National award-winning filmmaker, best known for My brother Nikhil and I amhas just published his autobiography, I am Onir and I am gay, at age 53. Too young to write a book about his life, you think? Not when you realize that the experiences of a queer man trying to navigate his identity, his sexuality and his passion are enough to literally fill a book.
“It was not at all something I had planned to do,” Onir said. “Five or six years ago, I was talking to my agent about another book, and he was the one who planted the idea in my head. He was the first person to tell me that it would help other people, especially from the Queer community.
It was only after the lockdown that Onir started to think about it seriously, spurred on by the fact that many people – including from Bollywood – used to write to him, ask about his background and how he had found the “courage” to be out there and proud. He felt the need to help them, to provide answers, to offer the kind of representation that he himself had never seen on screen or in popular culture.
“There aren’t too many people in the industry or elsewhere who have come out or can freely say ‘I’m gay,'” Onir explains. “So I thought that by writing this book, I could empower young people who are trying to manage their identity. And for people who are not from the Queer community, and also for allies, I wanted that they understand us better, that they understand our journey better.
It’s obvious even before you open the book what Onir means. The book’s slogan states clearly and simply: “Equality is non-negotiable.”
“When someone walks into a bookstore where there are thousands of books, but there’s a book that proudly says ‘I’m gay’, I hope it makes someone feel like it’s good to go out, talk about it,” Onir said.
Does he feel responsible since he proudly walked out? “If you’re on your own and you don’t talk about it, it’s almost like you’re ashamed in some way,” he says bluntly. “You’re constantly trying to camouflage your identity and that kind of legitimizes shame and invisibility. Reclaiming our space is important to us.
Although he made movies like Chauranga, Kuch Bheege Alfaaz and Stockings Ek Palthat have nothing to do with sexuality or identity, Onir says it’s often “bracketed, but that’s okay.”
After all, My brother Nikhil, which was Onir’s directorial debut, was a film that dealt with HIV and opened new doors for LGBTQ+ representation in Bollywood. The journey of an aspiring filmmaker is never easy and for an openly gay filmmaker in India to make a film centered on a subject considered taboo, his journey has certainly not been without its ups and downs, whether he shares frankly in the book .
The book itself, co-written with his sister, editor and writer Irene Dhar Malik, begins with Onir talking about his childhood years spent in Bhutan, vacationing in Odisha, and then moving to Kolkata with his family. It’s easy to see how, after moving to Kolkata, Onir struggled to find his identity and find his roots, feeling a bit like an outsider and trying to come to terms with what ‘home’ is.
During this same journey and this same period, we read that he fell in love (both boys and girls), was heartbroken and realized, of course, that loving a man is wrong, or not “normal”. “.
“When you write something like this, you’re laying yourself bare, open to the judgment of others,” admits Onir. “But when you belong to a small group of people who can be proud and loved by their friends and family, you can empower so many other people who may be ashamed of who they are, who are ashamed to speak up.”
Was the process of writing this book cathartic? “During the writing process, I realized that my ‘home’ will always be Bhutan, but at the same time, my ‘home’ right now will also be the people around me. I am not chained by any space in particular,” he thinks.
Always looking for love
In the memoirs, we also get a candid glimpse of how he came to love cinema, starting with the Luger Theater in Thimpu, discovering the films of Ritwik Ghatak and finally, during his studies at university. Jadavpur from Kolkata, meeting Father Gaston Roberge who becomes his mentor. In My brother Nikhilthere is even a character who bears the name of Roberge.
Of course, the book also details his journey after arriving in Bombay, the friends he made and how he struggled to finally release his first film. Onir writes candidly about the people he met, those who helped him and those who didn’t, and even details the trauma he suffered when he was falsely accused of assaulting a man in 2011.
So, does he think he ticked off someone or revealed something he shouldn’t have?
“Well, it just came out, so I don’t know who read it, but I’m sure some people won’t like it,” Onir laughed. Did he send a copy to the people he mentioned? “No,” he says, adding the following caveat: “I have sent excerpts of the text to some people, but only where they are mentioned.”
From the first chapter titled “The First Crush” to the last which is “Thinking of You”, there is a clear theme of Onir searching not just for his identity, but for love. Is it something he’s still looking for?
“Yes, you got it,” Onir laughed. “The hunt is on; I think this is something that will continue until my last breath!
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From HT Brunch, August 20, 2022
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