Onir on Strengthening Queer Gaze in Cinema

Onir on Strengthening Queer Gaze in Cinema

Written By
Anmol Arora

The award-winning director of critically-acclaimed films like “I Am” rejects the cisgender-heteronormative gaze and advocates for queer narratives told by queer people themselves.

The award-winning director of critically-acclaimed films like “I Am” rejects the cisgender-heteronormative gaze and advocates for queer narratives told by queer people themselves.

Onir on Strengthening Queer Gaze in Cinema

Onir on Strengthening Queer Gaze in Cinema

Written By
Anmol Arora
Illustrations By
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Photography By
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Onir's films are powerful, composed and intense in their realism. He exuded the same strength and calmness during our interview.  When Onir began making films in the 1990s, he started to create a niche for himself by working on critical stories that look into the complexities of queer life in India. He made these films at a time when very few people were interested in talking about queerness. Queer people in mainstream cinema were mostly debased as comic or villainous caricatures.

His breakthrough in 2005 was the film My Brother...Nikhil, which sensitively portrayed a same-sex relationship and the realities of being diagnosed with HIV during the early years of the AIDS crisis in India. His crowdsourced film I Am is a collection of shorts that addressed issues like the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits, artificial insemination, and police brutality against queer people. It won the National Award for Best Hindi film in 2012.

Onir has never shied away from approaching queer stories that are messy and flawed. He champions the need for a queer gaze in mainstream cinema, and rejects the cisgender-heteronormative gaze, including in recent big-budget movies featuring queer lives and relationships, which sanitise, stereotype, and limit queer persons to the confines of societal acceptance, if not, tolerance.

I spoke to Onir over two sessions on Zoom about the queer gaze, about how the Hindi film industry is not queer inclusive, on why it is important to go beyond narratives centring acceptance of queer lives, and about his new project Pine Cone.

(This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Q Onir, how do you define the queer gaze as opposed to the prevalent one in Hindi cinema?

For the longest time, we have been hearing about how important it is to have women in cinema who tell their stories because the feminine gaze is different from the heteronormative-cisgender male gaze. So similarly, over the years, watching films or content that come from a cisgender space, I feel that I don't know the people in them. The way intimacy is shown, I think, “This is not me.” I don't identify with it. I realised that, very often, it comes from a space of entitlement of what primarily cisgender audiences feel comfortable watching, or how much of that they are okay watching.

If you look at trans representation or the discourse happening around it, it's very ironic. You will have legislation being discussed. You will have shelters being discussed. And you realise that it’s coming from a sense of “It's the other, it's the third gender. It's not us.” Also, this recognition of the third gender does not necessarily come from a space of equality or respect. And that's why you'll see that there is so much aggression towards the trans community because they become the most obvious target. When it comes to lesbian and gay people, there is also this sense of discomfort. “It's threatening our social structures, our structure of family, it's questioning everything.” So, there's a kind of aggression and denial [towards and of queerness] in cinema.

And, if I look at films over the last few years especially, it's all directed towards heteronormative society as if my life depends on being validated by this entitled set of people. Even when we have started finding space, overall, the narrative is about acceptance by parents. Even when you look at films like Badhai Do, where there is a lot I really liked. In the end, it is trying to fit into the heteronormative. The characters dance at Pride openly and that was so beautiful, but the next thing, they were back to pretending to be a heterosexual couple to adopt a child. For me then, that is a huge tragedy. It is no longer a comedy.

Also, in some recent films, gay male desire is especially very sanitised. Filmmakers often say showing this desire was not necessary. It was not necessary because the person behind the camera is perhaps uncomfortable with queer intimacy. Why does it make you uncomfortable?

I strongly think that, for too long, cis-heterosexual people have told our stories. I feel it's extremely important to empower more people from the LGBTQIA+ community to tell our stories because there is a difference in the way I look at the world to how I feel the cisgender community looks at the world and relationships. That, for me, is the queer gaze.

Vidur Sethi (left) and Amit Gurjar sharing a moment in Onir's upcoming film Pine Cone.
Vidur Sethi (left) and Amit Gurjar sharing a moment in Onir's upcoming film Pine Cone. Photo: Anticlock Films

Q Can you give an example of the queer gaze in that sense?

My next film Pine Cone kind of emphasises the queer gaze because nowhere in the film are the characters or the spaces [they belong to] trying to be accepted. That heteronormative discourse does not come in. Of course, it does not suddenly put us in a plane where that [heteronormative] world does not exist. That world still exists but we see it and the challenges we face through our gaze. I am not hankering for acceptance from the straight world.

Q As someone making films focusing on queer persons for nearly three decades, do you think the representation of queer lives has changed on the screen?

