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Interview Hindi

10 years of I Am: No TV channel, studio paid me what they should have, says Onir

As the anthology film completes a decade, filmmaker Onir speaks about the hardships he faced while making it and shares details about the upcoming sequel, We Are.

Keyur Seta

Anthologies, or films comprising two or more separate segments usually connected by a theme, are becoming commonplace now with the rise of over-the-top (OTT) platforms. But when Onir’s I Am (2011) was released, anthologies were rare in Hindi cinema.

As the film completes a decade (it was released on 29 April 2011), Onir goes down memory lane and talks about what went into its making and the hardships he faced in the process. The filmmaker also shares details of the upcoming sequel to the film, titled We Are.

I Am narrated four stories.

I Am Afia: Afia (Nandita Das) wants to be a mother but husband Manav (Manav Kaul) leaves her as he loves someone else. Afia decides to become a single mother by having a test-tube baby. She meets her sperm donor Suraj (Purab Kohli) before going through the process. A bond develops between them, but Afia can't trust any man now.

Nandita Das and Purab Kohli in I Am Afia

I Am Megha: Megha (Juhi Chawla) returns to Srinagar, Kashmir, 20 years after she and her Kashmiri Pandit family were forced to flee by militant threats. Megha wants to sell off the family's property. Then she meets old friend Rubina (Manisha Koirala) and is transported back to their childhood. 

Juhi Chawla and Manisha Koirala in I Am Megha

I Am Abhimanyu: Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri), a successful filmmaker, is dealing with the traumatic memories of childhood sexual abuse by his stepfather Vinay (Anurag Kashyap). He finds solace in friend Natasha (Radhika Apte).

I Am Abhimanyu

I Am Omar: Jai (Rahul Bose), a successful managing director of a company in Bengaluru, meets Omar (Arjun Mathur), a struggling actor, in Mumbai. They hit it off in their first meeting and get intimate in Jai’s car when an evil cop (Abhimanyu Singh) catches them.

Arjun Mathur and Rahul Bose in I Am Omar

These days, anthologies are becoming quite common with OTT platforms. Ten years ago, that was not so. Why did you decide to make an anthology back then?

Actually, it was accidental. I really wanted to tell those stories. And there was no way I would get finance for each of the stories as a feature. That’s when I thought that if I want to make these stories, I would do so by crowdfunding. And that would be easier if I were to do them as short films.

I didn’t know if I would be able to do all four. So I raised funds for one and started off. Then the second. At the same time, at the back of my mind, I was sure it would be presented as a feature film, unlike anthologies now that are separate stories. There are similar stories but at times not even bound by theme; they are just short films put together. For me, it was important that they are not only tied by themes but also by characters moving from one story to another so that it can also be seen as a [single] film and not separate stories.

All these stories had come to me from real incidents. They could have been separate feature films. But they were never written as separate films because I had been pitching those ideas to get finance and they were always refused, like most of the things I still do (laughs). Honestly, everything for me about the films was an experiment.


What was the reason for choosing these four subjects? Did you have others in mind as well?

Yes, actually I also had a fifth story, called Rudra. It was set in Jharkhand and dealt with the concept of what is a Maoist. What happened was once I was going to Jamshedpur by train from Kolkata for some festival where one of my films was to be screened. I am really dumb at times. I didn’t know Jamshedpur and Tata Nagar are the same. So I missed the Tata Nagar station and when I realized I had passed by Jamshedpur, I got down at the next station.

It was a remote place and there was no one around; not even the station master. There was just me and one goat (laughs). I tweeted that I am at this place. Then someone from the organizers called me and asked me to just sit silently and said I should not tweet because I am in the middle of a Maoist belt. When finally the car arrived for me, I was just asking the driver, “Who are these Maoists?” He said, “Everybody you see around. It could be me also” (laughs). For me, that conversation was very interesting [to make it into a film].

But when I started making I Am, after making the third [film], I realized I didn’t want it to be more than two hours. So I don’t need to make the fifth story.

Juhi Chawla and Manisha Koirala were big stars in the 1990s but never acted together. You cast them together for the story I Am Megha. How did you manage that?

