Out and proud: the filmmaker Onir becomes an author
With his autobiography titled I am Onir and I am gayfilmmaker Onir reemphasizes an identity he has publicly worn with pride for more than two decades.
Released this month, globally observed as Pride Month, the autobiography is a reiteration of the filmmaker’s identity, but not for him alone – it’s for anyone who has been afraid to own their alternate gender identity. so far.
In an interview with Deccan Heraldthe director who won the National Award for Best Hindi Feature Film for I am, in 2011, said: “We had this debate when choosing a title for the book just as we had the debate over the title of my first feature film, My brother… Nikhil in 2005.
“It’s been suggested that with such a title, few people would want to pick up the book. Some might not want to be seen reading it. And also that it’s not the only part of my identity, and so right now.
“While a lot of things are true to some extent, I had to decide because, just like it was hard in 2005 to make My brother… Nikhil, it is still difficult in 2022 for people to own their identity in public. Through this book, I want to empower those who are afraid to say who they are publicly.”
The title of the book published by Penguin Viking indicates the distance that Onir personally and the urban population of India, in particular, have traveled since the late 1980s, when the whole queer narrative burst into the national consciousness, coinciding with the advent of HIV/AIDS.
Unfortunately, the queer narrative and reality of HIV/AIDS had been stigmatized – as expressed sensitively in My brother… Nikhil, based on the story of India’s first known HIV/AIDS patient, Dominic D’Souza, who was imprisoned after testing positive.
Stigma persists in society despite the decriminalization of homosexuality in India in 2018.
“As for the film industry, I would say they continue to be in denial. After reading Section 377 down, I would have hoped people were more empowered, but studios continue to give different reasons for rejecting projects that have an absolute queer narrative,” the 53-year-old director said.
Although Onir has also made films that don’t necessarily have a queer narrative, like Sorry Bhai! and Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz, he said he was bracketed as a filmmaker with predominantly queer work.
Conversely, he adds, it is also important for him to make films with a queer narrative because the heteronormative view of the subject does him little justice.
“There is so much more to the life of a queer individual than mere acceptance,” he said.
One of his current projects, for example, is the film Pine cone, for which he has just finished filming. It is likely to become a landmark as one of its lead actors, Vidur Sethi, “could be one of India’s first gay actors”, as Onir shared in a tweet some time ago. With this film, Onir is also launching five new actors, “none of whom come from a cinematographic family”, he underlines.
His other current project is a web series for Sony Liv, based on the Pulwama attack investigation, which he directs.
Although the book is full of several short stories that uncover Onir’s personality, it contains vivid examples of the cruelty of mankind.
Its most endearing aspect is how it slowly unfolds some of the filmmaker’s closest relationships, such as with his sister Irene Dhar Malik, who also co-wrote the book with him; with his friend Sanjay Suri (who played the protagonist in My brother… Nikhil and co-owner of Anticlock Films with Onir), and those who have remained his loyal friends and professional collaborators over the decades.
Above all, it’s a touching story of the making of a filmmaker who came from outside the industry, declared his alternative sexuality, and created space for fearless queer films.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist, editor and arts consultant)