Monday, March 10, 2014

Qatha: Of reel and real stories (part 2)

People, Mar '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 second and final part of an interview with acclaimed filmmaker Onir, 44 years old, now a resident of Mumbai but with an enduring Kolkata connection. In the first part of the interview (published in the February 2014 issue of Varta), he spoke about the process of self-realization as a gay person. In this part he speaks his mind on the social hypocrisies around gender and sexuality and his thoughts on how queer concerns can be better addressed.

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

Pawan: Do you think that this general atmosphere of acceptance or tacit acceptance was a very Kolkata feature, or would have been true of any other big city?

Onir: See, when I went to Bombay, I thought it was much more open. Firstly, there was a gay pub that I could go to regularly when I was in Bombay, which never happened to me in Kolkata, you know what.

All photographs provided by Onir
That is one. Secondly, only thing, I don’t know, which really surprises me and saddens me today is . . . why I specially mentioned this engineering student thing. When I travel with I Am, especially I Am, and I go to a lot of . . . I like going to colleges because they are going to be tomorrow’s CEOs of companies and all . . . I went to IIT Kanpur, and it was 800 students packed theatre watching the movie. Usually I just walk around; I have seen the movie too many times. Towards the end of the movie, I was coming in. I could see a whole group of boys leaving. So I thought okay, festival happening, so they want to attend something else, they don’t want to stay back for the Q&A. And when I went there about 70% of the crowd was there, okay. Anyway, of the 800 students 20% were girls, because it was IIT, 80% were guys. Now, all those who left were guys. And while we were having the Q&A one of the boys asked me that how do I continue making films like this, when most of my audience is like the guys here who don’t understand the film.

So I asked what exactly he meant by ‘understand’, it’s a simple story, what is there to understand or to not understand. To that he said that when the police officer was abusing Rahul [reference to a gay character in I Am], these guys were all cheering. So what was my take on that? I said, yes, honestly speaking, I did feel a little sad, but I was there for a screening and I’d go. But what saddens me is that in this group of 800 students, there are people from the LGBT community and how cruel your friends have to be to be sitting and mocking you out here.

Sometimes I feel homophobia, in a way, has increased. With openness it has also increased. There is much more of teasing, there is much more of mockery, there is much more of . . . because when things are not spoken, I think (laughs) a lot of things used to happen without being, you know, you immediately don’t get bracketed. Earlier it was so normal for all of us holding each other, sitting, and it was not necessarily sexual. But now I think people are much more aware of their physical thing that “Oh, don’t behave like a gay”. I think specially with guys there is so much of fear, you know, fear of being associated with someone who is gay, specially if someone is open.

Pawan: And in the . . . at work, in the film industry, how was it, I mean, did you specifically share about your sexuality with people, or . . .

Onir: See the thing is for me again I am a director and not a gay director. So when someone comes to me for work, in the resume I don’t ask are you gay or straight. Similarly, if I am going to narrate a script to an actor that I am meeting I don’t need to tell that person whether I am straight or gay, neither am I interested in whether he is straight or gay. But having said that, I think when I really came out, like my friends from the industry obviously knew, but when I came out in larger space, I never faced any discrimination as a gay person in the industry.

What I faced problem is the content. Because when it comes to the content, it is all about commerce, you know. It is just like the way women are portrayed as weaker, people from minority community black, similarly gays are also stereotyped. So everything the majority community can make fun of, insult, make them laugh, and pay money to laugh at makes a profit. You know it has nothing to do with specifically targeting the gay community because there are a lot of gay, powerful filmmakers who make films which are mocking the LGBT community, women, so it is all about commerce. Today if the gay community would go all out and watch My Brother Nikhil or I Am, I would not have to look back on how to finance. But unfortunately even the community itself does not go out to support, even silently.

Pawan: So, while you were in Kolkata, any interesting or any crucial experience that, you know, kind of shaped your outlook?

Onir: I think it is more theoretical. I think the exposure that I got as a student of literature, and I had like this amazing professor called Shibaji Da, who used to talk about sexuality . . . And that I think intellectually helped me, finally when I really came out to myself. I owe it to him also, apart from my family and background in Bhutan, I owe it a lot to people like Shibaji Da and Shubha Di, who when they discussed sexuality and issues like that, just made it like the most normal thing. They also talked about how people have been prosecuted, you know, the politics behind it. And I think subconsciously . . . because it is about you . . . maybe you still have not discovered yourself totally, but still, it is at the end of the day about you. So somewhere it touches your chord and it gives you the strength, I think it builds that strength within you, without you realizing it. But I am so, so sure that it was a very important part of my accepting my being gay, my college years in JU. It really made me like totally open, more than anything else.

Pawan: Professor Shibaji as in, the full name?

Onir: Shibaji Bandyopadhyay.

Pawan: Right. So, any thoughts around the political scenario in Bengal or Kolkata in terms of you know, related to gender and sexuality?

Onir: First of all when I was in Kolkata, for me Kolkata was supposed to be the intellectual centre of India. You know you always have this Bengali thing and coming from outside you have more of a pressure that “Oh my god, I am coming to this big city”. But I realized that I was much more open than most people out here at that point. And it really saddened me that you know that it was the Delhi High Court which . . . it was not the Kolkata High Court [reference to the 2009 verdict on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code]. It still saddens me that the pride march in Mumbai is bigger than that in Kolkata. And I wonder what is it? Like yesterday when I heard about the Presidency [University], what happened, I am just so deeply saddened, and it angers me that . . . You know, earlier I had been an outsider, I had only been here for college . . . I had always had images of beautiful Bengali women, culture, sweetest language. But when I was in college here, all I witnessed is people shouting at each other. There was this whole thing that Bengalis give so much respect to women – didi (sister), boudi (elder brother’s wife), ma . . . Ma Durga, and then I realized how for every girl, and I had mostly women friends, what a nightmare it was to get into buses, you know, they having big safety pins to poke people. It is so amazing how pretentious is this culture, which is not willing to address problems, which lives in the glory of Tagore and Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen and Satyajit Ray, but it’s not willing to address things and be a leader. It was a state which was a leader. You know, when I look at my father who was a political activist, the kind of dedication, passion, years he spent in prison and worked, I feel inspired. And then I look around and I don’t see that anymore. I just see that it’s becoming more and more indifferent, lot of hooliganism and violence, and again moving towards a very self-centric life, you know.

