Saturday, February 08, 2014

Qatha: Of reel and real stories (part 1)

People, Feb '14
By Pawan Dhall and Sukanya Roy Ghose

Varta brings you the ‘Queer Kolkata Oral History Project’, an initiative to document five decades of queer lives in Kolkata (1960-2000). Our aim in this project is to go back in time and bring forward diverse queer voices through a series of interviews, which will provide a landmark to Kolkata city's queer history. Typically, the focus will be on the queer scenario in Kolkata during the growing up years of each interviewee – how it was to be queer in Kolkata in different decades since the 1960s till more recent times. The effort will be to bring forward a mix of the well known and the lesser known voices. Apart from the excerpts published here, the project also aims to publish a collection of the interviews in different formats. All interviews are based on informed consent and where requested, all markers of identity have been removed for reasons of confidentiality.

In this issue we bring you the first part of an interview with Onir, an acclaimed filmmaker, 44 years old, now a resident of Mumbai but with an enduring Kolkata connection. Onir narrates a story of self-realization as a gay person and more that spans Bhutan, Kolkata and Mumbai.

The interview was conducted by Pawan Dhall on April 12, 2013, and transcribed by freelancer Sukanya Roy Ghose.

Pawan: So, can you begin with the story of your growing-up years as a queer person?

Onir: Growing up, like, I spent my entire school life in Bhutan. So till I came to Calcutta which was in 1984, I didn’t know the word gay, I didn’t know that the word gay existed. At that point the only thing I was interested in was women. I remember as a kid, as a boy, we all used to wait for Sunday Illustrated Weekly, where in the centre page there was this one photograph of women, hot women. We all used to run to the library on Monday to see that, and someone would try and cut that photograph and keep it. I was one of those persons. And I think it was only when one was in class 8 or 9, growing up with all the boys, you kind of get a little bit physical with each other. But even at that point I think, I was still attracted towards women and wanted to fall in love with girls. I was extremely romantic. But at the same time you experience certain physical encounters, you know, physicality with other boys in the class, literally everybody.

And that was it till I came to Calcutta. And I think when I was in college, when it was rather late in the day, in JU [Jadavpur University], that’s when I realized that I was still attracted towards women but I also realized that I was also attracted towards men.

Pawan: Okay . . .

Onir: And honestly speaking there was a lot of talk, it wasn’t like one never spoke about it. Once I was in college in Kolkata, because in comparative literature, be it our professors, or be it the kind of literature, one immediately got exposed to what is gay, what is homosexuality, and one spoke about it, you know. Later on, much later in life, I realized that some of our very close friends . . . who are openly gay now, but at that point, we didn’t realize that.

Photo credit: Francois Matthys
I again had a few encounters when I was in Calcutta, in terms of growing up, discovering one’s sexuality, but really, I would call it all really insignificant, nothing at all significant which made me say that yes I am gay. Till that point, I was attracted towards both men and women and was still constantly falling in love with women. Men I never fell in love with at that point. It was only when I went to Bombay, maybe I was suddenly in a milieu where I was new and I didn’t care, you know, and just before that I gone to Germany, where suddenly, you know you just saw how open everything was, and at that point I started thinking more and I realized that, one is that I was very sure that I don’t want to lead a double life where I have a girlfriend and a hidden boyfriend and just that I don’t want . . . you know, I am not a monogamous person, I don’t have all those things. But I believe in honesty. And I don’t think any girl will accept that “Listen I also have a boyfriend”, that kind of thing. So I just decided that okay, I am more attracted towards men. And that was the time when the entire Internet thing started happening. So I would just go for blind dates and really meet up a lot of men, you know, and started experiencing my sexuality.

But I didn’t for one second go through any agony . . . that is one thing that I have never been through. I have never been through a feeling of shame, I have never been through a feeling of conflict that what has happened to me, that I need to go to a shrink. Never have those things happened to me.

Pawan: Right . . .

Onir: I accepted myself. Actually the minute I made the decision, I accepted myself. I didn’t try and balance my life, okay, and to every close friend of mine, I made it a point to tell. Because for me it was like “Okay, if they don’t accept me, they are not worth it”. And most women friends immediately accepted, some males also in front of me they all accepted, some of them made fun of me behind my back, which I got to know. So I deleted them from my life, you know.

I told my sister, immediately. Again, my sister was extremely . . . you know, none of them tried to say, “Have you thought about it, no family, da da da . . .” All those things didn’t come up. And that’s why I think My Brother Nikhil when it happened it was because of the kind of support I got from my sister in terms of family. I came out to my parents much later, but even when I came out to my parents, they just told me . . . it really surprises me, because I am coming form an extremely small town of Bhutan, very little exposure. But be it my father, mother, my brother, my sister, all of them just . . . there was never a dialogue or trying to convince me that I should have . . . maybe think about something else.

