Interview: Onir, director and screenwriter – “I am living my dream”
On making the movies he wants to make, never having had to tussle with his sexual identity, Bollywood’s nepotism problem, and his favourite film makers
When and how did you start writing and find your voice?
I started properly writing, in terms of screenplay and stuff, around the year 2000. Before that, of course, when I was in school, I remember I would note down my thoughts. Interestingly, I used to dream a lot. And I used to write down my dreams. I’d tell myself that I would use them someday. I had this habit of writing down the descriptions of the visuals I would see in my dreams. After I worked on my first film, as an editor, in 1999, Sanjay (Suri) asked me why I didn’t write. And with that push, I thought my writing could be worth something. That’s when I started working on my first screenplay.
I was born in Bhutan and was brought up there. As a child, I did a lot of reading. Back then in Bhutan, we didn’t have the distractions that we have today. Till I was in the 10th standard in school, I had never seen TV. There was obviously no internet back then. So we did a lot of outdoor sport during the day and in the evening, at home, both my sister and I would read every day. Our parents would ask us to go to sleep at a certain point in the night but we would continue reading books under the blanket with a tiny light on! I think we were obsessed with reading. And I feel that reading and writing are kind of connected. So it all explains itself now. My mother was a huge fan of cinema and she would make us watch movies. I remember there was a film based on a Charles Dickens novel which I watched in the 6th standard and some of the visuals stayed with me. Then, after that, I watched Junoon by Shyam Benegal. I didn’t understand the film at all back then but it left an impression. The visuals, the colour, the faces – they all stayed with me. I somehow knew subconsciously that I wanted to be part of this whole world of filmmaking. When I was in the 10th standard, I went to attend a film festival for the first time. My sister took me as I had come down to Calcutta for my winter vacation. There, I saw Satyajit Ray’s Charulata and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. That’s when I was convinced that this is what I want to do in life. When my sister went to FTII, I used to spend a lot of time there. I used to tell her that I had more friends at FTII than she did.
How much of you needs to be in a story that you write?
My Brother Nikhil, the first film I wrote and made, is based on someone else’s life. A guy called Dominic D’Souza from Goa. So if you look at in one way, it is his life story. But in another way, there’s a lot of me in the film. I feel that world and the characters. I am not a trained writer. I had zero idea about all these acts and the structure of a screenplay and at what point something needs to happen and stuff like that. I just wrote and still write what I feel. And I never write down a story before the screenplay. I directly write the screenplay with dialogue. I can’t even write just a screenplay and think about dialogue later as many people do. So naturally, there is a lot of me in everything I write. After My Brother Nikhil, I co-wrote I Am. And I wrote two of the stories in that film – I Am Abhimanyu andI Am Omar. So, of course, they were based on other people but when I wrote and presented it, it was obviously with my sensibility and how I see the world. Even when I wrote Sorry Bhai, Shabana’s character draws a lot from my mother. Or the brother’s character draws some characteristics from my brother.
Tell me about the journey of making My Brother Nikhil, which was a refreshing film.
My Brother Nikhil was actually my fifth script. The first one I wrote had a lot of gay characters and also a bigger budget so it never got made. There were other films that I couldn’t find takers for. One day, Sanjay and I got tired of approaching people and decided that we would make a film with our own money. By then I had realised that whatever I was writing was not for the commercial space. So we put in all we had and also borrowed from friends. I had to write something that could be made in a smaller budget. That’s when I thought about Dominic and his story. I had worked on a documentary on him before so I was well acquainted with the material. I didn’t want to do a biopic on him for various reasons. One being that, you know, with Dominic, there were different claims on his sexuality. He had already passed away and I didn’t know him personally. So I didn’t think I had the right to call him bisexual or anything else and define his sexuality. Even his family wasn’t perfectly aware of that. From my research, I figured that there are a lot of grey areas about Dominic’s life. But I wanted to tell this story so I decided to fictionalise some parts and not make it a biopic. For instance, he didn’t have a sister campaigning for him, but in the film, the protagonist does, which comes from my own life as my sister has been a huge support for me all through. And it wasn’t particularly easy selling a story like this so we produced it on our own. So Sanjay, Raj Kaushal and Vicky are the principal financers and the rest is money we borrowed from friends and family. In fact, the people of Goa were incredibly lovely and supportive. Also, I am thankful that because Yashraj came in, the film got the visibility it did. And not just the film, but for me, as a gay filmmaker and an independent filmmaker, it was a huge thing because I got established with that film.
Every newcomer has to struggle to make his first film. But you possibly had another kind of struggle happening simultaneously, which is to come out as gay and deal with the larger Indian society where your identity was criminalised back then. Do you think it was more difficult for you than other outsiders to the industry?
You know, my friends, all of them always knew about me. I have never had a tussle with my sexuality. I recognised my sexuality pretty late in the day. Initially, I was falling in love with women. But around 11th standard, I realised, I was attracted to men. By the time I moved to Mumbai, around the age of 21, I kind of knew. When I told my sister, “I think I am gay,” she just responded with “Okay.” It was that cool and that easy. Even with my parents, it was never difficult. Their only concern was if I would have someone in life as a partner. It was coming more from a place of care and companionship. So I was really never afraid about my identity. Yes, I was sometimes worried about the society or the law back then. Now, coming back to writing and the stories I want to tell. My film We Are was also my way of celebrating the Supreme Court verdict, but also to say that while sex is legal now, love, adoption, marriage are rights that are still not legal.
