National Award-winning (I AM) director, writer, producer Onir has his plate full trying to change the cinema scene in India for the better. With a petition and lots of meetings with the government, he wants to see that independent films get venues to be screened at and would like it very much if he didn’t have to go to Cannes to watch them. Onir also gets chatty with Sailesh Ghelani about being gay and dating in Mumbai as well as his good friend and production partner actor Sanjay Suri (read his interview here). 

Hi Onir, what have you been busy doing these days?

I’ve been busy, very busy but not doing anything concrete. I’ve just completed the script for the next film called Veda. We’re going to start casting for it right now.

That’s it! Surely there must be more…

Apart from that there’s a petition that I started about 5 months ago, to the I&B Ministry about doing certain things in terms of exhibition space in the country that would support independent cinema. This year they’re celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema and they had about Rs 300 crores for restoration of films. I was at Cannes with other Indian filmmakers and we were all talking about how we get to see each other’s films while traveling abroad but when we’re in India we don’t watch regional films. Nowadays, youngsters don’t get to see anything but Bollywood or if they’re in their own states then the films in their respective languages.

With the multiplexes it is just star power that works to get you the screens. It’s pointless complaining because those people are doing business. So we started thinking about what can be done. The problem we face is that cinema comes under the I&B ministry and not arts and culture like it does in other countries. So this whole exercise of restoring films is pointless. I think one third of this amount should be allocated to dedicated theatre spaces for other kinds of movies. Secondly the petition is about Doordarshan that used to telecast National Award-winning films. Now if I AM doesn’t get telecast on the National channel even after getting the National Award then what’s the point of rewarding these films. We need to sustain ourselves and the viewers need to see these award-winning films.

The cast of I AM L-R: Onir, Arjun Mathur, Juhi Chawla, Purab Kohli, Sanjay Suri

Sounds like a really crappy situation…

Everything has become worse today. I’ve not sold I AM’s satellite rights. The minute you’re an independent filmmaker without stars then you’re told that the target audience would not watch our film. When the state bans a movie for whatever reasons everyone’s up in protest but when satellite channels refuse to show a movie, no one cries foul. Only if 100 crore film gets stuck somewhere do people wake up. But the 1 crore is a lot more important to independent filmmakers. So this is akin to banning a film. This petition has gotten lots of backing including filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, Vishal Bhardwaj, Ashutosh Gowariker, Shabana Azmi, Rituparno and 20,000 people who’ve signed the petition. I’ve met Manish Tiwari as well (I&B Union Minister).

Even a U/A film can’t be shown on Doordarshan, which is ridiculous. Put it in the 11 o’clock slot if you think it’s an adult film.

So I’m meeting Chief Ministers all over India trying to get dedicated spaces. I’m spending my own money to travel but it’s important for me, as it’ll give me a place to show my films along with other regional films. People understand when you talk to them but the problem is the next step to get it all moving. I have decided not to give up. I’ve also started Srinagar, Shillong and Manipur film clubs. The youth need something like this to keep them occupied. I’m tying up with Alliance Française and Max Mueller.

L-R: Suman Mukhopadhyay (director of Herbert, Best Regional Film, National Awards 2006), Anurag Kashyap, Sanjay, Nila Madhab Panda (director of I AM KALAM), and Onir

You went to Cannes to attend the Producer’s Network conference. Did anything come of it all?

Producers in Europe work differently. They don’t have any money there so once they like your script they apply to specific organisations for funding, which takes about a year and if they get the money then you’re lucky. If you’re making a film that’s a co-production you have to forget about your home market.

What films did you watch at Cannes?

I saw Peddlers and Miss Lovely that were shown at Cannes but they still don’t have an Indian release.

But Gangs of Wasseypur (read the review here),which was also shown at Cannes) gets released…

That’s because Anurag Kashyap is a brand today. He is a star in his space plus it is a Studio 18 film. Miss Lovely and Peddlers are independent films. Thankfully, I AM got a DVD release in France. Plus, some producers are interested in tying up on one of my scripts called Shab. I’m working with a German writer on something. It was the first time for me in Cannes so it was useful.

