Interview | 'How Can You Deny Reality?': Onir on Govt's Quashing of Script Based on Gay Soldier

'Some people who had retired from the Army – I shared the script with them – thought it was a beautiful story, and that these are outdated laws, and that the Indian Army needs to move ahead,' the filmmaker tells The Wire.

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On July 27, 2020, the Ministry of Defence wrote a letter to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), noting that some production houses were “distorting the image of the Indian Army”.

It proposed that such films get an ‘NOC’ – a no-objection certificate – from the Army. One-and-a-half years later, it has denied that NOC to a script by Onir, titled We Are, inspired by the true story of gay Major J. Suresh who quit the Army because of his sexual orientation.

The Wire spoke to the filmmaker about the script’s rejection, the pervasive culture of film censorship in the country, and his next course of action. Edited excerpts from the chat are as follows.

When did the idea of We Are come to you, and when did you start writing the script?

I had seen Suresh’s NDTV interview in late 2020, where he spoke about quitting the Army because his identity as a gay man was conflicting with his job profile. I started writing the script by early 2021. At that point, I had been toying with the idea of making a sequel to I Am (2011), which would celebrate the Supreme Court’s verdict of [Section] 377. I wanted to celebrate queer love stories: gay, lesbian, trans, and bisexual.

Were you aware of the Defence Ministry’s letter to the CBFC then?

I was not. But I don’t think I’d have stopped writing. Because today, it’s not difficult for me to find another gay love story, but I chose to tell this story because it was important – that why as a queer person, you’re deprived to serve your country in the Army? The criteria should be your intellect, your skills, your strength – not sexuality. Moreover, my film is inspired from a real story; it is not fictitious in any way. So, how can you deny reality? 

A still from Onir’s film ‘My Brother…Nikhil.’

Were you worried at any point, while writing the screenplay, that you’d run into censorship or as is the case here pre-censorship troubles?

I knew there’d be some opposition because when I was doing my previous films – My Brother… Nikhil (2005), I Am, or Shab (2017)  homosexuality was still criminalised by law. But I could make them. I won a National Award for I Am, where I showed a police officer sexually abuse a civilian. By the time I was writing this story, I had of course read [late] General [Bipin] Rawat’s comment that the Army won’t accept the Supreme Court verdict – that made me want to do this even more.   

I thought that I had treated this story with a lot of dignity. Some people who had retired from the Army – I shared the script with them – thought it was a beautiful story, and that these are outdated laws, and that the Indian Army needs to move ahead. Most of them thought that the Army would accept it. Because the script has not shown it in a bad light. It’s shown the person with empathy and just depicts the tragedy of the situation, and the need to recognise a person’s identity – that people perform their best when they’re proud of their own identity.

Did the Army give you any specific reasons for rejecting the script?

The formal letter just says, ‘We’ve analysed the content in detail, and we refuse to give an NOC’. But I was told on a call, ‘We can’t tell you to change this or that, because as a script there’s not a problem.’ The problem is that being gay is illegal.

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The major contention, then, was the fact that a gay person can still not serve in the Indian Army something that informed your script?

That is the only reason: that I’ve shown an Army man as gay. Period.  

The Defence Ministry’s July 2020 letter relies on vague generalities (such as “distorts the image of Defence Forces” or “hurts their sentiments”) quite similar to the CBFC’s already opaque guidelines providing enough grounds to censor or reject a film. How do you see this system, now stacking one stringent requirement on top of the other, as a filmmaker?

Exactly. So, all these recent developments – new laws for the OTT, this or that you cannot show, forces you cannot show. And then you see a film like Don’t Look Up (2021). I mean, why are we so insecure? Why are the institutions so insecure? Why is the government so insecure? Why should anyone be beyond questioning? Because all of us are human beings; all of us falter. You should be able to look at yourself from another perspective and argue. Have a discussion, have a dialogue, but to shut out the other person – a different perspective – is extremely dangerous for a democratic nation. Because change can only happen through dialogue. Not by maintaining a status quo of power and patriarchy.

A still from ‘Don’t Look Up’.

