New Delhi: “Why should it be that any institute judge us not by our intellect, strength, talent, capabilities, and loyalty but by our sexuality?”, asks Onir, Filmmaker and Author of the book ‘I am Onir, & I am Gay’ in an exclusive interview with team Banega Swasth India to celebrate Pride Month. I Am Onir and I Am Gay is a memoir about confronting and transcending frontiers, penned by Onir along with his sister Irene Dhar. Onir sets the tone of the book and what’s in store with a very important statement – Equality is non-negotiable.
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Talking about penning a personal account in the form of a memoir, Onir says, “It was kind of accidental.” Around five years ago, Onir was talking to his agent about the rights for a book called Carpet Weavers, the first Afghan gay novel, to see if he could make it into a film. It is then that his agent Kanishka sowed the idea of a memoir into Onir’s mind and kept on persisting with him. He recalls,
During the COVID period, when I was at home, I discussed it with my sister that maybe it’s not a bad idea because when I grew up, there was no reference point. There are not too many people in my industry or elsewhere who are comfortable even today talking about it or saying, ‘I am gay’ and talking about their journey. I get lots of messages from youngsters on social media who are struggling to accept themselves and struggling to deal with how their families or societies deal with their identity. I thought maybe this could help some people to navigate their lives and identity better. If it could help even a few people and touch a few lives; otherwise also, I thought why not, it’s anyway lockdown, a good time to introspect and write about the journey.
In his book, Onir talks about suffering from low self-esteem while growing up – from looks to the complexion and then sexuality. He talks about the realisation at the age of 17 and writes,
I realised for the first time that my love was not acceptable, something that was priceless to me was considered sinful by others.
Talking about the same, he says,
When I was in school, in Bhutan, I didn’t even know the word, gay. I didn’t think that I am supposed to be bracketed into something different. I just thought I was another human being who had certain likes and dislikes just like everybody has. And then to realise that not only you are bracketed as someone different but also your identity is considered a sin by many. It was not accepted by many, so I grew up in that world. But, today, we are empowered by law, not to be treated as criminals.
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In 2018, the Supreme Court overruled its 2013 decision and decriminalised homosexuality. The judgment was delivered by a Bench of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justices Rohinton Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra.
History owes an apology to LGBT persons for ostracisation, discrimination, said Justice Indu Malhotra.
Talking about the big victory, Onir says,
In 2009, when Delhi High Court had decriminalised homosexuality it was an incredible moment for the community. In 2013, when the Supreme Court overruled it, it was despair and I thought I will not see what happened in 2018 in my lifetime. When the Justice mentioned that the entire nation owes the LGBTQ+ community an apology, it really touched me. Finally, someone feels the injustice that has been done to us for no reason. Why should any human being be treated less equally than anybody else, especially in the world’s largest democracy?
Breaking The Barriers: Bringing Homosexuality Into Mainstream Through Cinema
But even today, the community is facing challenges. For instance, earlier this year, in January, National award-winning Filmmaker Onir’s movie script, inspired by a now two-year-old NDTV interview of a gay Major who quit the service, was rejected by the Indian Army. Onir believes his script was “very respectful of the army” and not some “salacious story” but got rejected as it shows a homosexual soldier. He says,
I was stopped from telling a story. It really made me feel sad. That apology that Supreme Court talked about and that this whole acceptance and inclusion needed to be implemented by every section of society and state. It’s absolute discrimination and disgrace that in 2022 we chose not to be a part of 57 progressive countries in the world which accept LGBTQ+ in the Army but we rather be with a group that still oppresses and doesn’t recognise us as equal human beings.
‘We Are’, the film that Onir was trying to make was a sequel to his National Award winning anthology ‘I Am’ released in 2010 when homosexuality was still a crime. He says,
I wonder, if today, I had to do ‘I Am’ whether it would receive a National Award or even a Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) would even give it a certificate. We have forgotten that cinema is meant to question every form of power. It’s about questioning and if that right to question is taken away from an artist, you in a way are throttling and killing the art.
