Interview | Movies

‘There aren’t enough stories about us’: the queer director on his memoir, I Am Onir, and I Am Gay

In their trailblazing memoir Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir, Nigerian writer Akwaeke Emezi notes that “speaking to other people… requires channelling who or what I am into language they can understand. It requires folding”. Filmmaker Onir, 53, seems to be doing both with alacrity in his memoir, I Am Onir & I Am Gay(Viking, an imprint of Penguin, 2022), written with his sister Irene Dhar Malik, a National Award-winning film editor and screenwriter.

Over a Zoom call, he says that he wrote the book because growing up he “didn’t have any reference point”; even today, “there are not many books out there by someone who is out and proud, without shame”. Divided into four parts, it not only takes you through his boyhood years — a time when he felt extremely shy and highly conscious about his skin colour — but also narrates a rewarding queer life that has witnessed hardships, triumphs, and heartbreaks in equal measure.

When I ask why he chose the title, given that his sexuality is “not the all-defining factor”, he shares that “for someone who’s probably closeted or struggling with their identity, to find a book proudly claiming to be queer can be empowering”. But for Onir, it was also about “asserting an identity that people used to think will hold themselves back”.

Standing up for queer

He finds it amusing that Britishers, who gave us the sodomy law, moved ahead, while we held on to it for far too long. “When it comes to shame, India has gone through various stages in history,” he says. “It’s crucial to remember that we were one of the only countries to believe that lovemaking was an art and science. It’s when we were invaded and later colonised that we imbibed certain notions that are not Indian at all.”

The book cover of I Am Onir, and I Am Gay

The book cover of I Am Onir, and I Am Gay

Mum doesn’t approve
I Am Onir, and I Am Gay has been receiving positive early responses. A reviewer wrote in the Business Standard that “the book is important for those interested in Bollywood or in queer activism in India”. But one of the more surprising reactions has come from close to home. Onir’s mother was disconcerted about some “factual inaccuracies”. The director and author says that she “didn’t approve of me writing about her loving someone and leaving us children for him. She wrote on Facebook that ‘this makes for a good story’, but she’d never leave her children”.

It has been four years since Section 377 was read down, has anything changed? “When homosexuality was re-criminalised in 2013, my niece went to school wearing black, protesting: ‘My mama [uncle] is gay’. Her boyfriend wrote a poem for me. Similarly, my best friend Sanjay [Suri], told his boys: ‘If you like a guy, it’s okay with us’,” he shares. “Among my family and friends, I’ve seen this change happening. To bring change, you must begin with the children.” But on the other hand, he feels that “a lot of [corporate] diversity and inclusion talk is just cosmetic. They’ll have a diversity head, and they’d call me or [equal rights activist] Harish Iyer to celebrate pride month every year [just to address the people] and say: ‘Oh we don’t have the budget, etc’. Very empowering!”

Filmmaker Onir

Filmmaker Onir

While today’s generation has access to popular culture with increasing queer representation, Onir finds there’s only a “marginal increase”. “There aren’t enough stories about us being told by us. Most queer narratives are told from the heteronormative gaze,” he says. “I find that there’s a reluctance in wanting to do the kind of narratives I’d like to tell. Perhaps it’s perceived that they’ll not fetch enough eyeballs. The kind of support queer or minority narratives get in Hollywood, we don’t have that here.” 

Casting and the closet

The National Award-winning director of I Am (2011) is determined to change that. Though his sequel to the 2011 film, titled We Are — inspired by a real-life gay officer forced to quit the India Army because of his sexual orientation — was denied a no-objection certificate (NOC), he didn’t let the disappointment shake his conviction to tell queer stories. He has bounced back with the yet-to-be-released Pine Cone, with queer actor, Vidur Sethi, as the lead .

The actor conundrum
Interestingly, while Onir is confident that a “queer filmmaker narrates a queer story [best]”, he is sceptical about the notion that queer characters must only be played by an LGBTQIA+ person (though, he says, it “works well when it comes to the trans community”). He believes that it can be “disempowering for someone to out themselves for a role”. Moreover, even if he does give someone “a plus one” during the auditioning process, if they happen to be queer, “it’s still important that the person can act”.

In a recent Firstpost interview, he compared directing films such as My Brother... Nikhil and Shab at a time when homosexuality was criminalised by law, but being denied an NOC in post-Section 377 India. “I feel we are becoming less empowered to tell our stories,” he told the website. “I can’t tell stories about fights and family acceptance; I have done that in 2005, so I want to explore other stories and I feel that I am not able to do so.” This ties back to what Onir says about Bollywood: that, while queer movies are gaining traction, the gaze is inherently heteronormative. They seek heterosexual society’s acceptance, and that doesn’t help drive the ongoing queer struggle forward — which is about horizontal reservation, adoption, housing, and marriage rights.

Clockwise from top left: stills from Brokeback Mountain, Sheer Qorma, Pain and Glory, My Brother Nikhil, Milk, Call Me By Your Name, and Made In Heaven

Clockwise from top left: stills from Brokeback Mountain, Sheer Qorma, Pain and Glory, My Brother Nikhil, Milk, Call Me By Your Name, and Made In Heaven

Onir’s pride picks
While he is wary of queer features made by his contemporaries, Onir is in awe of queer-themed short films. He recommends two that were screened at the KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival: Sheer Qorma, directed by Faraz Ansari, and Muhafiz, by trans filmmaker and educationist Pradipta Ray. He also enjoys movies by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and Canadian actor-director Xavier Dolan. His other favourites include, Philadelphia (1993), Milk (2008), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Call Me by Your Name (2017), Bad Education (2019), Happy Together (1997), and Indian web series Made in Heaven (2019), whose sequel Onir is looking forward to.

Queer cinematics is often heavily trauma-oriented. Should humour be leveraged to tell such narratives, to help it reach more people? For example, a short film like Almariyaan (directed by Jiya Bhardwaj) wonderfully addresses closeted-ness and wokeness. “We were introduced to Dostana [directed by Tarun Mansukhani in 2008], but that had a negative connotation.” Onir says he is often asked why India can’t pull off a Schitt’s Creek [a Canadian sitcom that normalises LGBTQIA+ relationships]. But what people fail to understand is that in the West, creators are supported from the development phase of a script, while guerrilla filmmakers like him face difficulties in getting their projects financed. “I still haven’t recovered the I Am cost,” he says. Only time will tell if anything will change in the industry. 

The Delhi-based queer writer and freelance journalist was trained as an engineer and is a former street-theatre artist.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2022 4:10:41 am |