Onir is an Indian filmmaker, screenwriter, editor and producer. Some of his critically acclaimed works include his debut film My Brother… Nikhil, Bas Ek Pal and I Am. Onir came into the limelight right after My Brother… Nikhil, as the film dealt with the stigma attached to AIDS and showed how the Goan government treated HIV-positive patients in the 1980s. The award-winning I Am, which is reportedly the first film in South Asia to have been crowdfunded through social media, deals with child abuse, LGBTQ rights and single motherhood. Onir is also a columnist for The Hindu and has written for the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Times of India and the BBC. Prabha Khaitan Foundation hosted a special literary session of An Author’s Afternoon with Onir to learn more about his book, I am Onir and I am Gay. Esha Dutta, Ehsaas Woman of Kolkata, introduced the guest and the moderator, author Sandip Roy.
Roy was eager to know about Onir’s early days in Kolkata. “Since I hail from a small town, coming to Kolkata constituted a big change,” said Onir. “The first two years were quite difficult. The culture was different from what I had seen growing up, especially when it came to how women were treated. I had to deal with men who would harass my sister on the streets. And since I had come from Bhutan, the city air turned my eyes red. This was the reason why people often mistakenly thought that I was on drugs! I had to change about 13 paying accommodations and hostels. But things changed when I joined Jadavpur University. There, my professors and friends helped me settle down. That university changed my life.”
Onir told Roy that he believes in fluid sexuality. “You can connect with people irrespective of their gender,” he said. “That’s when I realised that I was also attracted to guys. But I did not explore this at the time, as I was too occupied with cinema, literature and having a great time with my friends. My dream was to become a filmmaker.” “So, when did you realise you wanted to become a filmmaker?” asked Roy. “It started with a Shyam Benegal movie that I watched when I was in Class 8,” replied Onir. “At that age, it was not the technicalities but the visuals that moved me. Then, thanks to my sister, who took me to film screenings, I was exposed to works like Charulata and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Once I was absolutely sure where I wanted to be, all my decisions and steps were to reach that goal.”
Roy asked Onir when he realised that he was gay, and how things changed around him. “It didn’t happen one fine day,” mused Onir. “I was doing the usual things, hanging out at bars, escaping the police raiding gay bars and telling these thrilling stories to my friends. People close to me always accepted me the way I am, and I was always true to them. But at the workplace, it was a little different. I remember a time when we were on location; one evening we all sat together talking. Everyone was revealing whom they had a crush on; when my turn came, they skipped to the next person as though I didn’t exist and my love life didn’t matter. I realised that day that I may be comfortable with who I am, but others are not.”
Roy steered the conversation towards Onir’s book, which contains significant passages about his sister. “I told my sister to not get shocked and not to judge me — and she didn’t,” said Onir. “We have been each other’s support systems, so even if she learns something new about me she will stick by my side.” Apart from chronicling his journey, does the book also reveal how his perception about relationships has changed? “While writing the book, I realised that I had let go of the negatives and cherished the beauty of every relationship I have had,” said the filmmaker. “So while my perception about relationships hasn’t really changed, I no longer worry about where a relationship will take me.”
Before the session concluded, Onir spoke to the audience about social issues and films. Arnab Chatterjee, the General Manager of Taj Bengal, delivered the closing speech before Shayan Munshi and Anupama Saxena handed out mementos to the guests.