was a very bold film that happened decades ago. It is important to remember films like Fire and Bomgay which have done things which even today people don’t dare to do.

Which films in recent times do you think have been able to handle the subject well?

I loved watching Made In Heaven. I was a little irritated that so much was already there in my film. But as a series, I feel it approached queer characters with so much dignity and the story was told with a lot of empathy and without filters. I think it was one of the best things to have happened in recent times. I loved Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw, too. After that, no film or web series has affected or touched as these two did. In India, I think the discourse is still at a very nascent stage. I have heard that Mismatched had some interesting queer characters. I am happy that slowly there is more space coming in OTT for queer characters.

Just like Modern Love Mumbai

Honestly, Modern Love didn’t work for me. I didn’t see queer desire being portrayed. I felt that there was always a restraint when it comes to desire. But, why? We desire and that needs to be acknowledged and shown. I missed it in Modern Love. As much as I am happy to see the narrative happening, I also felt that there was always a wall. That’s why when I made Pine Cone, it was important for me to have the main lead who is, out and proud, gay. In my next film, I have Sushant Divgikr playing a trans character. For me, it is important to empower queer people to represent themselves. Very often, heteronormative people are not comfortable expressing desire which is the most normal thing.

In addition to queer narratives, what makes it important to have queer representation off-screen?

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When I see a straight love story, I don’t have to ask anybody, “How do you guys do it?” Because we have grown up accepting that world. No one had to teach me about inclusion. Many straight actors ask me if they have to be with someone of the same or opposite sex. That’s why I feel that it is important to have more queer voices represent themselves. Just like it is important to have women represent themselves because men have so seeped into patriarchy, queer representation needs more queer voices. I say this phrase very often – ‘Empowering the queer gaze’. The way I look at the world is very different because we are a minority of minorities. We constantly fight different battles. So in Pine Cone, I tried to have as many queer people behind the scenes including the music director, a couple of actors and some crew members.

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First published on: 28-11-2022 at 12:30 IST
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