Juhi, over the years, has become a friend. Before crowdfunding and before I wrote Megha, I went to her and said listen, you have to give me money and do one of the stories. I was wondering whom I should cast for Rubina. It was a parallel role. Manisha’s phase from Dil Se... (1998) kept coming to me. Also, her looks can go as Kashmiri. Juhi and Manisha are the only persons I went to for those roles. When Juhi read the script, she loved it. For Manisha, it happened over e-mail. I had not even met her. For me, it was a dream. I think somehow the role touched her. And the whole thing of them working together also excited her.

Manisha Koirala and Juhi Chawla in I Am Megha

So how was the experience of directing them?

I look at young actors right now and see this whole paraphernalia and huge number of people around them all the time. They need their designer and everything. It’s all me, me, me. But these two actresses were the biggest at one point. My budget was such that whatever I paid each one was like, let’s not even talk about it.

But they also shared the make-up person Elton Fernandez, who was chosen by me. He has now become very famous, but back then it was his first film. Both these actresses trusted him because I trusted him. One day Manisha would wake up early and get the make-up done and one day Juhi would do that. Both travelled with Go Airways because that’s what we could afford. I sometimes feel youngsters need to learn humility. I hear even about actors who have made it on OTT platforms show attitude, especially male actors.

How confident were you that people would accept issues like child sexual abuse and homosexuality 10 years ago?

I had done My Brother Nikhil in 2005, which was at that time the first film that had a gay protagonist. Somewhere from that time onwards, the fear about the story I wanted to tell was not there in me. Abhimanyu was the first story I shot, which was about child sexual abuse. I put it out on Facebook that I want to make this story, will you give me money? And people sent money, which means they wanted to see the film.

Anurag Kashyap and Dhrishit Sonegara in I Am Abhimanyu

Now if I go with the expectation that my film is going to make the box office shake like Golmaal (2006) and Kya Kool Hai Hum (2005) then I am under a delusion. I never had such expectations. But yes, I was disappointed when even after the film got two National awards, for six years no platform or TV channel bought it. What disappointed me was not the audience but my industry. The studios will now celebrate [the film]. But nobody paid me what I should have been paid for the film. 

When did you decide to make the sequel titled We Are?

I think somewhere after the Supreme Court verdict on section 377 [of the Indian Penal Code]. For me, I Am was very significant because when we started shooting the film, homosexuality was criminalized by law. By the time I started shooting I Am Omar, the Delhi high court had decriminalized it. When the film was released, it was criminalized, and the next year it got decriminalized again.

After what happened in 2018, I thought I want to make a film that is my gift to my community celebrating the Supreme Court verdict. So all these films are LGBTQ love stories. At the same time, it highlights the fact that we are being decriminalized by law for sex but it does not really give us equal civil rights and does not recognize our right to love and live together as partners. This film is all about love and happy stories. The reason for making We Are now is because I Am is completing 10 years.

These are also four stories?

Yes, four stories set in the same geographical regions and they will also be tied together by characters. The cast will be a mix of known and new people because I also want to cast people from the queer community. The second story is a love story of a transwoman, so I will cast a transwoman. And this time for the Kashmiri story I really want to cast someone who is Kashmiri. Same with a Malayalam character. It will again have different languages and people from those regions acting in it. So, for me, it’s a truly Indian film.

How do you feel when you see I Am appreciated even after 10 years?

It’s a mixed feeling. In one way, I feel validated, from the fact that it got National awards, a film that every studio refused to finance. Just like We Are. Nobody will finance me for that; I know. No platform or studio in India will come on board. I had pitched it to some platforms and none of them said yes. But they will all show it later, I know that (laughs).

Somehow I feel people who make decisions on most platforms have an agenda of giving some space to LGBTQ [stories] but not more. They will do it to the extent they and the audience are comfortable. You are making hundreds of programmes. Come on, don't tell me you can’t make one exception. So, there is a problem somewhere and there are homophobes out there. They will pretend they are not. When they pretend to be inclusive, they think they are doing you a favour. They don’t realize that by becoming inclusive they are becoming better human beings.