Industry discriminates me for what I do

 Industry discriminates me for what I do

Before National Award filmmaker-producer-editor-screenwriter ONIR, born Anirban Dhar, lets you in on the intimate and dramatic moments of his life through his memoirs next year, the talented craftsman in a conversation with SAURABH TANKHA talks about
the challenges of asserting his sexual identity in a conservative environment, films like Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and Laxmii
not helping the queer community, on his association with Sanjay Suri, his life and more…


When and why did you think about writing your memoirs?
During the lockdown, I got a number of calls where people said they wanted to know about me and my journey, as a person and a filmmaker. See, I’ve always been open about my sexual identity and am an independent filmmaker from a middle class family from Bhutan who neither had a film background nor a godfather but still made it. I thought maybe it is important to talk about these points for even if it reaches a handful of people and change or inspire them, it will be great. I know well that everything seems more difficult when you don’t have any reference points. Thus, I felt it may not be a bad idea to talk about my life.


My elder sister, Irene, has been the inspiration behind me becoming a filmmaker and is my strongest support system


Why choose your elder sister, noted scriptwriter Irene Dhar Malik to pen this book?
There are a lot of things about my childhood that I don’t remember and she pushes me to recollect them. She has been the inspiration behind me becoming a filmmaker and my strongest support system. Also, I’m terrible at mixing up names and places so she helps me there too.

There must be so many incidents in your life that a writer-director of your calibre can turn into a movie. Any such plans that came up during the writing of this book?
I’m sure about one thing: I’ll never make a movie on myself; it will be too much narcissism. But I always take inspiration from my own life, especially when it comes to scripts, dialogues and situations. And I keep adapting things that have happened in my life.

With no connections in the Hindi film industry, how did Onir get in and what challenges did he face en route?
It was in class VI that I saw Junoon. Though I didn’t understand it then, its visuals and in fact, everything else overwhelmed to an extent that I wanted to be a part of the movies. But it was difficult as Bhutan didn’t offer anything. When I came to Kolkata after completing class X, my sister took me to various film festivals and films. This further increased my interest. I did my graduation and film studies at the same time, consciously ensuring to reach my goal. There were innumerable challenges but one just can’t sit on the fence and blame it, on someone or the circumstances. One needs to keep trying. As a student in Kolkata, I did market surveys between seven and nine in the morning, then went to college and thereafter took tuitions of kids. The idea was to help me access books as I wanted to learn, be it language or filmmaking. Even when I got a film scholarship to go and study in Berlin, I saved money to make my first documentary. I feel I you want to do something, you find a way.


The film industry discriminates for what I do but not who I’m. They don’t support the content because it doesn’t jingle with money


How challenging was it to assert your sexual identity in a conservative, competitive environment?
In my opinion, your sexual identity is just an aspect of you. Different people face different challenges during different phases. I’ve been fortunate that my focus during early years was not tom-toming about my sexual identity. I lived my life but my focus was to become a filmmaker. I feel people are scared because they are financially dependent and scared of being rejected. If you focus on your career on becoming independent and are not scared of losing a support system, you can emerge victorious. I’ve been fortunate that be it with my friends in the industry or my family, I’ve never had even one discussion about “why”? The film industry discriminates for what I do but not who I’m. I’ve always been part of mainstream events and I’m respected and have been embraced by the industry for who I’m. The reason they don’t support the content is because they feel it doesn’t jingle with money. All they want is money.

How does it feel when movies like Bas Ek Pal, Sorry Bhai, Shab and Kuchh Bheege Alfaz fail to make a mark at the box office?
When I made My Brother…Nikhil, I had told myself that I’ve one vision, one dream in life – to be a filmmaker. What empowers me or drives me is unfortunately not money but what I like. It makes me feel helps me grow as a human being and as an artiste. Today, 15 years after My Brother…Nikhil, be it Rakshabandhan, the pride month or World Aids Day, the film is always talked about. It is on Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar with people accessing it even after so many years in the world’s largest film industry. That explains its relevance.


Today, 15 years after My Brother…Nikhil, be it Rakshabandhan, the pride month or the World AIDS Day, the film is always talked about


Today, if I had to choose between a My Brother…Nikhil or Kabeer Singh, I would choose the former not because I made it. I want to be a part of progressive cinema. Not wanting to sound audacious to compare myself with great filmmakers but most of Guru Dutt’s films were failures during his lifetime. And today, each of them is considered a classic. I feel it is not a shortcoming that I live in a homophobic society and that after two national awards, no platform or TV channel has touched I Am for six years. But I’ll always be known as the first person to have done a special kind of cinema, be it through content or crowdfunding. Rather than following someone’s footsteps, I’ve put my footprints.

You are a writer, producer, director, sound designer, editor and a poet too. Do we get to read some of it in the memoirs?
My poetry is very personal so I want to bring it in while explaining some episodes of my life.


Like I Am, We Are will have four stories – about gays, lesbians, transgenders and bisexuals. Love stories with happy endings



Tell us more about We Are and its I Am connect…
We Are is a tribute to the Supreme Court verdict on Article 377. It is a celebration and a gift to my community. Like I Am, We Are will have four stories – about gays, lesbians, transgenders and bisexuals. These will all be love stories with happy endings, inspired by real life incidents. I’m stressing on love because SC has empowered sex between consenting adults. My film talks about our journey towards equal rights as well as our right to love and cohabit.

You said in an interview that films like Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and Laxmii are not helping the queer community at all. What made you give such a statement?
When I see these movies, I don’t see it talking about my life. My life is not an issue but for them, it is an issue. The biggest problem today is that we need more queer people to make films about ourselves. I grew up in the absence of who I’m. First I need to realise and understand who I’m and then make all these people understand who I’m. When I was born, I accepted everyone around so I should be accepted as I’m. If I don’t have a problem with someone being straight, why do you have an issue with me. In the case of Laxmii, the lesser said the better it is because this portrayal of transgenders is unfair to the community. People should realise that gender and sexuality are two different things. It is important to empower people from the transgender community. As we need more women to be behind the camera to take women-centric stories to the world, we need to have more people from the queer community to do the same.

Any talent you have hidden from the world till now?
I’m learning Hindustani classical and guitar. Instead of feeling depressed, I did things I had been unable to do all these years due to paucity of time.


I go cycling twice a week and aim to pedal up to Goa by the end of the year. I like to push myself to do different things to experience life



What is Onir doing when he is not breathing entertainment?
I make my life entertaining. I like travelling. These days, twice a week, I go cycling and have touched 40 km. I aim to cycle up to Goa by the end of the year. I like to push myself to do different things to experience life.

What’s up next?
Apart from We Are, I’m working on adapting the life of lesbian activist Raga D’Silva and have already got the book rights. I’m also working on a couple of web series ideas and I’m shooting an art project.


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