'An attempt to strangulate an artiste's voice': Onir opens up on Defence Ministry's objection to his true-life story of a gay Major
'You’re humiliating the queer community by saying that the queer community is not ‘fit enough’ to serve the nation because you’re being judged not by your skillset, but by something that is nobody’s business, which is your sexuality,' says Onir.
The Defence Ministry recently quashed a film script that was to follow the life of a gay Major in the Indian Army who quit service. Based on true events, the script written by Onir was the story of Major J Suresh, whose interview the filmmaker had seen on NDTV in 2020.
Onir’s previous film I Am, an anthology, tackled topics like homosexuality, single motherhood, child abuse, and other social issues. This script was supposed to be a continuation of his National Award-Winning anthology. However, this refusal from the Defence Ministry hindered these plans.
The Defence Ministry on 27 July, 2020, wrote to Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) that certain production houses and films seemed to be ‘distorting the image of Indian Army,’ and therefore demanded that such films should get a NOC (No-objection Certificate) from the army. About a month and a half later, they have denied the same NOC to filmmaker Onir without stating any reason for the same.
We spoke to Onir about the rejection of his script, the cost of creating stories that push the boundaries, and the role of hypermasculinity in intolerance. Excerpts from the interview are as follows.
You have always pushed the envelope with your cinema. Be it My Brother…Nikhil, where you address the taboo surrounding AIDS and same-sex relationships or I Am, in which you discuss issues like homosexuality, child abuse, sperm donation, and the discourse around Kashmiri Pandits. I am sure you face challenges often due to the kind of topics you choose to speak about, like the one you are facing right now. Does it become demoralising and difficult after a point?
I think mostly the films I’ve made are inspired by real life, and those are the ones that become difficult because they are not populist narratives. It then becomes difficult to get finance, to distribute, or to obtain Censor Board approval, or in this case, the NOC from the Defence Ministry. So these kinds of challenges are disappointing, but I also feel that they push one further. For instance, when I was trying to make I Am, every studio or production house would refuse which compelled me to opt for crowdfunding, and it went on to become one of India’s largest and first crowdfunding projects done through the social network. Thus, when you face such obstacles, to rise from them, you end up doing things that are, in their own way, ground-breaking. And when a film like I Am bags the National Award for the Best Film, you do feel validated. So yes, there are challenges, but the fact that you’re willing to negotiate them and still tell your story is what matters.
After the repealing of Section 377 in 2018, when the late General Bipin Rawat was questioned on what this would mean for the army, he said, "Humare yahaan nahi chalega." About four years later, the intolerance towards the LGBTQ+ community still persists in the army, as the refusal implies. What do you make of it?
I think the army world over has initially been full of toxic masculinity, which is why it is also taking a lot of time to change, and it is basically hardcore patriarchy that needs to be shattered. If you look at India today, be it the resistance against marital rape, or women finding space in the army, the matter of fact is that the lack of acceptance essentially stems from a similar kind of insecurity that lies in a patriarchal and cis-gender society. And that is precisely why even the queer community faces repulse or resistance, whether it’s civil rights, or marriage laws or adoption for that matter because the reasoning for all that is the most bizarre, and comes from an extremely insecure, heteronormative way of thinking.
You spoke about toxic masculinity. So while this refusal on the Defence Ministry’s part does bring to light the inherent homophobia, do you also think it is connected to the obsession we have as a society regarding hypermasculinity?
Of course, that’s what this entire issue is about. In fact, not just this but also the minorities being targeted through Clubhouse or that Bulli Bai app is all a testament to this ultra-masculine environment. Everywhere you look, you find this toxic hypermasculinity and aggressiveness that is finding its expression suddenly, and it’s extremely alarming.
The Defence Ministry’s refusal comes not only as intolerance towards the queer community but also as unreasonable censorship of art and cinema. What do you think?
It is wrong on various levels. It is primarily a stark denial of reality because the script was based on a real story. It is also an attempt to strangulate an artist’s voice, which the army should not have the authority to do.
Moreover, you’re humiliating the queer community by saying that the queer community is not ‘fit enough’ to serve the nation because you’re being judged not by your skillset, but by something that is nobody’s business, which is your sexuality.
If I am not wrong, 56 countries around the world have gay men in their army. What do you think is stopping us? For instance, Israel, a country that is not known for its LGBTQ+ friendly policies, has an army that broadly accepts the queer community.
I don’t think it’s about us, and the rest of the world. Yes, we have our set of problems and constraints, but the thing is there is a section of society everywhere that shows resistance to change because human beings, in general, find it very easy to oppress, and until we don’t learn to be compassionate about everyone and everything, problems like these are going to persist. But yes, there are 56 countries, including Israel, that do accept gay men in their army, and we should see that as a step forward, and learn from it.
This is a major setback. Will you still keep at it, and in that case, how do you plan to overcome this?
I will appeal again, and will decide the course of action based on that. I am definitely going to keep at it because I believe in the story I am telling, and as I mentioned before, negotiating challenges, and telling your story nonetheless is what matters. A legal battle is difficult but as of now, I want to appeal again to higher authorities.
Takshi Mehta is a freelance journalist and writer. She firmly believes that we are what we stand up for, and thus you'll always find her wielding a pen.
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