I’ve been toying with the idea of making a film on child sexual abuse for a long time. I’d scripted You And I with the female protagonist as a victim and for a year-and-a-half, had struggled with roadblocks before shelving the project,” says Onir, whose I Am touches on the taboo subject, with the girl turning into a boy.
“I’ve learnt that 53 per cent of the children in India are victims of some form of abuse— an equal number being boys, many of whom are unaware of the fact because of the strong opposition to sex education in schools and the reluctance of parents to discuss ‘the birds and the bees’ with them. And while with a girl, I risked drawing voyeurs, by changing the sex of my protagonist, I’m appealing to sensitive female viewers and sparking off the curiosity of men who’ve never seen something like this in Indian cinema.”
During his research, Onir read about two men who became his muses for Abhimanyu. Gay rights activist Harish Iyer told him about how having been betrayed by humans, he’d found comfort in cats and got Abhi, a feline friend. Ganesh Mallori, a fashion designer in Hyderabad, called the director to complain that his grandmother was urging him to visit a dying man in hospital who’d abused Ganesh as a child, and gave Onir the trigger he needed for his film.Then, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap messaged to say that he’d always wanted to make a film like this, and believed Onir was the right person to do so. When Onir admitted he couldn’t find an actor to play the stepfather, Anurag offered to step in. Later, Onir learnt that Anurag himself had been abused as a child many years ago.
“His experience made it difficult for Anurag to detach himself and react objectively. He was particularly disturbed when we had to shoot a scene of him bathing the child,” recalls Onir. What made it even more difficult was that the child actor’s father had died before he was born and he was so thrilled to have a father for the first time, that he kept laughing around Anurag. “Anurag himself hated being mean to him, even on camera, and was always bringing him chocolates and video games,” says Onir.
When Ganesh saw the film, his eyes welled with tears and he told Onir that because of it, he’d been able to come out with the truth. Harish has also been talking about his experience. Both men, along with the five NGOs who have partnered with Onir on the project, want to take I Am to schools, to show it to teenagers and their parents. April has been designated as the Sexual Assault Awareness month to raise public awareness and educating communities and individuals on sexual violence. Says Onir, “Sex has become a dirty word in a country that once celebrated sexuality. It’s important to discuss the subject to bring down the horrifying statistics.”