OTTs Say My Films Are 'Too Much LGBT': Onir Talks About Next Film 'Pine Cone'

Earlier this year, the Defence Ministry denied him permission to make a film based on the life of a gay soldier.

5 min read

In January 2022, the Ministry of Defence refused an NOC (no objection certificate) to film-maker Onir when he formally submitted his script inspired by the real-life story of a gay soldier who was allegedly forced to quit his job over his sexual orientation.

The reason? The romantic relationship between an army soldier serving in Kashmir and a local boy showed the Indian Army "in poor light" and "raised security issues."

The movie, called We Are, never got made. But the experience changed something in Onir, especially how he wanted to tell queer stories. The writer-director no longer wants his scripts to revolve around 'acceptance' of queer characters. Instead, he wants his narratives to celebrate them with pride. And that's what his upcoming film – Pine Cone – will do.

"I am not looking for anybody's acceptance and empathy. Neither should the queer community. We are what we are," Onir tells The Quint, from the shoot location of Pine Cone.

"I think it started out of frustration because of the NOC being denied to We Are by the Narendra Modi government. I was just so angry that I wanted to make another film that talks about people like me – and celebrates queer love," he adds.

'Queer Community Being Appropriated'

Onir made his Bollywood debut with 'My Brother...Nikhil in 2005' – one of the first Hindi-language films to openly portray same-sex relationships. The film revolved around Nikhil (Sanjay Suri) who was forced into isolation after testing HIV positive. When the film was released, AIDS and HIV were discussed in secret – so was the LGBTQIA+ community – due to social stigma.

A lot has changed for the queer community and their representation in Bollywood since then. While films and OTT shows have started portraying queer characters, they are also being appropriated, says the national award-winning director.

"In 'Pine Cone', I want to portray the community for what it is. You see a character in his teenage years, then his mid-twenties, then mid-thirties. I want to see these characters go through life without trying to, without begging for acceptance. It is about how someone is navigating through their life, how they are coping amid an ever-evolving society. It's a story about relationships, love, and life."

'Uncomfortable With Showing Desire'

The other aspect that India's queer-themed films or LGBTQIA characters lack, Onir says, is the exploration of their desires. The writer-director claims that production houses and OTT platforms are more comfortable to show the physical relationship between lesbian characters, but hesitate to explore the same with two men.

"Isn't this toxic masculinity? It is almost like queer characters are devoid of desire and go and with everyday life without wanting to experience physical intimacy. Are we not portraying because someone, somewhere will be uncomfortable? Then, please do not expect everyone to champion that you are playing a queer movie."

This has a lot to do with the actors who are portraying the characters, Onir adds.

He further says, "The bar is so low, because the community starts celebrating simply because we are being represented. There is so much more to queer lives than whether society accepts them. You can ask any queer person."


Finding the 'Perfect Lead'

"We often hear women say, 'Let's get more of us to work behind the camera to tell our stories'. The same kind of revolution is needed for the queer community," Onir says.

When the film-maker auditioned Vidur Sethi (they/them), who identifies as a queer, he found the 'perfect person' for the lead. Not only do they bring lived experiences, they are also not shy of exploring sensuality on screen. Sethi, a native of Delhi, comes from a literature and theatre background.

Earlier this year, the Defence Ministry denied him permission to make a film based on the life of a gay soldier.

Vidur Sethi, the lead in 'Pine Cone'.

(Photo: Vidur Sethi)

"I did the process of auditioning for almost two-three months. When I was shortlisted for the character, we were having a conversation about intimacy. I told him I am completely fine with it."
Vidur Sethi

"At the same time, queerness is not just about sexuality. It is about gender, about a way of living, about how minority communities are perceived. My queerness is about my art. Queer people have been challenging the norms of society – in that I feel so much potential," they tell The Quint.

Onir is also introducing trans woman Sheetal Shyam, Daman Runway, who identifies as queer, and four new actors – Sahib Verma, Aniket Ghosh, Amit Gurjar, and Hanan – who will be essaying crucial roles.

For 22-year-old Hanan from Kashmir, the opportunity to act in Onir's film is a "dream come true."

"Ever since my college days, I have been dreaming of acting in Bollywood. I am apprehensive about how everyone back home will perceive me playing a queer character but it is an opportunity that I cannot let pass. I can also say with confidence that no one has seen anything like 'Pine Cone' in Bollywood."

The team selected the actors after months of auditions, like Amit Gurjar from Gwalior, who was spotted after a viral Instagram reel. When the team approached him, he never thought he would get selected for the role.

"I come from Gwalior, and Bollywood for me is very far to even aspire for. When I was approached for an audition, I thought I will not be able to make the cut. When I made the cut, I thought my family will have a problem. But surprisingly, I faced no such issues."

Aniket Ghosh, a theatre person from Kolkata, plays the role of 'Derek', a young queer person who is exploring his own sexuality.

"I did three-four rounds of audition. When I was shortlisted, Onir asked me how I felt about doing intimate scenes. I told him I have no issue at all. Because love is love in my mind," Aniket says.

Sahib Verma, another debut actor, concurs. "For me, the experience has been magical. I have changed the way I look at people in general. The movie process has made me more liberated as a person. I strongly believe that people loving anyone is as natural as breathing air," he says.


'Platforms Tell Me My Films Are 'Too Much LGBT''

But Onir says despite introducing new talent and being one of the leading queer film-makers in the country, production houses and OTT platforms rarely approach him to direct films on the theme.

"I am called for Pride webinars. I make it a point to address as many as I can, because the more we speak, the better it is for the community. The platforms promise that they will reach out, but I keep sending scripts after the webinar, but don't get any response. I have been told by platforms that my scripts are 'too much LGBT.' I don't know what that means."

"That's why they don't approach me when they are doing an LGBTQIA+ narrative. Because subconsciously, they do not want a realistic portrayal of the community – something that does not fit into their tiny little boxes of what they see through the heteronormative lens. But 'Pine Cone' will change everyone's perception," he adds.

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