When I made My Brother...Nikhil, it was 2005. At that time, it was important that the film was about family and acceptance. At the same time, right till the end, my characters don't compromise into going back to the closet. The family has to take the steps to come to the characters. Similarly, when I made I Am in 2011, it was important for me to go to the next step. Let's go to the legal aspect, which was to show how Section 377 [a colonial-era law that penalised same-sex sex saying it is “against the order of nature”] was misused. Then, when I was making Shab, released in 2017, which had many gay characters, it was important for me to just show them as characters who are navigating relationships and friendships in a space which was largely heteronormative.

After 2018, as I watch films today, I see that so many of them are still about family acceptance. When people say that I should do My Brother...Nikhil now: No! I did that 18 years ago. The discourse for me, every time, is to go ahead. But a lot of what is happening now in the movies is still in that space of acceptance, acceptance, acceptance.

Q Why do you think it is still stuck there then?

The people [audiences] want to see everything from the heteronormative gaze. That's why lesbian stories are more popular because straight men fantasise about women like that. Very often, it's portrayed in a horrible way. At the end of it, whether one likes it or not, it is a mockery. With trans representation, the movies that are most popular are almost always violent and scary. Empathetic portrayals don't become as popular. Same with lesbian characterisation. I think what is popular is what is still accepted by the heteronormative gaze.

Q Do you think OTT platforms are different from the mass cinema when they partake in the queer gaze?

After 2018 especially, every platform has this tick mark that they need to do—inclusion. It is a part of the global mandate. So, you need these characters. So, you will see a couple of gay and lesbian characters, etc. A small percentage of it has good and right representation. But largely, we've still not graduated into making films and series that talk about queer lives, which comes from lived experiences. These are mostly tokenism, not coming from lived experiences.

Have you seen any web series where anyone is subtle about any heterosexual relationships? But we [queer people] are happy that someone is at least talking about us. [Laughs] I kind of get angry. I don't care if I sound bitter. But, for me, compromise is not acceptable. Entitlement is not acceptable.

Onir on Strengthening Queer Gaze in Cinema

Q So, how do you think filmmakers and writers can strengthen the queer gaze in Indian cinema? What changes need to be made on and off the screen in that regard?

More queer stories told by queer people will automatically change the way we look at ourselves. You know, when you see Dutee Chand come out, it's empowering. She is perhaps the only Indian sportsperson on that level who is out. I can't think of any cricketer or footballer. It makes such a strong statement. So, it's important for us from the entertainment industry to come out if you are in positions of power and tell our stories from those positions of power. Those stories will be about lived experiences. It takes time, but it is happening.

For me, today, one of the most encouraging things, but it's not getting empowered, is KASHISH. [The KASHISH film festival is a queer film festival that has been held every year in Mumbai since 2010.] How come these films are not getting the space that they need? Everyone will say without knowing [the process and finances of filmmaking] that “you can put it on YouTube”. Who's going to come pay me? Filmmaking is an expensive business. We also need a huge amount of money today to push the movies. Again, we are not making something that is populist. So, it's not as if overnight it's going to go viral. Right? We need support from the industry and the media.

Today, when I look at my film industry, I feel that it's not really inclusive or supportive of the queer community. If you look at Hollywood, every year, be it for the Oscars or different awards, they try and empower minorities—not just the content, but also the makers behind it. When I made a film like My Brother…Nikhil, which was the first of its kind, or I Am which received the National Award and went everywhere, but when it comes to popular awards, nowhere did it even get nominated. And why is that? There has to be queerphobia.

Onir in his apartment in Mumbai
Onir at his apartment in Mumbai. Photo: Zahra Amiruddin for queerbeat

Q Given where Indian cinema stands today, what are your thoughts on cis heterosexual or non-queer actors playing queer roles? In Pine Cone, a queer actor is playing the queer role, how did you come to make that choice?

When I was making my last film, I was in this space where I wanted to work with and have queer actors. And then I realised you cannot force people to be out. At the same time, you're making something which anyway, is not getting financial support from studios. So, my only strength is the film and the actors and the story. There will be queer people who audition but are terrible actors. There may be closeted people who are good. So, I would try and empower queer people who are willing to come out. But at the end of it, I will look for somebody who can also act and is appropriate for the role.

For Pine Cone, I was auditioning for five actors. I was really happy when I was talking to Vidur, they said that they identify as "they". I was so happy that they will probably be one of the first main lead who identifies as "they"—an out and proud queer—introduced in mainstream Hindi cinema.

I feel that again, as queer persons, we know much more about the straight world than what they know about us. As a queer actor, one should be able, though one gets bracketed, to do any role. Similarly, a straight person should be able to do any role.

But when it's trans people, I feel that you can't have cisgender men or women playing trans roles. It's not okay. The series that I am doing right now called We Are has one story of a trans person falling in love. The person I am casting is a trans person. My dream is to be able to make a film where my entire cast and crew are queer. That would be something I'd love to do.