Did I AM (read the review here) break even?

No it has not. I AM has been the film that travelled the most, go the most number of awards. We calculated the budget the same way we did with My Brother… Nikhil. What we didn’t realise is that things have become worse for independent films as well as movies that deal with certain subjects. I never expected we would never be able to sell satellite because My Brother… sold to satellite at a very high price even though it didn’t win any awards.

Is it the gay content in I AM that has all the channels running away?

Yes it is, even though it’s only one of the episodes that have a gay story. But this is something that comes from the very top you see. We had a screening at a large international financial organisation where the top management were very LGBT conscious and aware. But if you have management that is homophobic then where do you expect to go?

Does the next film you’re doing have a gay theme?

Shab has a gay theme, Veda doesn’t. I’m not thinking of economics when I’m doing my films.

Anurag Kashyap and Onir

“The mainstream is not mindless anymore,” said Anurag Kashyap in an interview. Do you agree?

But he’s not an independent filmmaker. How does a studio-backed film become independent? Gangs of Wasseypur was incredible but how is it not mainstream. It has a star director. It has all the ingredients that make a big film. Band Baaja Baarat is a wonderfully mainstream film, which is not mindless. Independent is Miss Lovely, Peddlers, Chittagong… We need to know what is the definition of independent. Today if I’m making Veda, it’s not independent because it’s a Reliance film.  Satya (1988) was an experimental film and quite a breakthrough for its time so it’s not as if mainstream has always been mindless. Even Barfi! was experimenting in a way.

So why aren’t more filmmakers going independent?

Everyone has a right to make an independent film even the big commercial filmmakers. Independent films give you a lot of space to do other things. If there are spaces that nurture these films then it’ll be a lot more inviting to make them. You can’t have a Bharatnatyam recital happening at a nightclub. You need the appropriate venues and price tags for independent films.

I was so lucky that My Brother… Nikhil had the backing of Yash Raj. For them it was a passion because it was one man. Earnings did not drive their decision to distribute the film. They were emotionally moved by the film. Studios don’t get emotionally moved by a film. Only by stars!

What sort of discrimination do you face within the industry?

I was told by people that they’d love to work with me but they couldn’t because they don’t deal with issues like violence and sexuality. I was like, one you’re equating violence with sexuality and two it’s not that every film I want to do is about being gay. It just shows how homophobic they are.

(Looking at a Bombay Times headline about Dostana 2) So what do you think of that then?

(Laughs) I’ve commented enough about that but hopefully the second Dostana will have some real gay characters that are not stereotyped.

You’re pretty open about sexuality. Do you think it would have been better not to be so open?

For me it’s very important to be open for my family and my friends so I don’t care that I’m open. If someone else has a problem it’s his or her problem. Whatever little space I have, I use that to voice my opinion. I refuse to be invisible.

Where do you find nice boys in Mumbai to date?

Actually I’m not into the gay scene here. When you are in the public space you kind of start building walls because they can misuse your trust or friendship. I’ve been part of the pride marches in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkatta and Berlin. Not gay parties here though. My life does not revolve around my sexuality. A long time ago I did go to a gay party but I got extremely bored since I usually don’t find anyone that interesting. It’s all about bodies there! When I go abroad I feel good because they’re so open. Whereas here you constantly hear about gay parties being raided. Until the ruling regarding Article 377 is not applicable in the whole country you don’t feel safe.

So how do you date?

I don’t really do dating. It’s not an agenda. You meet people all over the world.

What’s your ideal partner?

Someone who I can talk to for hours; someone who’s not regressive. I’ve accepted that people in India are a bit closeted. So I don’t judge. There has to be a mental and physical connection otherwise it doesn’t work. Someone who enjoys travelling, reading books, watching movies, honest and caring.

So an imaginary man then…

Yeah very often I think it’s just an image I’m creating. My friends abroad tell me to come there and I’ll find a partner. I can walk hand in hand with someone there without worrying.

You know, I get propositions here from people who want to be my boyfriend or my girlfriend but for all the wrong reasons. I know the conditions apply which for me don’t apply. The more you grow as a filmmaker the more the walls grow around you. You feel tired after a point since every relationship just goes boom after a while and you want to run away.