Pawan: So when you said you came to Kolkata in 1984, how old were you then?

Onir: Hmm . . . I was born in 1969, so . . .

Pawan: Okay, about . . . 15, or 16 . . .

Onir: Yeah.

Pawan: And then when you actually told your parents, when was that? How old were you then?

Onir: Actually, I never told my parents for a long time, actually didn’t have an occasion. One, I was staying in Bombay, I was leading my life. At that point I thought like, okay if I tell them, they will be hurt. I underestimated them. At the same time I think, my parents knew. So there was anyway no pressure that you get married da da da . . . I think when I was around 26-27, that’s when I told them.

Pawan: Hmm . . . okay . . .

Onir: And it didn’t matter.

Pawan: So they knew when you had made the movie My Brother Nikhil . . . or around that time?

Onir: Yeah, they knew when I made My Brother Nikhil and actually, you will know, my dad came for the screening as well.

Pawan: Yes.

Onir: My mother was in Calcutta and I was in Bombay, and her first comment was that, “Couldn’t you find someone better looking opposite Sanjay?”

Pawan: (Laughs)

Onir: You know, which means she accepted that you know . . . that it is a relationship. My dad I remember, the way he tried to make conversation with me. You know, he reads a lot. So, one day, I was sitting and working on my desk and he was sitting on the sofa reading. There are a lot of books which come to me which are queer literature, and there was this book by an Indian author, I forgot his name . . . called You Are Not Alone or something like that. I didn’t realize that my dad was reading that and suddenly he looks at me and says, “This is a nice book.” So I ask him “Which one are you reading?” And he says, “You Are Not Alone”. Then he looks at me and smiles and I knew what he was trying to tell me.

These days, sometimes my mother tells me that “Listen you talk too much. Why do you have to all the time say gay this, that, you know, it’s not safe, and that people . . .” Because sometimes I get a lot of hate comments. Recently there was this article in The Times of India, where I spoke about . . . that I am a director, and I am not ashamed of being gay, but I don’t want to be tagged as a ‘gay director’.

Pawan: Hmm . . .

Photo credit: Francois Matthys
Onir: And you know there were tonnes of comments, including ones which said that these kind of people should be shot dead. They are, you know, a shame for our culture and all that. When parents read these kinds of comments, it makes them worried . . . even me . . . when I read it for the first time I also thought, what really makes people so much full of hatred, what has it got to do with anything to do with them or their life? It’s my life, the way I lead it. So, when my mother told me that I talk too much and I should be careful, my brother and my father were sitting on the same table, reading the article, they said that no, it’s very good that you talk and you should talk more. So I feel that what has made it easy for me is the support I had from my friends and family.

Pawan: But what do you think might be the reason for your parents particularly to be so supportive, because it’s rather rare.

Onir (laughs): I don’t know actually. See, my father, in fact, both my parents are teachers. And since we grew up in Bhutan, I think that made us all a little more open. This idea of big cities being more open, I don’t think is true. I find, even now when I go to smaller towns, people are shy, but they are more open and accepting. I find that people who come from middle class or lower middle class, whether they accept the term gay or not, they are much more open.

Pawan: Yes . . .

Onir: They might not be really excited to get termed as ‘gay’ after Dostana (laughs), but they are much more accepting. When I interact with people right now, I find people from smaller cities less prejudiced.

Pawan: So this is something you are talking about now. What do you think might have been the scenario, say, when you were in school or college in Kolkata?

Onir: College, in our college circle, since I was in arts faculty, well, I didn’t know anybody openly gay.

Pawan: Okay.

Onir: But everyone spoke about homosexuals with respect. I have never seen anyone teasing anybody, making mockery of gay people, or you know the whole Dostana kind of thing, those things didn’t exist. At least I didn’t come across that.

The only thing, maybe in a very vague way, maybe I am exaggerating, I remember before I got into JU, I was for one month in Asutosh College. And I had worn one day torn jeans and a really light pink t-shirt. The English Department Head at that point said, “Baba-ma kono shikkha daye ni, erokom ronger jama-kapor pore eschho!” (Look at the clothes you are wearing, didn’t your parents give you any education!). So could be that . . . I don’t know. But otherwise, I think JU was, I mean the professors and the students were extremely, extremely open. Most of my friends were women because I was in arts and I think women are generally much more accepting. I am sure if I had been in the engineering faculty the story would have been something else.

To be continued.

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!




Sukanya Roy Ghose is a Jadavpur University pass-out, bonafide homemaker, mother of twin sons, interested in playing with paper and pen, designing and experimental cooking.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to know that Onir came to Calcutta from Bhutan the same year that we came from Shillong. Actually, one of my classmates left Asutosh College ( we were B.A. 1st yr. students at that time with Honours in English ) to join J.U. with Comparative Literature as a subject in 1986. I wonder if it was him.

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