Controversy erupts on the first day of Bhopal Literature and Art Festival 2023 as filmmaker Onir dropped as speaker

Session goes ahead without Onir but name changed from Making Literature LGBTQ Neutral to Better Health and Inclusiveness

January 13, 2023 09:41 pm | Updated January 14, 2023 01:35 pm IST - BHOPAL

A controversy erupted on Friday, the opening day of the three-day-long Bhopal Literature and Art Festival 2023 (BLF) after national award-winning filmmaker Onir Dhar was dropped as a speaker at one of the sessions titled Making Literature LGBTQ Neutral.

“Shocked and Sad that an event I was really looking forward to speaking at had to drop me. Apparently there was a group threatening protest and violence and the police told the organisers that they cannot guarantee my safety. So they cancelled the event. Let me process this...” tweeted the film maker.

As per the invite of the event, the session was titled Making Literature LGBTQ Neutral and was to feature Mr. Dhar, and transgender activist and author Kalki Subramaniam in conversation with [public health researcher and consultant] Harikeerthan Raghuram. The publicity material shared by the filmmaker on Twitter included an image of the cover of his memoir ‘I am Onir and I am Gay’ (Viking, an imprint of Penguin, 2022), suggesting that he would have also discussed its contents.

Speaking to The Hindu over the phone, the filmmaker said that his participation was confirmed over a month ago but the news of the cancellation was broken to him only on Thursday, hours before he was to fly down to Bhopal from Mumbai to attend the BLF.

“What I am really disappointed about is that the organisers did not have the decency to call me up personally first. I first got a text that the event was cancelled. Then I got a text from their travel agent that they were being told to cancel my ticket. I dialled [festival director] Raghav Chandra and learnt that some people were threatening to protest. I still do not have the clarity on who these people were,” said Mr. Dhar, who was recently in the news for criticising those calling for the boycott of the upcoming film Pathaan over costumes worn by actor Deepika Padukone in one of the film’s songs. In M.P., Home Minister Narottam Mishra had called Ms. Padukone’s costumes “objectionable” while Bhopal MP Pragya Singh Thakur had said that people should not watch the film Pathaan if they were “real Hindus”.

Mr. Dhar also shared another tweet, posted by an unverified handle claiming to be that of author Vijay Manohar Tiwari, welcoming the cancellation and calling the subject “nonsense”. “He [attributing to Mr. Dhar] is deeply respected in the society, but in the name of literature, at least in the premises of Bharat Bhavan, this subject is neither relevant nor necessary. After a belated realization, this nonsense topic has been immediately removed from the #BLF by the enthusiastic, thoughtful and modernist organizers.

On the security threat, Bhopal Police Commissioner Makarand Deoskar said that the police had received no communication from the organisers seeking additional security or citing a threat to anyone’s participation.

While the tweet sparked off a debate on social media with many voicing their support for him, the organisers— Society for Culture and Environment— including festival director Mr. Chandra, remained unavailable for comment till late evening.

Session renamed

Meanwhile, the scheduled session went ahead at Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan without Mr. Dhar, but it was renamed as “Better Health and Inclusiveness”, said Kalki, who dons many hats from that of a gender rights activist to writer, poet, motivational speaker and actor, after opening the discussion by expressing solidarity with the missing filmmaker.

“There was supposed to be one more chair but that chair is not here because, of course, Onir is not here. I stand in support and solidarity with filmmaker and writer Onir who was supposed to speak here but he cannot. I would also like to say that hatred and violence cannot and should not replace love..,” he said.

This was followed by a discussion that included several issues, including violence and hatred against the trans community.

Mr. Dhar said that the fact that the discussion went ahead with the other two co-panelists showed that the claims of people having problems with the content was also a lie. “So, it’s obviously targeted at me as a person,” said the filmmaker.

“I would also like to say that hatred and violence cannot and should not replace love..”Onir DharFilmmaker

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