When we talk about Bollywood embracing queerness through cinema, one of the first films that encompassed the theme was My Brother Nikhil and dealt with both HIV as well as gay relationships. It was made by Onir, an Indian filmmaker, director, editor, screenwriter, and producer, who is also openly gay.
Onir has been a supporter of the queer rights movements in India both through his work and otherwise. Together with actor Sanjay Suri, he started Anticlock Films, and is known for hard-hitting feature films and documentaries based on both fiction and non-fiction. Excerpts follow from an hour-long conversation with Onir over Zoom.
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Debjyoti: Onir, being a big fan of your work, I know you’ve made some pivotal movies, which have addressed different sorts of issues in society, not just limited to queer issues. You’ve addressed health, pogroms, and the partition. So many aspects that have come forth in your work – what sort of vision do you see for the future when it comes to queer issues, and particularly in India?
Onir: I think that it’s certainly changing, sometimes taking steps forward, sometimes it’s also taking steps backward. It’s everywhere in the world – unless one’s vigilant, there’s always a possibility of [sliding backwards], so I feel that in terms of queerness in India, like elsewhere, one has to be vigilant. Things are changing constantly, even in terms of the kind of narrative we see in cinema. I feel that after the 2018 Supreme Court of India [decriminalization] verdict, there’s more queer content that you see on online platforms, and some films have been made as well. However, I feel the numbers are really small. We all get very happy when, once in a while, one film comes, but most of them are also narrated from a very heteronormative gaze, which is all about being accepted by the heteronormative world. I feel that our lives and stories are way beyond that, and that’s very evident when you go to a film festival like ‘Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival’. There, you see so many short films, as well as some feature films, made by queer filmmakers, from across the country and across the world, and you realize that that’s what is missing in terms of public spaces out here, because most of the queer narratives are told by straight cisgender men or women. Considering that most of them are still struggling to understand and accept us, it does injustice to our narrative. There aren’t enough attempts made to empower the queer gaze in India, and I feel the need for that is also not felt.
Debjyoti: How do you view where India is when compared to the way the world is sliding today?
Onir: Considering what recently happened in Uganda, one is worried; what is constantly happening about women’s rights in the US, one is worried. It doesn’t take long for a fascist right-wing State in power anywhere to reverse the process of equal human rights, and today, even in India, when you see the kind of resistance that the Centre has against marriage equality, it just reflects that. I think if you check the news especially over the last one month, there’s been a very, very disturbing stance taken by the government about trans rights in terms of reservations, in terms of various things connected to the trans community.
Debjyoti: You mentioned this insistence on normativity, in particular a heteronormative standpoint, when it comes to presenting the queer gaze. Given the 2018 decriminalization verdict that has come out, and the kind of activism that we’re seeing, do you think there’s a possibility that, even with straight cisgender people taking decisions, when it comes to creating commercial cinema, there will be a change in the future?
Onir: Suppose you look at how narratives around women have evolved over the years, there’s a huge number of working women, women who are empowered, but it’s only in the recent years that more platforms are going all out to empower women filmmakers to tell certain stories, not only about women but also the way women look into the world or society. Women’s outlook may be different, and it’s important for these narratives to come out, but it’s taken that many years, and the women’s movement has been there for much longer than the queer rights movement. But, again, it’s too little right now . . . Everybody looks at numbers unfortunately. I’m releasing my next film, and I’m not even thinking about a theatrical release because you just realize that so many people just don’t dare to come to the theatres to watch a film which is seen as a gay film. They would do it if it’s within, again, the space of a heteronormative narrative, like be it Badhaai Do, or Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, they’re about being accepted by a heteronormative world, so it’s about us fitting into their world – it’s not about their work coming to accept us as we are.
It’s very often that we must fit into a certain framework of society and what’s celebrated is, oh my god, they made this effort to accept us. These days, it just puts me off. Even when I go for an ‘inclusion talk’, there’s this whole thing that “this year we’re trying to make this space more open, and conducive for working”, etc., and I’m like, first of all, you’re just forgetting one major thing. You’re doing nothing for us, you’re doing it to become better human beings yourselves, because you’re now fucked up. We accept you. You are the one who needs help to learn how to accept another human being. Don’t pretend that this is about doing us a favour. I think that’s the problem with a lot of films also. So much so, when I made my new film, Pinecone, the only three straight characters that are there in the film, even as small secondary characters, are women. There’s no straight man in the film. That was a conscious thing because I didn’t want to be negotiating with that narrative.
Debjyoti: Do you think the ‘pink rupee’ has no influence on the outputs of the cinema industry?
Onir: I feel that though there is pink money, but there’s very little pink money that’s acknowledged because a lot of powerful queer personalities – be it in the media, entertainment industry, other industries, or corporate spaces – they’re not out and proud, so the acknowledgement that it’s queer money is, for one, not there. Secondly, it’s still very little. Of course, today, especially in urban spaces, in some cities now, you have pubs which are open, you hear of holidays being planned, but all that’s really tiny and it’s only empowering the privileged queer people, who very often, unfortunately, don’t really care about what’s happening across the country to others less privileged from the queer community, be it people from the Dalit community, or even the trans community. Very often [we] gay men and lesbians forget the kind of privileges that we have, and that most trans people don’t have access to that. I feel that all that is not considered. Things will change, and I’m always hopeful for the better.
