In a conversation with Outlook, renowned director-producer-screenwriter Onir talks about queerness on and off the screen, problem of representation in mainstream Indian cinema, his recently published memoir, and what inspires him to tell stories he has been expounding throughout his stint so far.
What inspired you to write the memoir?
To be honest, I had no plans of writing a book. I used to feel that it was too early. It took my agent nearly six years of trying to convince me to write about my life as a gay person and as an independent filmmaker. In 2021, I finally gave in and told the agent that I would discuss it with my sister Irene. After that, my sister joined in, and the two of us felt compelled to share this story.
When I was growing up, I had no references for a very long time, and I only afterwards realised how few people, particularly in our film industry, would come out as gay. I've always been honest with people about myself, so I figured sharing this could be helpful for young individuals who are struggling with their sexual identity. All I want to do is change a few lives.
In your book, you have a chapter called ‘The Milestone’, wherein you discuss about your film My Brother…Nikhil (2005). What was it like making such a film 17 years ago when homosexuality was a crime?
It was a milestone for me as it gave me an identity as a filmmaker. It was crucial time for all of us because it was the time when Section 377 was not decriminalised yet. However, I am really grateful to Karan Johar, who put in a word with Aditya Chopra at Yash Raj Films and helped to get them on board as distributors for the film. Nevertheless, it feels sad that, both for myself and my actors, we were never recognised by the industry or the accolades.
Seventeen years have passed, do you think things are still the same in the industries or have they changed? When it comes to the social fabric and LGBTQ awareness, is 2005 any different from 2022?
Section 377 stands decriminalised, so it projects empowerment in many ways. However, more stories need to be told than just about the acceptance. But it is as difficult as it was 17 years ago. For example, I want to tell stories that do not cater to heteronormative gaze or the eyeballs of Box Office. If you look around, you will see that be it platforms or otherwise, most people who are making films about queer narratives are the people who are not queer. Why, for example, am not I asked to do those films?
Another problem that pervades the horizon is that people think I am ahead of time. People told me in 2005, that My Brother…Nikhil was too much for audiences, or even now, I am often told that I should wait before my film Pine Cone comes out. I see this as a problem not with myself, but within the societal machinery that is not ready to face the truth. “Oh, take baby steps,” people tell me. But is my life and identity a baby step? I really do not want to become a filmmaker who toes the line of the trend.
One of your films We Are was denied the green signal by Ministry of Defense. What was the film about?
The government denied me the permission to go ahead with the film. I still do not understand how a story about a gay retired army officer can portray Indian Army in a “bad light” or how it can be a “threat to the national security”.
Once a Supreme Court judge said, “History owes an apology to LGBTQ community for the years of discrimination they have faced.” I don’t understand why government agencies do not understand that? Beyond that, we are often discriminated when it comes to getting jobs because of our identity—merit is not a cheque we can really cash. I don’t know how long the sustained discrimination will continue.
Is our mainstream cinema ready for making films like Call Me By Your Name, or Blue Is The Warmest Colour, or Portrait of a Lady on Fire, where the LGBTQ characters are portrayed in the purest of their forms?
I don’t think India’s mainstream cinema is ready yet. They are yet to figure out what these things are about. I mean, do you really need a script consultant to make a film about a gay character? It is ironic when people tell me, “Onir, how can we understand LGBT community?” I did not attend a workshop to discover my identity and myself. It is simple, be empathetic and kind, you will understand everything.
Do you think that the Indian cinema is fraught with the problem of representation? For instance, a gay role is often played by a cisgender person. Is it fair? Often LGBT characters, especially the trans folk, are added to cast to add the spice to comedy?
I don’t think acting has boundaries. A queer person can play a straight role and vice versa. But it is always a brilliant idea to include the character from the community to play the role the actor themselves can identify with. In my upcoming film Pine Cone, I casted three characters who identify as queer, including the lead.
Moreover, it is problematic when character, for example, a transgender, is added to film cast to make it more fun. This is a self-depreciating approach. We as queer are not here to invite ridicule and entertain people in such ways. It is still okay if a queer character is comic, but we should laugh at the joke, not at the identity. How many times we laugh at the straight characters on the screen? Never! And this needs to change.
Has your identity ever hampered your journey as a filmmaker? Have you missed out some opportunities, which as a straight person you would easily grab? Do you ever wish to be having born in a part of the world where gender discrimination is the least?
I don’t think so. My identity has empowered me. I resist through my work, and resistance is empowerment. Although all humans aspire to live in a society where equality is worshipped and the gap between the classes is as minuscule as it can be, but that is a utopian aspiration. Because, you see, in the West the society would be inclusive about gender identity and the elated issues, but again there exists some discrimination of sorts—people are discriminated on the basis of their colour, race, religion and ethnicity. So, we can never attain a utopian fabric of society and live there. I have never wished to be born in a Western country. I rather want to represent India there.