PARIS: Indian filmmaker Onir knows what it’s like to be Bollywood’s only openly gay director. The man behind the critically-acclaimed “My Brother… Nikhil” has been insulted live on television and regularly receives abusive mails but says it’s still better than being “invisible”. Onir, who uses one name, first started making waves with his 2005 film based on the real life story of swimming champion Dominic D’Souza, the southern Indian state of Goa’s first reported case of HIV. After testing HIV positive in the late 1980s amid a climate of fear and ignorance, D’Souza was arrested by police and kept in forced isolation in a tuberculosis ward.
The case of the man who had been a local hero but found himself shunned and criminalised because of his illness became a cause celebre in India, ending with his death in a Bombay hospital in 1992.
Onir, 51, is the only high-profile Bollywood figure to publicly acknowledge his sexuality. But as a gay man he says he is far from alone in the Mumbai-based Hindi-language film industry.
“There’s a lot of people from the creative community there who don’t speak (about being gay). Everybody knows, no-one speaks,” Onir told AFP in an interview in Paris.
“In Mumbai I am the only openly gay filmmaker and there are no actors. For me, however it has always been important… I am going to talk about it. I refuse to be invisible,” he said.
The making of “My Brother… Nikhil”, his directorial debut, opened Onir’s eyes to the many difficulties of bringing taboo subjects to the screen in socially conservative India.
The story reflected poorly on the Goan authorities and in order to get the film released, the director had to agree to a disclaimer stating that the story was fiction. He has since said that this was just a compromise.
In 2012, Onir’s fourth movie “I Am”, made up of four short films, returned to the subject of same sex relationships alongside other taboos such as sperm donation and child abuse. The feature was named best Hindi film at India’s 2012 National Film Awards, the country’s equivalent of the Oscars.
Critical plaudits, however, failed to translate into commercial success.
“For me it was again a nasty discovery when I made my fourth film. After it won the national award as the best Hindi film I thought now I will get my film sold outside (India) and I’ll recover my money.
“And all that happened is that the satellite channels refused to show the film. Commercially every door was closed.”
It was a bitter pill for the filmmaker who had turned to crowd-funding to make the movie.
“If it’s the state I can fight the state, I can take them to court. I can fight the censors, but what do you do about this unspoken silent censorship from the satellite channels,” he said.
Onir said the experience made it clear to him that there was little space on commercial channels for films that did not deal in what he called “idiotic and regressive” stereotypes such as women as sex objects.
And he said he was less optimistic than others about Bollywood’s ability to reinvent itself.
A raft of up-and-coming Bollywood directors were hailed at the Cannes film festival last year for their willingness to move away from hackneyed formats and tackle the issues affecting an increasingly urbanised India. But Onir said he believed the most interesting work being done in Indian cinema today came in the form of non-Hindi language films from regional directors, not by Bollywood.
“When you look at most of the so called ‘new wave’ of (Hindi-language) filmmakers they are technically good. It’s good story telling, but not necessarily anything that really provokes,” he said.
“They leave the audience in the comfort zone… It’s almost become old fashioned to be provocative, not cool,” he added.