Pawan: Right. And in terms of the future, you know, what do you think is the way for the queer community in Kolkata or elsewhere in India?

Onir: I really don’t know, you know. For me, I try and do whatever I can in my space. That’s why I talk a lot, go to public forums, try and slip it in my films. But I realize I really am waiting for the . . . it just angers me why is the Supreme Court taking so long to make it the law of the nation [the interview was taken eight months before the Supreme Court gave its verdict on Section 377 on December 11, 2013]. That will be a really important step towards empowering people. Because you know, if you are defined by the law as a criminal, you don’t have that strength to fight. Even today at the age of 44, I have to have my dad sign the paper for the landlord, because I know that if I go for the meeting, the [building] society might not give it to me as a single gay man, but if my dad goes and pretends that he is staying there, he gets it, you know, and it is a shame!

But that is the society I live in. And today it is a society where I cannot freely be in love, court someone I want to, it does not give me the freedom to love . . . also being a person in the public space automatically you can be targeted. I wish, I wish, powerful people, be they queer or not queer, as much as they talk about animal rights spoke about human rights, especially as a lot of them have gay friends. What is it that stops them I don’t understand. I wish they would really, really . . . just like people went out for the Delhi rape case, I wish people would go out. But they won’t. I know it’s a wishful thinking. Not just India, world over, it’s never been easy for the gay community to get the rights that they have been fighting for.

So you know, when people talk to me about “Oh, same sex marriage, what do you think?”, honestly speaking I don’t give a damn, because right now all I want is equal respect and equal rights as a human being. And I don’t need to validate myself by everything that applies to a heterosexual relationship. I have seen that at times one is always craving to be in the same space, whatever defines relationships there. And very often those are very regressive anyway . . .

But I feel politically one has to, politically one is in schools and colleges . . . that is so, so very important to be able to reach out to schools and corporates, you know. I’ll give you an example, Goldman Sachs, in Bangalore, I think when you have CEOs like that, it makes a difference. And that is what saddens me. When I was in IIT, saying, “Oh my god . . .” The same thing happened when IIT Mumbai opened the LGBT cell, so many people started protesting . . . why the f*** was anyone protesting?

Pawan: Protesting against the cell?

Onir: Yeah.

Pawan: Any other top-of-the-mind thoughts are coming?

Onir: No I feel that, honestly, a lot can happen if just the gay community without coming out, they don’t even need to come out . . . like suppose someone like a XYZ, you know . . . I mean come on, he can make so much of a difference by just funding, funding an organization, funding a film, you know . . . why not . . .

Pawan: Okay.

Onir: So there are a lot of these people, you know, be it in the corporate world, be it in the film world, you know, even journalists. I realize when I tweet about me being stuck in a park  . . . recently I got stuck in a park. I had gone jogging and suddenly they switched off the lights, locked the gates and went away. So when I finished jogging, I had to climb over the wall. Suppose when I tweet about it, there are five re-tweets or 10 re-tweets, but whenever I talk about the LGBT community, I suddenly find the journalist community silent, you know. It is amazing. Constantly I would do things like that . . . “Oh, I wish my mother will find me a suitable boy”, I will do things like that, and I just wait to see the reactions. So there will be normal people reacting “Ha ha ha . . .” whatever, couple of abuses, but the journalists will be quiet, you know.

I think, one, there is just a huge gap of knowledge, education, be it in the films, or any other sphere. The other day I was watching a film called The Celluloid Man, okay, you see, even in the films of ‘40s and ‘50s, so many people kissing left, right and centre. And now all the journalists seem to be talking about is this one has kissed that . . . you are making your entire life around that. I think that knowledge is not there that these things existed before also without making much hoo-ha about. And also I feel that when there are discussions and all, I wish there were people who were willing to . . . you know I went to one of these talk shows, think they edited it out later, where there was this mullah and there was this Father who were going about, “Oh, outside influence, they are a pollution . . . da da da”. Now, when you say outside, what is outside, till which point do we go back to decide what is outside. You know, Christianity and Islam are both something that have come from outside. It’s politically wrong, I am not a communal person. But what I mean is, hello, this country used to celebrate all forms of sexuality. I am not saying that they used to go like “Ya ya, gay gay”, but there was nothing, you know, that was as regressive as these religions have got in. So don’t give us the shit of, you know, “Outside influence, outside influence”.

Pawan: Thank you!


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. The ‘Queer Kolkata Oral History Project’, that is an initiative to document five decades of queer lives in Kolkata (1960-2000) seems to be not only interesting but also enriching....Especially while our society is striving to take a turn with minds taking up things in comparatively more open manner, this project might help to delve into the issues which have been there in the city for decades although not allowed to come up to the surface...The interview of eminent film director Onir with Pawan Dhall proves this concern and definitely is encouraging and inspiring to people who wish to live their lives there own way and demand full respect to their preference of sexuality...Hope to get more of such interviews..but not only of eminent personalities but even the common folk who are ready to talk on the same issue..