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Interview Hindi

Started writing Pine Cone in anger after what happened with We Are, says Onir

The filmmaker did not get a no-objection certificate from the defence ministry. One of the stories in the anthology was about a gay former soldier.

Onir and a still from Pine Cone

Keyur Seta

Filmmaker Onir was all set to make his upcoming anthology We Are, a sequel to his acclaimed anthology movie I Am (2011). The film was to tell queer stories from across India. But the project came to a halt earlier this year when the defence ministry denied the filmmaker a no-objection certificate (NOC) to shoot and exhibit the work. The filmmaker needed the NOC because one of the stories in the anthology was about a former gay soldier, Major J Suresh.

This prompted Onir to start work on another film based on queer pride titled Pine Cone.

“Basically, I started writing this film out of frustration and anger about what happened with We Are, the delay because of the ministry of defence objecting to it,” the filmmaker said in a conversation with Cinestaan.com. “I thought I want to be able to tell our stories the way we want to.”

Onir feels that while there is increased interest in queer stories these days, they are mostly seen from a heteronormative gaze. “I feel most critics, like the audience, are over-enthusiastic about anything that is LGBTQI that is from the heteronormative gaze. I am happy that these stories are being told, but I just feel that very often I don’t identify [with them].”

Elaborating, he said, “I am tired of stories that always educate people and address the heteronormative world to the heteronormative world. I want to tell stories where we are looking at lives where we are not trying to educate the world to accept us because my existence is not about them accepting me. Pine Cone is a queer narrative which is not seeking acceptance or approval from the heteronormative world. We are just telling a story without filters.”

Onir had a condition for the casting of the film. “I wanted to cast actors who are comfortable doing gay roles without questioning how much intimacy there will be,” he said. 

The filmmaker is not happy with the display of intimacy in LGBTQ+ films in India. “I don’t remember the men kissing properly,” he said. “They don’t even touch each other. It’s more like friends. I feel the queer world is deprived of desire when it’s portrayed by heteronormative filmmakers. I don’t know how comfortable they are with acknowledging that we have desires and representing that desire.”

He added, “Everything is so sanitized, especially with male actors. With women, men are more comfortable telling women how to show a lesbian scene than how to show a gay scene.”

The filmmaker has also come across actors who are not willing to do a gay story at a certain point in their careers.

Arjun Mathur and Rahul Bose in I Am

“That’s the most ridiculous thing to say,” Onir fumed. “These people would happily portray a rapist. That just shows how homophobic these actors are. They should evaluate how narrow-minded their thought process is. They would say that a little intimacy is okay. It’s okay for them if it’s a woman. So I am sometimes wondering whether you are supposed to actually have fun while doing these scenes.”

After such experiences, Onir decided to cast actors who would not have any inhibitions filming gay love scenes. That’s how he came across Vidur Sethi, who is making his debut as the main lead in Pine Cone.

“I explained to him that by intimate I mean proper intimacy and not kissing on the neck or noses touching and all those weird methods,” Onir said. “He said he understood because he identifies as queer. That was very nice for me because for the first time a mainstream Hindi film will have an out-and-out queer actor playing the main lead.” 

Sethi is an artiste from Delhi who does theatre and teaches English. Onir auditioned him online for the role and met him for the first time directly on the set. “Before that, we did an online workshop," he said. "Similarly, other actors are from Gwalior, Srinagar, Kolkata and Haryana. They not only don’t belong to the industry, they belong to different parts of India.” 

Recently, Onir also tweeted his disappointment at several media houses not covering news about Pine Cone while films starring star kids get all the coverage. “Everyone would be talking about all the new actors who are someone’s son or daughter,” he said. “I have faced this when I did Shab (2017) and Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz (2018). I have been someone who has constantly introduced new talent for the last few years.”

Onir said he would have understood if the rule of no coverage for new artistes was applied uniformly to everyone. “Media very often disempowers newcomers who don’t come from the industry,” he said. “They say people are not interested [in reading], but they have to at least have exposure, no?”

He added, “Whether they [star kids] have the talent or not, they will get so much exposure even when they go to the gym and airports and show what they bought. But here someone is making a debut as the main lead, but there will hardly be any [publication] willing to talk [about it]. Others will be on the covers of magazines when they have not even done anything. Their only claim to fame will be that they are someone’s son or daughter.”

Onir finds this ironic given the amount of discourse in the same media in the past two years about nepotism. “We will rave and rant and then continue with the same sort of airport looks and someone’s mother being so touched by an actor’s performance. Arre, my mother is also touched every time I make a film,” he quipped.

The filmmaker completed the first schedule of Pine Cone on 15 May. The second and third schedules are to take place in Mumbai and Sikkim, respectively. 

Asked about the status of We Are, Onir said, “I will start We Are after I finish this. I am also thinking of how to tell the story without having to seek an NOC. I have figured out how I will do it. I will do it soon.”