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Onir made his directorial debut in 2005 with the film My Brother…Nikhil. With actor Sanjay Suri in the lead, who was also one of the producers, it had Juhi Chawla playing his sister leading the fight against the discrimination her brother was facing for being HIV positive. It was one of the first films to talk about AIDS and gay relationship and the stigma around it. Today, we see more and more web series and movies dealing with the issue of gender and same sex relationships. Talking about how significant this trend is, Onir says,
The more the narrative, the better, it’s always welcome but, I feel, right now, a lot of narrative is happening from a very heteronormative gaze of acceptance and taking baby steps in understanding us. But the life that I have lived is not about taking baby steps nor is it an issue. I have stories. I have lived. I have loved. And I don’t see those stories being represented and I don’t see out and proud queer filmmakers making the stories about our narrative. Just like there was this talk about the necessity of having women representative tell their story behind the camera that they are there because the feminine gaze is different, so is the queer gaze different. It’s time that our stories are told the way we want to tell and not the way a heteronormative world accepts us. Because why should my identity depend on someone else’s acceptance? Why should my stories be about what makes someone else comfortable?
Onir believes that “cinema is a powerful medium” and one shouldn’t be “disempowered to talk to their society, community and allies through this medium”. He says,
All of us need to consciously enable discourse and not discourse which is only from the point of view of appeasing.
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The Burden Of COVID-19 And Stigma Of Being From The LGBTQ+ Community
Talking about how big a setback has the pandemic been for the LGBTQ+ community when overall inequity in society seems to have widened, Onir says,
I think for a lot of a people it was traumatic because people who came out, who were living independently in cities away from home because they were not accepted very often, they lost their jobs and had to go back to an environment which was not necessarily safe, which was abusive and humiliating for them. Due to COVID, the percentage of women who lost their jobs and the community is much more in comparison to men so, obviously, it affected the community much more but I think we are resilient. Your immunity against adversities is so strong because you are dealing with it all your life that this too shall pass and we will move ahead.
Further talking about the stigma that the community faces on a regular basis, Onir blames patriarchy. He explains,
The patriarchal society is extremely insecure about what they feel as intruding into their power structure – be it in terms of women or the LGBTQ+ community. They are constantly threatened. And then you have this constant hurdle that one has to deal with because unfortunately, decision makers even today, in 2022, are largely cis-gendered men who come with very heavy baggage of patriarchy on them which they don’t even understand.
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The Way Ahead For LGBTQ+ Community In The Quest For Non-Negotiable Equality
Onir is of the opinion that to achieve equality and inclusion and to leave no one behind, we need to focus on two areas – education and health. He suggests introducing concepts of gender and sexuality among children right from an early age because that’s what shapes them. He adds,
Children should be educated so that they do not mock anyone who they perceive as different, and they are also confident enough to explore their own sexual identity or gender. I feel education at school and also at home is extremely important and followed very closely by healthcare. When parents find out about their child’s sexuality, they take their children to a doctor thinking it to be a disease. Very often there are doctors who are themselves homophobic and who would try and insist that this is wrong and you need to change and this is a mental disease.
Though homosexuality is legal in India, there is still a long way to go for the community in the area of marriage and adoption rights. Onir says that the argument people often give against same sex marriage is that it’s against our culture but what is the culture he asks and adds,
Isn’t a culture supposed to be something that evolves because humanity and human rights are more important than any culture, any book, anything that’s stuck in time? With time, everything needs to evolve for a better world, not for a worse world. Not for a society that continues to oppress.
Onir emphasizes on the inclusion of the community in all spheres of life and society. He says,
Our presence needs to be recognized in every space of social or private communication.
While talking about acceptance, Onir gives a message to youngsters who are afraid of being accepted by family or anybody. He says,
First, understand that this is not your only definition. Focus on becoming independent and, at that time, if your family doesn’t accept you, if you have the courage and possibility to walk out, walk out and redefine the notions of family, recreate your own family. Because if someone doesn’t love your own identity, that love is not worth hankering for or nurturing.
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You can listen to the full Banega Swasth India podcast discussion by hitting the play button on the Spotify player embedded above.
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NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.