Books: The importance of being Onir

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National award-winning filmmaker, best known for My Brother Nikhil and I Am, has just released his autobiography, I am Onir and I am Gay, at age 53. Too young to do a book on his life, you think? Not when you realise that the experiences of a queer man trying to navigate his identity, sexuality and passion are enough to—quite literally—fill a book.

“It wasn’t something that I’d planned to do at all,” Onir says. “Five or six years ago, I was talking to my agent about another book, and he’s the one who planted the idea in my head. He was the first person to tell me that it would help other people, especially from the Queer community.”

It was only after the lockdown that Onir started to think about it seriously, spurred by the fact that a lot of people—including from within Bollywood—used to write to him, asking about his journey and how he found the ‘courage’ to be out and proud. He felt the need to help them, to provide answers, to provide the kind of representation that he himself never saw on-screen or in popular culture.

“There aren’t too many people from the industry or otherwise who are out or who can freely say ‘I am gay’,” explains Onir. “So, I thought that by writing this book I could empower younger people who are trying to deal with their identity. And for people who are not from the Queer community, and also for allies, I wanted them to understand us better, to understand our journey better.”

(Clockwise from top) With his sister Irene and brother Abhishek on either side of him; Around 1971 with his father Aparesh Dhar, mother Manjushree Dhar, and his two siblings in Bhutan; Onir and his brother on top of their grandfather’s tractor in Odisha, where they used to go on holidays
(Clockwise from top) With his sister Irene and brother Abhishek on either side of him; Around 1971 with his father Aparesh Dhar, mother Manjushree Dhar, and his two siblings in Bhutan; Onir and his brother on top of their grandfather’s tractor in Odisha, where they used to go on holidays

It’s evident before you even open the book what Onir wants to say. The tagline of the book plainly and simply states: ‘Equality is non-negotiable’.

“When someone walks into a bookstore where there are thousands of books, but there’s one book that says ‘I am gay’ proudly, it will hopefully give someone the feeling that it’s okay to come out, to talk about it,” Onir says.

Does he feel a sense of responsibility since he’s proudly out? “If you’re empowered and you don’t talk about it, it’s almost like you’re ashamed in a way,” he says baldly. “You’re constantly trying to camouflage your identity and it kind of legitimises shame and invisibility. It’s important for us to claim our space.”

Quest for identity

Although he’s made films like Chauranga, Kuch Bheege Alfaaz and Bas Ek Pal, which have nothing to do with sexuality or identity, Onir says he is often “bracketed, but that’s okay.”

After all, My Brother Nikhil, which was Onir’s directorial debut, was a film that dealt with HIV and opened new doors for LGBTQ+ representation in Bollywood. An aspiring filmmaker’s journey is never easy and for an openly gay filmmaker in India to make a film centred on a subject that is considered taboo, his journey certainly hasn’t been without its ups and downs, all of which he candidly shares in the book.

The book itself, co-written with his sister, film editor and writer Irene Dhar Malik, starts off with Onir talking about his childhood years spent in Bhutan, holidays in Odisha and then moving to Kolkata with his family. It’s easy to see how, after moving to Kolkata, Onir struggled with finding his identity and finding his roots, feeling like somewhat of an outsider and trying to come to terms with what ‘home’ is.

The pioneer
The pioneer

In that same journey and time period we read about him falling in love (with both boys and girls), having his heart broken and realising, of course, that to love a man is wrong, or not ‘normal.’

“When you write something like this, you lay yourself bare, open for other people to judge,” admits Onir. “But when you’re from a small section of people who can be out and proud and are loved by friends and family, you can empower so many more people who may be ashamed of their identity, who are ashamed to speak up.”

Was the process of writing this book cathartic? “Through the process of writing, I did come to the realisation that ‘home’ for me will always be Bhutan, but at the same time, ‘home’ right now for me will also be the people around me. I’m not chained by any one space,” he muses.

Still seeking love

In the memoir, we also get a candid glimpse into how he came to love cinema, beginning with the Luger Theatre in Thimpu, to discovering Ritwik Ghatak’s films and eventually, when studying at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, meeting Father Gaston Roberge who becomes a mentor to him. In My Brother Nikhil, there’s even a character named after Roberge.

Onir wants his book (above) to help others who may not have the courage to be their true selves
Onir wants his book (above) to help others who may not have the courage to be their true selves

Of course, the book also details his journey after he arrived in then-Bombay, the friends he made and how he struggled to and finally released his first film. Onir writes candidly about the people he’s met, those who helped him and those who didn’t, and even details the trauma he endured when he was falsely accused of molesting a man in 2011.

So, does he think he’s ticked anyone off or revealed something that he shouldn’t have?

“Well, it’s just released so I don’t know who’s read it but I’m sure some people will not like it,” chuckles Onir. Did he send a copy to the people he’s mentioned? “No,” he says, adding the caveat that, “I did send some people bits of the text, but only where they’re mentioned.”

From the first chapter titled ‘The First Crush’ to the last one that is ‘Thinking of You’, there is a clear theme of Onir looking not only for his identity, but for love. Is that something he’s still searching for?

“Yes, you got it,” laughs Onir. “The hunt is on; I think that’s something that will continue till my last breath!”

Follow @modwel on Instagram & @UrveeM on Twitter

From HT Brunch, August 20, 2022

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