Does a writer need to be an activist?
Today, the word activist has several different connotations. But from my point of view, I do think of cinema as a medium to empower people. And that is not limited to the genre you are working with – whether it is a comedy, a thriller or even a Superhero film. The fact that, today, you have people thinking of the possibility that Spiderman could be gay is proof that they are opening up to these ideas. Today, a superhero could be a woman, gay, trans. The awareness is more now. Having said that, I think the ability to empathise beyond your own identity is crucial for artists. I find most renditions of gay or trans people in cinema problematic. It, in fact, always surprises me that it is so difficult – why do you have to go through so much of process and workshops to understand a simple human existence. Recently, a woman asked me at a book reading: “We are allies; what do we need to do?” I said, “Just be a better human being.” That’s it. You don’t need some special human skills to understand LGBTQ. You know it’s empathy. That’s all you need. Some writers have told me that they are trying to imagine how gay or trans people think to write some characters. I don’t have to talk to my sister or straight friends to imagine how straight people think, right? I mean writing Juhi’s (Chawla) character in My Brother Nikhil or so many others, I didn’t need to talk to people or do a study on straight people!
You are probably more familiar with thought censorship than most people. How do you navigate it as a writer?
I got a U certificate for My Brother Nikhil in 2005. All I was told is don’t write ‘inspired from a true story.’ I said okay. I could do that much. As it is, the film is made in a docu-fiction style and anybody can figure out that it is real. In 2011, when I did I Am, I had to fight for it a lot. It was difficult to even get an A certificate initially. Then in 2017, when I did Shab, I was told by the censor board initially, about the gay characters, “Arey inko toh aapne normal dikha diya!” So it was difficult. And it took me a year to get a certificate. Then, in 2022, when I wrote We Are, it got rejected at the script level itself. Next thing I know is that my film is being discussed in parliament. It got talked about everywhere – on TV, even internationally. Because Varun Gandhi brought it up. The defence ministry had a problem with it because it was based on a real person – a major from the Indian army who came out publicly announcing that he is gay. Some people argued that it is dangerous for the security of the country! You know, I was happy to discuss with anyone if they had any problems. But they couldn’t have a problem because I know I have shot it beautifully. I am not someone who is looking for controversies. I want to tell real stories. So imagine, a story that is based on a real person, who came with me on NDTV and said that it is based on his life, is not being allowed. Then I look at a country like Iran and the filmmakers there and I think I am relatively in a better place. So I try to navigate my way around all this. There are many people from the army, who have messaged me that they love and respect me and respect what I am trying to do and that what happened to the film is unfortunate. All I want is a conversation to start.
What is success to you?
For me success is the fact that I am a filmmaker. I had one dream in my life – that of being a filmmaker, coming from a middle-class family of teachers. And I am living my dream. To me, that is success. And also to be doing the kind of good, bad, ugly independent films that I want to do is success. Sometimes, I take the local train and I think of all these people working a 9-to-5 job, travelling for hours and I tell myself that I have no reason to complain. Even the hurdles that I face come from the choices I make. I am fortunate that I can keep making those choices. Success also is to have my own identity. I have always wanted to make a kind of cinema that I could leave behind in the world and hopefully, I am in the process of doing that. The box office does not break me. What breaks me is somebody watching my film and saying, “Hey, what a terrible film he has made!” That breaks me. Money is not a driving force for me. It’s maybe a weakness because I don’t understand it. Fame for me is when I see that my films are part of libraries in different universities around the world. What matters to me is that I can walk into a book shop and say that I am gay and be okay with it. The identity which I have fought for and being out there is fame for me. Fame is also about travelling the world with my films and discussing them with people from different cultures who connect with me. Even if they are not 100 crore films, building that connection matters to me.
What is failure to you?
Failure to me is when, despite trying all my agencies, I am not able to make what I really want to. I punish myself more than people and the system around me. And then there are times when I get frustrated.
What’s the worst criticism you’ve ever faced?
Well, I remember, when I made Sorry Bhai, a trade analyst said something like “Onir is known for pushing the envelope but this is the limit. It’s against the culture. How could a sister-in-law fall for her brother-in-law?” A year later, when Mere Brother Ki Dulhan or something like that came out, nobody seemed to have a problem. And I kept thinking that Satyajit Ray did Charulata in 1964! Are we really going back?
Then, of course, there are other people. I remember once my sister met someone and he said about me, “Haan accha film banata hai magar nahi chalta hai.” “Nahi chalta hai” is like a tag that I have.
What’s the one thing you’d want to change about “Bollywood”?
