Onir interview: ‘Why can’t a creative person in a democratic country question any institution?’

Writer-director Onir talks about the Army rejecting the script of his next feature film which has a character of a gay officer and why he thinks Indian cinema has failed to push the envelop when comes to telling queer stories.

The Ministry of Defence has rejected the script of your upcoming movie ‘We Are’ that features a gay army officer. What was the starting point for this story?

Onir: When I watched an interview of an army major, who had resigned, a couple of years ago, I realised that while the Supreme Court has decriminalized homosexuality in 2018, queer officers are still denied the opportunity to serve their country. This story is supposed to be the opening segment in the upcoming sequel to I Am, which has four interconnected stories. I told my friend, author Devdutt Pattnaik, about my idea and he developed the concept. Later on, I wrote the script of ‘We Are’. While this sequel is a celebration of the SC verdict, it is also meant to talk about the fact that we are still not treated as equal citizens. Each of these four are love stories involving gay, lesbian, trans, and bisexual characters. They also point at the changes in society after the SC verdict.

What could have possibly made the army reject the script?

Onir: My films usually don’t have villains and I don’t go into sensationalism. I treat my movies with empathy. The idea is to create a dialogue. I had done the same with this movie’s script. There was no criticism of the army but it talks about certain situations. But the way you make a film and the discourse it initiates are different from the situation when the script goes to a person who probably has no idea about cinema. It’s also possible that a person has no idea regarding how to evaluate a script. It is unfortunate that last year the government introduced the rule that if the film shows the forces, the script has to be cleared by them first. Otherwise, the film won’t be certified later on. Such a rule creates barriers for filmmakers and storytellers. Why can’t a creative person in a democratic country question any institution?

In 2011, my film I Am showed a police officer sexually assaulting a citizen. That movie won the National Award for Best Hindi feature Film. I am really sad that in 2022, without any dialogue or discussion, I got a response from the Army that they analysed the script and it was ‘rejected’. I am told that ‘it is illegal’. Homosexuality might have been illegal under a colonial law but today 56 countries have moved ahead and recruited queer people in their army. It is the same attitude that kept women away from joining forces. This is the problem of a patriarchal society and their own insecurities. Even the ongoing discussion about marital rape law exposes this insecurity.

What is the next step are you planning to take?

Onir: I feel very disheartened. As a filmmaker, my job is not to be at the court but to be on the sets, making the film. We may have to file a petition and I don’t know how much time it would take to get a clearance. I will be talking to a lawyer soon. But I am not blind to the fact that the process will take a lot of time. We were going to shoot this segment in March in Kolkata and Kashmir. The shooting of the entire film was supposed to be wrapped up in May. The four stories of ‘We Are’ are connected to each other. So, I can’t shoot this film without this segment. The movie is an Indo-Canadian project and Deepa Mehta is one of the executive producers on it.

Had you approached a video streaming platform with this script?

Onir: Streamers don’t entertain unless you have a clearance. The kind of films I do are not populist. These platforms are looking for eyeballs and talk about viewership. Earlier, I didn’t deal with box-office collections, and now, I don’t want to deal with eyeballs. I have to find a way to tell my stories.

What has changed after decriminalisation of homosexuality?

Onir: Today, we are empowered to fight. Earlier, we couldn’t do that as homosexuality was criminalised by law. However, it is still a long way off to equal rights and dignity. We are still fighting for our civil rights — the right to get married or adopt. These things are still being discussed. Unfortunately, when something like this happens, we take a step back.

What are your views on the recent representation of queer stories on the Indian screen?

Onir: When it comes to reviews, people forget history. We (as a community) tend to appear grateful when someone else talks about LGBTQI issues. However, we haven’t come close to what Fire (1996) did. Take for example, how Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das handled the intimate and emotional scenes. Movies such as Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020) are supposed to have taken the issues to the masses. If you look at Wong Kar-wai-directed Happy Together (1997), mainstream actors (Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung) played homosexual characters. So did Leonardo DiCaprio in Total Eclipse (1995). Still, more than two decades later, when someone plays a gay role with hardly any intimate scenes, we are calling it a ‘brave’ move. What is so brave about portraying a gay character? They are just acting. If you look at the ratio of movies being made in India and those featuring queer narratives, it’s not a big number. Web series Made in Heaven (2019) pushed the envelope. In terms of Indian cinema, I can’t think of anything that did that.

What do you think has been going wrong?

Onir: A lot of times, it’s about ticking one more box or getting the message across. I don’t see much celebration of LGBTQI community on the screen. This movie was about the celebration of love. The stories, of course, were placed in a social context. But they were also about hope. The queer characters in it are what they are and they live their life with respect. I often believe the people, who are selecting the projects and giving it a go-ahead, are themselves learning about the community. There is a need for women creators to get involved in a project to bring in the feminine gaze for true representation. Otherwise, we will keep having problematic movies such as Kabir Singh and Puspa (2021). Similarly, one needs more people from the queer community, especially those aware of its politics, to be part of the content-deciding process. I tired of hearing that they are taking ‘baby steps’ towards telling queer stories. Your inability to accept the queer community is not my problem. I find it annoying that they have to decide what is okay for the viewers. It’s believed that lesbian content is more easily accepted. Apparently, the male gaze is more comfortable with a lesbian couple than a gay couple. If you look at ancient temple art, for instance at Khajuraho, you will see much more depiction of female bisexuality than males’.