Onir, Director of BFI Flare Selection ‘Pine Cone,’ Talks LGBTQ Cinema in India: ‘The Queer Gaze Is Missing’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Onir, one of a handful of out and proud Indian filmmakers, is speaking out about the current scenario for LGBTQ filmmakers in the country.

“There are a lot of non-Indian queer films and series available on streaming and also a lot of queer short films and reel videos being made across the country. Having said that, I feel the mainstream industry and streaming platforms when it comes to queer content are mostly still taking baby steps, and also looking at our stories from a very heteronormative gaze,” Onir told Variety.

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“The queer gaze is largely missing. What is disappointing is that it’s largely about a tick mark of having done the right thing — right from actors to platforms and studios that use the phrase ‘but we are already doing one queer story.’ I don’t understand what that means. We are not one homogeneous story, we have many stories. As long as we are still othered as ‘they,’ our stories will never find the space it deserves,” Onir added.

After breaking through in 2005 with “My Brother… Nikhil,” one of the few Bollywood films to examine AIDS and same-sex relationships, Onir’s latest film “Pine Cone” is set to hold its U.K. premiere at the BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival. “Pine Cone,” the story of gay director Sid, unfolds over key dates for gay rights in India, including the landmark day when homosexuality was decriminalized, recounting three different encounters in his love life.

In “Pine Cone,” in the very first scene, the protagonist mentions that an Indian army-related film has not been cleared. In 2021, Onir was trying to make a sequel to his 2010 anthology film “I Am,” titled “We Are.” The first story “We are Faheem & Karun,” inspired by a former Indian army major, was a love story between an army man and a Kashmiri local.

“In India the new rule is that if there is anything about the army you need to get it cleared by the Ministry of Defence,” Onir said. “The ministry refused to give clearance to the film, neither did they provide any reason. Months later it came up in the parliament and the defence ministry spokesperson claimed that the film was derogatory towards the army (army man being shown as gay) and was also a threat to the country’s security. The ministry continued to evade any direct discussion with me. Even after the Supreme court of India decriminalized homosexuality in 2018 the Ministry of Defence in India refuses to recognize the queer community in the forces.”

The filmmaker said that initially he felt “humiliated and angry” by the rejection. He was also working on his autobiography “I Am Onir & I Am Gay” at the time and decided to make a film inspired by some instances from his life, as a story of hope.

“I thought this film of mine coming at a time of rejection has to be a film that is not about the heteronormative world accepting us, or how miserable it is not being equal, but to celebrate visibility — negating invisibility by celebrating resilience. The society and changing landscape of legal rights for the queer community [is] the backdrop, but the protagonist navigates through life, out and proud, living his life out in the sun,” Onir said.

Of the overarching message he wanted to convey through “Pine Cone,” Onir said: “I am tired of hearing that the Indian [and] South Asian community is taking baby steps in accepting the queer community and stories. I want this film to push that audience to acknowledge that our lives are not only about their acceptance. There is love, loss and desire that is very often made invisible. I want them to watch this love story as another love story and think why as a gay man I can without any hesitation go and watch and enjoy a heterosexual love story. Why can’t they do the same with our stories? What is the fear? That is the reason I adapted a very mainstream Indian cinema style to tell this story. I want it to be accessible.”

Next up for Onir is a renewed attempt to make “We Are Faheem & Karun,” which would be the first Kashmiri-language queer film. “It’s part of a series of queer love stories I want to make as a celebration of the Supreme Court of India decriminalizing us,” Onir said.

BFI Flare runs March 13-24.

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