I think we desperately, desperately need to empower new talent. You know, when Sushant’s (Singh) incident happened there was a lot of conversation about nepotism but unfortunately it went into a negative space so I am not for that either. But the truth is that it’s the same set of people who keep making films. When OTT came out, it attracted a lot of new talent but now even those guys have become big stars and have become those people who keep doing all the work. Of course, there are exceptions to what I am saying. If you look at Hollywood, if you need a 20-year-old actor, you’ll have 20 choices; if you need a 30-year-old actor, you’ll have 20 choices. But back here in Bollywood, it’s the same set of people. I was recently told by a platform: “We don’t care about the subject. You get us a star and we’ll do whatever you’re doing.” And that’s why perhaps a lot of our work isn’t really smart. Even the smallest budget independent films are denied budgets. As an industry or a system, we just don’t encourage diversity, new talent and independent voices. You know there are people in the industry who will talk about nepotism but they won’t accept new talent on their own projects. How does one combat it? People have to become something to be accepted here. But becoming is a process, right? You don’t become something overnight. And why is this not applicable to kids of stars or industry people? No one really asks them to prove themselves, right? It’s only the outsiders and new talent that has to do it the hard way.
How difficult is it to tell a story that you want to without other people changing it?
I have been fortunate to have worked with actors who have believed in what I had written or in my vision. Most of my films have been produced in-house or independently so I haven’t had to deal with producers in that sense. So I think, in that regard, I really have been fortunate.
In this industry, most people have a template and everything you do has to fit into that template. I, on the other hand, believe very strongly that every story has its own texture and you can’t go by templates. Negotiating templates is not creativity. How come a non-filmmaker is telling you what to make and how to make it? That’s why, if you see, after a point, a lot of web series become repetitive. They are all following a formula because they are made to.
Having been a voracious reader as well as a writer, what makes you choose cinema as your primary medium of expression?
Images. I think cinemas is about images. And in cinema, I can combine my love for words, music, images, colour. I could pursue each of my interests in cinema as a medium.
What are your favourite films and filmmakers?
I think there are lots of films. French New Wave Cinema is something I admire a lot; then Tarkovsky; also East European cinema; then Akira Kurosawa; then Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray; then in terms of Indian parallel cinema, as they call it, Shyam Benegal’s work, Ketan Mehta’s work.
As a kid, I loved watching commercial films like Deewar, Sholay, Umrao Jaan etc. But as I grew up, I developed a different sensibility. I think, I’d say, I am more European in sensibility than Hollywood.
Of the present day filmmakers, I love Pedro Almodovar. I got to know that he is gay much later in the day. But I already loved his films. I remember watching Pain and Glory at the Mumbai Film Festival three years ago and I was in tears. And it’s heartening to see all these big Hollywood actors open to working with Almodovar. I have been trying to do a biopic on India’s first gay filmmaker, Riyad Wadia, who made this film called Bomgay in 1996. He eventually died of AIDS. His life has been somewhat like Freddie Mercury’s – glamorous, flamboyant and out there. But the answer that I get from the industry is that I have to wait and I can’t make it now and all that. I know that the truth is that they are uncomfortable with a story like that. There are people who’d say, “Oh, the scenes are so intimate!” and stuff like that. They can’t tolerate intimacy between two guys.
Among Hindi contemporaries, there are some films that I have enjoyed watching. I sometimes enjoy Anurag’s (Kashyap) work or Dibakar’s (Banerjee) or Shoojit’s (Circar) work. I quite enjoyed Oye Lucky Lucky Oye and Khosla Ka Ghosla. I also like Raj Kumar Gupta’s film No One Killed Jessica and Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday. But these films haven’t influenced me because I come from a different world and identity. The way that some European cinema or the works of Shyam Benegal have stayed with me for years, unfortunately, these contemporary Hindi films haven’t. You know, Pain and Glory or Call Me By Your Name are films I watched recently, at this age, but they mesmerised me. It’s not only about films that deal with a certain kind of sexuality. For instance, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are films that have stayed with me. You think of films like City of God, Babel and so many others, the images just stay with you. Some films just have an impact, which I think contemporary films generally lack. Even films as mainstream as Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander or Rangeela have massive impact. They have some magic that is unforgettable. I think some of these films I talked about move to a world I don’t know. And cinema is also about that. That uniqueness of some of these films is what excites me. In fact, I like some films by Rima Das like Village Rockstars or Bulbul Can Sing. Even Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan. These are films that last.
What are your favourite shows?
There are quite a few that I like. I like Narcos a lot. I love Breaking Bad. I also like certain elements of Sense 8. Even How To Get Away With Murder is so clever. In India, I loved watching the three seasons of Gullak. I just couldn’t stop watching it. Then I quite like Panchayat. Patal Lok is something I love. I liked the first season of Mirzapur but then I thought it was getting into the same trap of violence. I liked Jamtara, Delhi Crime - Season 1 as well.
If there’s one thing you would want to change about your journey, what would it be?
Nothing. Because I think the mistakes I have made in life have taught me. No one is perfect and I accept my imperfections as a part of me.
Mihir Chitre is the author of two books of poetry, ‘School of Age’ and ‘Hyphenated’. He is the brain behind the advertising campaigns ‘#LaughAtDeath’ and ‘#HarBhashaEqual’ and has made the short film ‘Hello Brick Road’.