In conversation with the acclaimed Indian film-maker, Onir

By Beunic
18 Jul, 2022

We got in touch with the acclaimed Indian filmmaker Onir to feature him, a few days before his birthday, which is on the 1st of May. We feel that he has not been given the credit that he’s due to receive for his contribution.

In 2005 and 2010, even talking about homosexuality was looked down upon and Onir, one who has been out and open about his sexuality, made films like ‘My Brother Nikhil’ (2005) and ‘I am’ (2010). These films were path breaking as My Brother Nikhil focused on HIV/AIDS and the stigma associated with it, while I Am is comprised of four interrelated stories, based on child abuse, gay rights, Kashmiri Pandits and sperm donation. We can only imagine how challenging making these critically acclaimed, award-winning films can be.

Let’s learn from Onir directly as we speak with him…

What was your early life like? Your childhood and school life? Were you bullied?

I obviously was friends with girls but there was a certain attraction towards boys. I was definitely sure that I liked guys in the 11th/12th standard. I did not know it was illegal back then as people never really talked about sex and definitely not about homosexuality. I was sure that I did not want to lead a double life, probably because of which I did not go through any trauma in my childhood. So, it was all very clear for me. When I was in college in Kolkata, I did not tell anyone about my sexuality. I had always been fond of literature and Indian History. There was this one day when Sir Hanif Kureshi came to the college. Hearing him cleared all kinds of myths about homosexuality.

Would you be comfortable sharing some bits from your love life? Are you currently dating?

I am single and very much available hahaha. My first relationship was when I was in the 12th standard. It was with a guy in my class who was also a very close friend. I did not want to confess my love to him as I thought that it might ruin our friendship. One day after the exams, we were having some wine and he directly asked me about my sexuality. I did not lie and eventually we did end up getting physical. Next day he came up to me and said that whatever that happened was wrong and we should not meet for the next 10 years. I did not have any guilt though, because I knew I didn’t do anything wrong as it was all consensual. I used to look up to his balcony whenever I crossed his house but he was never there. One day the watchman told me that he and his family had moved to the US. I was single for a long time after that. I went to Germany for a scholarship that I got. There were a few encounters after that but no meaningful relationships. Also, because I knew that I wanted to focus on my career and thought that a relationship might distract me. Once I got back to Bombay, there were times when I used to hook up with three guys in a day as well. There was a time when I really wanted to be in a relationship but after becoming a filmmaker, it was difficult for me. I couldn’t figure out if people wanted to be with me because they liked me or just because I was famous. There were times when people directly messaged me on social media that they wanted to become my boyfriend without even meeting me. There were times when 2 weeks into dating guys would tell me that they also wanted to enter Bollywood and if I could help them. But I wanted to keep my sexuality and film-making separate. I never mixed the two. Thus, I never talk about my work on dating applications. People feel that I reached here very easily. They don’t know how much I had to struggle to get here. I didn’t connect with these so called “straight people” who even after getting married wanted to meet me and do stuff.

How was coming out for you?

I never really came out. If anybody asked me, I would tell them that I am gay. I would never lie about that but I never made any announcement about it. When I was in Berlin, I was very open about my sexuality and my sister did know about it. When I got an award for My Brother Nikhil at an LGBTQ film festival, my father went on stage to take the award. My family never put any pressure on me to get married either. The friends I have are mostly straight people, who know and respect my sexuality.

When did you know that you want to get into films? What was the struggle like?

When I was in Class 8, I saw Junoon by Shyam Benegal and later I saw Charulata. That was like a turning point in my life and made me realize that I want to be a filmmaker. Can you believe it that I wanted to be a pilot before that? So me becoming a filmmaker could be a coincidence but not an accident. In 11th, my parents wanted me to take science. They were out of India for a bit during which I quickly switched to arts. There was a very strong film club in college. I was extremely lucky to get a fully paid scholarship to study film-making and editing. Though the program was for people over the age of 25, I was 21 and was still selected. That definitely changed my life. It wasn’t easy for me as I was an outsider. My first 10 years in Bollywood, until I made My Brother Nikhil, I was just making relations with actors and technicians as a conscious effort to achieve my dream.

Did you face any discrimination? What were the major challenges that you faced? Also, why are people in Bollywood not coming out?

As a filmmaker, I have not faced any discrimination. There still is a challenge though. People do not want to make LGBT films as commercial films. We really need more representation. These films need a queer gaze. I do not know why critics these days really appreciate anyone doing a queer role. It should be seen as any other role. I just want to tell people that they should not make sexuality the center of their life. I really wish more people came out which would inspire the thousands of others as well.

How do you see you future? Ever thought of marriage or children?

I was never fascinated with the idea of marriage. But I do feel that everyone should have equal rights to marriage. Though I do miss having that someone special in my life, I haven’t closed my doors. If I find the right one, then why not? I did realize that I would not find love on these dating apps. In 10 years, I have had 3 failed relationships and I treasure those memories. I don’t think I want kids though. My friend’s kids are like my own children for me.

What advice would you like to give anyone who wants to enter Bollywood? Is it ok to come out in Bollywood?

I would tell them that they should focus on their career only and be good at their work. As long as you are good with your work, no one will even ask you about your sexuality. Also, sexuality should just be an aspect of their life and not everything about them. As long as you are comfortable, you can come out whenever you are comfortable.

Special thanks to Elton Fernandez for his guidance!

If you would want us to interview your favourite celebrities, do let us know in the comment section and we shall try our best!

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