Q Do you think the current queer gaze in cinema, in the form it exists today, is primarily from a privileged caste and class perspective? If so, why?

Everything about the amount of queer content you have depends on the viewership—the people watching it. Earlier women-centric films were much fewer. Now, because more and more women are going to watch these films, the number of such films is increasing.

Similarly, when it comes to the representation of people from different backgrounds, we think that Bollywood is the centre of the universe. We forget that there is Malayalam cinema, Marathi cinema, Bengali cinema, which represent queer characters coming from various strata of society. Having said that, yes, there is not enough. I wish there were many more films in different languages depicting people coming from different social strata, be it Dalits or others.

We as a society are very, very selfish. We don't want to come and see the problems of what people go through. For example, what a Dalit person goes through not only because of caste oppression but also because of their sexuality. Then the question is: Who is watching these films? These films are being watched mostly by people from the middle class and upper middle class. I am talking of revenue-generating space that is the cinema or even the OTT platforms because it's not inexpensive to consume content on different platforms. The audiences kind of decide what we get to see. And, unfortunately, because some communities are already not empowered and not there [making or watching these films], so, you see even lesser content depicting their issues.

You need people from different sections of society to be empowered to tell their stories. We need queer people behind the camera to tell our stories. Similarly, we need queer Dalits to tell their stories because I don't have that lived experience. I don't want to appropriate their lives through my gaze because it's a different experience. The horror and the oppression, a Dalit person might have faced is nothing that I would ever have experienced in life. So, it's important for those voices to get empowered to make those films.

Q How do you think filmmakers and the industry can expand the representation of queer gaze and make it more inclusive in the Indian context?

They can do a lot, but they won't do anything. Because the film industry, unfortunately, is an industry. Unlike many countries, it's not in the space of art and culture, which gets support. And everything seems to be geared toward profit-making. So, we will have an item number, however regressive it is, if it's believed that it will bring in more money. We will have extremely problematic films, which depict domestic violence, eve-teasing, rape, and molestation as a way to woo women, and those things will be extremely successful and have big budgets and find platforms and studios because it's populist. So, unfortunately for us, I don't have much hope in the industry going out of its way to be inclusive. It will be eternally taking baby steps for the queer community. So, I think it's more important for the community to go all out and support our films and also reject films that portray us in a certain way—start saying “no” to cis-gendered gaze into our lives.

Q What does the future look like for queer cinema in India, especially in the socio-cultural context today?

Our film industry is the largest film industry in the world. And, today, with mobile phones and all, there are a lot of possibilities. You can make your own film. But you have to know the craft. People always want the easy way out. So whether you are a queer person or a straight person, you need to train. You need to work towards good stories. And if you have good stories, if you are trained and you know your job, your stories will have a reach. Look at someone like Rima Das. I always refer to her as an inspiration. She comes from Assam and made her film called Village Rockstars after having trained herself through YouTube on how to operate the camera, edit, and watched films from all over the world. And her first film was directed, edited, written, produced, shot by her—a one-woman army. Village Rockstars represented India at the Oscars, and it was made with a budget of five lakhs. So, it is the will to tell the story.

Very often, people want to be a part of mainstream cinema. That desire is what stops them from telling more authentic stories because they are also awe-struck by it. I am constantly told that I have done enough [of this work]. That now, I should do something more mainstream. But they forget that this is my life and my identity and there is no reason why I should leave it behind.

Q For those who may want to explore more, what films do you recommend they see to understand the queer gaze?

There’s this French film Close which, I think, will be available on MUBI. Another is the lovely Pakistani film Joyland. I don’t know when we will get to see it in India. I have seen it. I will recommend them.

This Q&A is part of a queerbeat project to interview LGBTQIA+ personalities who are challenging cis heteronormative norms in their fields and making them queer inclusive.


Anmol Arora

Anmol Arora (they/them) is an independent journalist who writes and reports on gender, health, and culture from an intersectional lens.

Zahra Amiruddin

Zahra Amiruddin (she/her) is an independent writer, photographer, and professor of photography who has been working in the field for nine years with a specialisation in visual practices and contemporary art. Apart from being featured in national and international publications, her main areas of interest include ethnographic studies, astronomy, personal narratives, and family histories. She has shown her work in solo as well as group exhibitions across Greece, South Korea, Indonesia, and India and is currently developing a collaborative project with Eight Thirty, a photography collective with nine women across India.

Nayantara Narayanan

Nayantara Narayanan (she/her) is an independent journalist based in Bangalore. She has worked as reporter, editor and producer for newsrooms such as The Caravan, Scroll.in and CNBC-TV18. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.