Nandita Das was at the recent launch of the book Out! lending her support to the compilation of gay stories (read/watch the event here). Have you read the book?

I’ve not read the book. I get a lot of books by queer authors. I read a lot, not only gay literature.

There was a molestation charge against you by a male actor who is gay and who acted in a very bad gay film…

Yes, and a week later he said it was a publicity stunt but that comes on the third page of the newspaper right… It just gave me more courage you know. As a gay man I have the right to be attracted, to flirt, to date. If you’re a heterosexual director you’re looking at actresses and tell them they’re hot and that’s okay! But I can’t, I’m supposed to deny my feelings. Strange.

Onir directing Rahul Bose and Sanjay Suri in I AM

Are things all right with you and Rahul Bose after the whole kissing promotion scene controversy?

In terms of promotions, liplocks and screen kisses are talked about. And a kiss between two men is a big thing in Indian cinema so of course we’ll talk about it. Rahul never refused to come for our promotional events just because we used that scene.

I asked Sanjay Suri (read his interview here) during a Filmfare interview why you like the name Nikhil so much that you’ve used it in a couple of films. He said I should ask you…

(Laughs) When I was a student I watched this film by Prakash Jha called Hip Hip Hurray and I fell in love with an actor called Nikhil (who played Raghu in the film). So when I wrote my first script, which is Shab, the character was originally called Nikhil. Then that didn’t happen, so in my second script I just imported the names. I usually have five characters in my scripts and since I’m bad with names I just use the same ones!

Onir and Sanjay Suri

What sort of production/creative differences do you have with Sanjay Suri, your Anticlock Films partner? And who gets the final say?

As a producer he has the final say in everything, as a creative person I have the final say. I will never take any business decision without consulting Sanjay.

Sanjay Suri says he feels under utilised as an actor. How do you think he can change that, if at all?

I don’t know if he can change that. The whole reason we started working together is that we had similar visions for making films. So we develop projects that are interesting to him as an actor and to me as a director.

Sanjay and Onir promoting I AM

Is Sanjay a bit pessimistic or sceptical?

I don’t know about being pessimistic because then he would not be making films like I AM. Yes sceptical is the right word; everyone tells him he’s a brilliant actor but then what happens?

You don’t like working with big stars in your films…

The entire process of running after stars tires me. I can’t be hanging around your make-up van. I would like to work with big stars but it’s just not me to run after them. Both Sanjay and I have a great amount of self-respect, which is not something very abundant in the industry.

Onir in the director’s seat

What’s all this business with films that don’t have a script and they just improvise on set? Would you do a film with that technique? Sanjay Suri told me he doesn’t put much faith in the system.

I think there are different kinds of filmmakers. I don’t believe that there is no script. They just say that to make them look cool. They may have a script and then improvise. Sometimes even I ask my actors what they want to do in a scenario. But I’d like to have a full script that gives me structure and connects things together. So you don’t want to have loopholes by experimenting too much. A filmmaker has to have a script somewhere, even if it is in his head.

You’re really pissed about the double standards in the industry and with the Censor Board…

The Censor Board gives an A certificate to I AM but at the same time they give a U/A certificate to films with violence and item numbers. You have this Censor Board that is so regressive that they feel that two men looking at each other would make people uncomfortable.

When the story about the Delhi rape came out, all the filmmakers were talking about being outraged. But then in their films you have a hero looking up an airhostesses skirt who ends up sleeping with her. Then you have another actor unable to control his hand pinching a woman because of the way she’s dressed. How regressive can you get? Where is the Censor Board then? I’m actually against censorship but if you have it then don’t have double standards.

Rahul Bose-Arjun Mathur kissing scene in I AM

Which male stars do you find hot in Hollywood and Bollywood?

Bollywood I won’t mention because then they’ll feel all threatened! In Hollywood, Jude Law and Gael Garcia Bernal.

What gives your life true meaning?

Friendship, my family and my films. I’d even sacrifice my films for my relationships.


Read more interviews here.

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