Even beyond cinema, the Indian Army refusing the NOC is troubling for two reasons: a) It contradicts the essence of the Supreme Court’s ruling that decriminalises homosexuality, and b) it upholds the Army’s puritanical ideas, which still forbids homosexuals to serve in the Army something that, as you had mentioned on Twitter, is allowed in 56 countries around the world. What do you make of that?

I don’t know why there’s such a huge resistance to change – and accept. We don’t live on an island. We can see what’s happening around the world. Are all those armies [Canadian, American, Israeli, among others, which allow homosexuals to serve] crumbling down because of the LGBT people? Can’t we just see beyond our narrow notions of what it means to be a ‘man’? There’s also resistance to accept women in the Army. In fact, one of the most discussed issues right now is marital rape. I’m just amazed that people are even opposing it. When you see all these things happen around you, then you understand why this is. We’re living in a society where a lot of men have grown up with the notion of entitlement to decide for whom they consider the ‘other’ – which includes women, LBGTQI, and very often deals with caste and a lot of other things.

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The Indian film censorship story has become murkier over the last one-and-a-half years. Besides the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal abolition, the OTT platforms coming under the ambit of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB), and the amendment of the Cinematograph Act, now different government bodies are emerging as ‘super censors’. The UIDAI demanded 28 cuts to a recent movie, Aadhaar (which is yet to find a release); the Jammu and Kashmir government wants to read screenplays before granting shooting approvals in the state; and now, of course, the Indian Army’s insistence on an NOC. Film censorship has truly moved beyond the CBFC or MIB even.

I was recently reading about all these YouTube channels being shut down if they’re ‘anti-national’. Now anti-national is more often misused than used. Whether it’s media, cinema, or artists, those who question are being attacked, because these are powerful mediums. And it poses a real risk to democracy. Because there’s an attempt to control the narrative. Everywhere. Today, when the OTT platforms or studios approach you, you are constantly told that, ‘Accha, we don’t want to get into anything that will be a political problem’ – or this problem or that problem. I’ve heard so many rejections because of the same reason. I think we’ve now become one of the most insecure societies in the world. Anything related to religion you can’t question, anything related to politics you can’t question, anything related to the nation you can’t question.

Why not?

On the other hand, you’ve all these hate speeches – it’s almost like a free run, go have fun. But anything that makes a better world – which is talking about inclusion, diversity, human rights – that discourse is getting stopped. And I’m not just talking about my film but various other films, which question politics, power, police, judiciary, the Army. It is extremely unhealthy for the so-called largest democracy on Earth.

The Hindi film industry likes to say, “Oh, we’re all about entertainment, that we’re apolitical.” What is apolitical?

I don’t even understand. Passiveness is also political. Having said that, even the passive Bollywood is tired. I feel there’s a sense of fatigue in everybody. Because there is no end to what you cannot speak about. But the anger is still not coming out — that resistance has to be much more. You see it in other film industries: Tamil cinema – a film like Jai Bhim (2021) — or Malayalam cinema or Marathi cinema or Bengali cinema. Even Punjabi cinema – during the farmers’ protests. Why should we be so scared of speaking what is right? We should be inspired by our colleagues from other film industries.

Actor Suriya in a still from ‘Jai Bhim’.

What is your next course of action?

I want to appeal to the higher authorities. Because I first believe in dialogue, giving someone the benefit of doubt. I’ve interacted a lot with the Indian Army, and the experience has always been very good. In fact, I was quite confident that my film would come through. Even people who I know in the Army were shocked. They were like, “Oh shit, Onir, we’re sorry.” So, I want to write to the Defence Ministry and the Army because, honestly, my job is to make films. I’m not here to file a case, go to court — I don’t have the resources; I’m an independent filmmaker.

I’ll also appeal further, because I want to believe that there is still hope — and that they’ll see the reason. After that, have a dialogue with me, have a dialogue within. Why is it such an issue — something that is so primary to basic human rights. Why should our Army not be seen as one of the most progressive armies in the world? But I’m also speaking to my lawyer for advice — it’s not as if I’ve ruled out [legal action]. If there are some lawyers or NGO’s or human rights activists who tell me that, ‘We’ll do this for you’, then [I’ll be more than happy]. If I had the resources, I’d have done it myself — it’s as simple as that. But I’ll not back out if someone wants to fight it out for me.