Debjyoti: Though the Hindi cinema industry is embracing queer issues, we still don’t see queer people playing parts – for instance, even with cameos by trans characters, we don’t see trans people being cast in those roles.
Onir: Be it a trans woman or a trans man, I feel a cisgender man or woman representing the role is problematic. It’s like men continuing to play the role of women. In a space where you know that the trans community for so long has been disempowered to be themselves in cinema, and today, when there are so many actors from the trans community who’re out there, who’re available – some of them might need a little bit of a workshop, which is okay – I don’t think a true attempt is being made. What’s problematic is, often, with these projects there are queer people involved who don’t take a stand. It’s not just the heteronormative world – it’s also us within our community that we don’t take a stand when it comes to trans representation. We often justify it in the name of commerce and not only justify the casting of a cisgender person for a trans role, but we say that the reach will be greater. There’s always an excuse, and I find that very problematic, because very often, just because it’s not us directly, we do the same things just because it does not affect us. If you put yourself in the same shoes of someone who’s from the trans community, you realize how humiliating it is, how demeaning it is that, over and over and over, you’re considered not good enough, and no one wants to take that step of empowering you.
Debjyoti: Do you think online platforms and web series are taking a bolder turn in their stories and queer employment?
Onir: Today, in some of the online platforms and series, there are attempts being made, and I think that’s very, very important, but I wish there was more representation of the community, and of people from various strata of society. I’m always afraid of us getting appropriated into a certain world, which is all about privileged people, whether it’s gay, lesbian or trans, where stories are all about these very, very privileged people. What happens to the other stories? This time, when I went to ‘Kashish’, what I found missing, and what made me sad, was the absence of people from the industry – I mean non-queer representation, be it from platforms, be it from studios, because, though there’s a token sponsorship of events, I don’t see them participating in watching the content, to understand the community more, or maybe, as a platform, buy some films which are made by queer people, telling queer stories. Very often, it’s tokenism that’s happening everywhere, because it’s a part of a mandate to tell some LGBTIQA+ stories, just like what happens during Pride Month. You’ll have everybody calling you to have a talk about inclusion. I think that, for all of us, it’s important to recognize these facts and not get appropriated by the system. Otherwise, what we’ve achieved after so long will get diluted. Also, within our own selves, we’ll start discriminating [against] those who are less privileged. We need to be talking about them all the time.
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Onir’s latest project, Pinecone, was unveiled at the end of May 2023, and was released at ‘Kashish’ in June 2023. Its official mainstream release was on August 30, 2023 in Bhutan. The film’s lead protagonist is a gay man played by an out and about gay actor. This by itself is path breaking in Hindi / Bollywood cinema. Further in our conversation, Onir spoke more about the film and the politics of casting queer people.
Debjyoti: Going forward, can you tell me more about your new film? How does it connect with the queer movement as we see it now?
Onir: Pinecone is a story of a gay man, a love story spanning over three decades. It starts in 1999, when the first rainbow pride walk happened in Kolkata. Then it goes to 2009, when the Delhi High Court verdict came out, and then finally, 2019, one year after the Supreme Court verdict. It has a changing landscape in the background, but it’s talking about the love stories of a queer man, how he navigates his life. For me, what’s important is, I don’t negotiate with any platform, any production house about the narrative. I wanted this to be a film that celebrates queer desire, because I feel that most films that portray queer characters don’t know how to celebrate desire – they often remove the desire element from our being. That’s one reason, and secondly, I wanted to cast a queer actor, and it was difficult because I wanted to cast someone who’s out and proud, not just queer and in the closet. It was difficult, because you can’t ask people, because that’s again politically wrong, but I’m very happy that Vidur, whom I cast, is one of the first out and proud queer actors playing a gay role in a Bollywood film. He was cast not just because he’s queer, but because he’s also a good actor, and I hope that the industry accepts him. That’s what we’ll get to see because if the industry accepts him, we’ll find more people coming out and claiming their identities.
Debjyoti: For me what’s celebratory in this, and also, kind of sad, is the fact that it takes a queer filmmaker to cast a queer actor, but at least there’s a queer actor playing a queer role in a mainstream film which may or may not see the theatres, depending on the politics going on . . . thank you Onir for sharing your thoughts and ideas. Here’s wishing you the best!
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In our conversation, we could have deep dove into the politics of Indian cinema at large, legal and legislative progress and regress, but unfortunately, we ran out of time. However, Onir’s work with Pinecone is the perfect way of carrying the conversation forward. The trailer of the film gives us a glimpse into the beautiful way a queer love story has been handled. Onir’s work has been trailblazing – with My Brother Nikhil creating waves when it was released in 2005, to I Am (2010), to his involvement with The Queer Muslim Project and his mentoring of several young filmmakers. As we commemorate 10 years of the Varta webzine, we also celebrate Onir and his journey with us, making our world brighter and more beautiful with his work.
About the main photo: Onir speaking at a recent event at the Royal University of Bhutan, Thimphu. Bhutan holds a special place in Onir’s mind because he spent his entire school life there before moving to Kolkata in 1984. All photos courtesy Onir