Interview with writer/director, Onir, recipient of the Diversity Award at the 2019 Indian Film Festival of Melbourne

Filmmaker Onir is known as one of the greatest champions of diversity and inclusivity in cinema. A two-time National Award winner, which honours the best of Indian cinema, his films have been acclaimed for their ability to break down boundaries and change perceptions. We spoke to Onir after he received the La Trobe University Diversity Award from Film Victoria CEO Caroline Pitcher at the 2019 Indian Film Festival of Melbourne (IFFM).

Congratulations on receiving the Diversity Award at the 2019 IFFM Awards Night. What does this award mean to you?

What makes the award very precious is that it’s coming nearly at the time when in India we will be celebrating one year since the Supreme Court of India decriminalised homosexuality. Also it is significant because recently in Australia same sex marriage has been legalised. In India, there are a whole lot of rights that the gay community is fighting for which have to still be achieved. When one looks at countries like Australia, where it’s taking a step ahead, it’s inspiring for LGBT activists. For me, this recognition is sending that signal that the global community, when it comes to human rights, is not alone.

Your films explore sexuality, disability and diversity, amongst other themes. Why do you think films are good vehicles for encouraging conversations on broader universal themes?

I know in India especially, and I’m sure in a lot of other places, that very often there is a discussion around films just being for entertainment or being for entertainment plus enrichment or empowerment. I’m of a school that believes whatever the narrative there is some other message hidden in a film, be it in a comedy, be it in any action film, and some of it is progressive and some of it is regressive. I attempt to belong to the school which makes progressive cinema. In countries whenever art, cinema or literature challenges the system, it is banned, it’s censored. So somewhere it does make change happen, somewhere it is a voice that cannot be ignored. I believe in the power of cinema. 

I’ve seen that since I made my film, My Brother Nikhil, which was one of the first Indian films where the male protagonist was gay. Many, many young people have used the film to deal with their own sexuality, to come out to their family and friends. It’s helped different NGOs to open conversations and it's been screened at corporations to talk about inclusion. So I don’t think the success of cinema is just the box office; it sometimes leaves a mark in the history of a country’s cinematic journey.

Are there particular challenges as a director when coming to telling stories like these?

I think there are two aspects which are difficult. One is you are making films about LGBT rights in a country where it is criminalised by law, and you face tough conditions when it comes to film censorship. The other problem comes when you’re doing something that is not populist. In India, cinema is not considered to be a form of art – it comes under the ministry of information and broadcast, and not art and culture. So there is no support system for the kind of films that I make, in terms of distribution, exhibition or production. To generate finance for something that is not essentially populist, it’s an uphill task from the word ‘Go’. You are in your mind sometimes self-censoring, saying, “Ok, this much I’ll be allowed, and beyond this I might not be allowed”. Also, you have the challenge of addressing an audience who are not cinema literate to a certain type of narrative and who also believe that cinema is just entertainment.

Your film Raising the Bar, which premiered at IFFM in 2016, follows six Indian and Australian youths with Down Syndrome. As a first time feature documentary director, how did you go about earning the trust of the young people in the film?

For me the most important thing was creating a bond, so I was not treated as an outsider. Three years after we shot the film, I saw one of the boys and was happy to see how happy he was to see me. It was important to not just be an outsider coming and looking at something and making a story out of it. Their stories became a part of my own story, because inclusion is something I’ve been fighting for always. And it has different forms. When you are fighting for LGBT inclusion rights where people do not accept you or celebrate you just because you are “different” and when you are specially abled, it is also that you are “different”. Identifying with that fight for acceptance, for acknowledgement, for the importance of respect, came naturally because for me it was not an alien experience what they were going through.

Your latest documentary, Widows of Vrindavan, about “unwanted” mothers trying to find dignity and hope as they await death, is having its Australian premiere at IFFM this year. Why was it important to you to tell this story?

I think what always inspires me, be it for fiction or documentaries, are the people around me. The first step towards Raising the Bar was because of Mitu [Bhowmick Lange], I got to know her, I got to know the stories and for me, it was immediately, yes, I want to do this film. Similarly, a friend of mine runs an NGO which runs the shelters [in Widows of Vrindavan]. I wanted to just visit, without any plans to film. When I went there, I saw it’s not just something that used to happen and is over – this is a challenge that India is going to face increasingly. 

The fact is there is a rising elderly population, and we do not have such a strong system of old age care, and families are becoming more and more insular. In India, children when they are young they feel entitled that a huge amount of money needs to be spent on their education, on their marriage, on settling them down, to the extent that very often parents are left with nothing. Then at certain point the parents are no longer made to feel as welcome in the family. I have seen that around me and when I went to this place what really struck me is the loneliness of these women, who have been very often assaulted, humiliated by their own sons and daughters. There is this whole cover story that you come to Varanasi and you are trying to connect with God while you are waiting for your death. But you talk to any of them and you realise what ultimately matters to them is being at home. This is just a way of making a make-believe peace with yourself that ‘I’ve come here to be closer to God’, but the fact is it was not voluntary. This story is important because it is a future for a lot of us.

Is there one of your films that particularly changed the way you view the world?

I feel when you are making a film you have certain ideas in mind, but then when you are actually going through it, a lot changes about how you look at the entire thing, about how other people look at the entire space. So the journey itself kind of changes your life. I don’t do commission projects, I do projects that are close to me, so because it’s an emotional connect, then how the film changes or transforms itself also transforms you during the narrative process.

Your 2011 film I Am depicted the struggles and discrimination faced by the LGBTIQ community in various parts of modern secular India, but its sequel, We Are, will be a celebration of LGBTIQ love. What is your ambition for this film?

In I Am, only one of the stories was LGBT, the others dealt with single motherhood, displacement and child sexual abuse. I want to do a sequel, because I want to do it now after the Supreme Court ruling. It’s interesting because this law is not actually about the right to love, because it denies the right to partnership, marriage, everything. Its only talking about the right to lust, let me put it that way, which is the sexual act is decriminalised. I want to do four stories, one gay, one lesbian, one trans and one straight, where you see people who are prevented from expressing their love, because of various reasons – sexuality, class, religion, cast, different things – and how they overcome and celebrate it. So it will be more a celebration of love, which is the next goal of the LGBT community in India.

Film Victoria is Principal Partner of the 2019 Indian Film Festival of Melbourne, which runs until August 17. Tickets are available at iffm.com.au

This interview has been edited and condensed. The views and opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the individual involved and do not necessarily represent those of Film Victoria.