MW Anniversary Special: Directors Onir And Harshavardhan Kulkarni On Queer Representation In Cinema
What happens when two film-makers, both with perspectives that differ but with films that started a discourse, get together to talk about their art, storytelling, and LGBTQIA+ representation in cinema? Directors Onir and Harshavardhan Kulkarni sit down for a chat
Issue-driven cinema set in a small town and told with a lot of humour. This seems to be the new formula for a hit movie.
HK: Badhaai Do is written by Suman Adhikary and Akshat Ghildial and Junglee Pictures, who are the producers of the film, had pitched the screenplay to me. It is a film about lavender marriage, but to me, it still felt like a formulaic story with the usual tropes. But when I explored it, one of the insights I got was how when a person comes out of the closet about their sexual identity, the closet doesn’t essentially disappear but starts to accommodate more people. I didn’t get into it because it talks about a social issue; it really didn’t matter to me as much. I wanted to tell this story. It being set in a small town was incidental.
Onir: Yes, it goes more into the zone of drama. There are so many emotions that it is no longer a comedy. Badhaai Do is precious because although it has humour, it never laughs at the protagonists or their lives. Just like he said, for me, My Brother…Nikhil was not about an issue but a story that spoke to me.
HK: Yes, it was the first time I saw a Hindi movie where queer characters were not introduced for comedic purpose. Fire had come before that, but although he calls it indie, this was very mainstream, and had reached out to a much wider audience. And look how well it has aged. Even more than a decade later we are talking about it, and it is relevant even now. That’s the power of cinema. To make such a film when it was still criminalised is amazing.
How different is it to make movies on LGBTQIA+ stories as a queer person vis-à-vis a cis man?
HK: Onir has seen that life. But I am the privileged one. As writers or creators, we can’t be everything; we can’t have lived the reality of all the characters we create. I have lived with these characters for four years. There was the risk of a heteronormative gaze, but we took help. We had people from the community to help us. There were a lot of places where we corrected ourselves because of the inputs that came from the conversations. It was not about the pressure of a backlash, but the fact that we wanted to get this right. Also, unlike most movies, the characters in our film are not seeking validation from the heterosexuals.
Onir: I agree. You don’t have to be gay to make a film about gay love or be a gay person to play a gay character. It is how you break your walls. This film does that so well. When the Pride scene happened, I had tears in my eyes. And the actor I loved the most in Badhaai Do was Gulshan. He embodied the spirit of queerness with so much dignity and without being funny. The only thing I missed in the other two couples is that I found no chemistry. I found love, which is equally precious, but not the ‘desire’ in the touch. In my case, I have always been making independent films which are either funded by me, or crowdsourced. My next film has a trans character, and the platform that was producing it has pulled out of the project owing to a controversy. I was told if I had not reacted to it they would have still made it on the sly with some tweaks. But for me, it is personal. It is my life, my identity, and I will fight for it.
How difficult is it to do the casting for such stories? Also, what is your take on men or women being cast as trans characters?
HK: Unlike conventional Bollywood stars, now we have actors like Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana who are taking up these characters. They don’t have the trappings of a star and are more open to different kinds of roles.
Onir: Rajkummar and Ayushmann have not come from a space that is typical of Bollywood. They are redefining stardom. For my next movie, I had auditioned around 35 trans actors, and some were really good. Also, because many are still not open about their sexuality, you can’t ask a person about their sexuality to cast them or force them to come out. What we need is for actors to be open to doing intimate scenes if the film needs. There is so much discomfort among straight actors when it comes to physicality. But gender is different. Casting a man or a woman as a trans person is similar to dressing up a woman as a man. There should be an effort at least to get a transgender person to play one on screen and try and empower the community. You might not always get the right actor, but at least reach out. I think these small steps are really important.
Onir, tell us, has it become easier today to tell such stories?
Onir: After the 377 verdict, the society has opened up a lot more, and there is also this mandate at most OTT platforms, corporates, and production houses to do some LGBTQIA+ content. But we are far away from where we should be. We are the largest producers of movies in the world, and even if 10 per cent of our population is LGBTQIA+, we don’t even have 10 per cent of films that represent community. We are very far away in terms of our cinema, and this has largely to do with society. I just saw a post mentioning how a bunch of guys were making fun of certain scenes while watching Badhaai Do. When My Brother…Nikhil had released, I had got an email mentioning how a section of the audience, predominantly male, had gotten uncomfortable and walked out during the interval. So, as a society, we are still taking baby steps. You have to still mollycoddle it. This restricts the narratives.
HK: I think the audience is now watching a lot of diverse films so the palate is evolving to some extent. Also, a change that I am seeing is that in my daughter’s generation, the kids are more open about their sexual identities. This was not the case when we were growing up. Films like My Brother…Nikhil, Birdcage, and Philadelphia made people like me more sensitive and sensible towards the community, and put forth some ground realities. I think the challenges were more about how to make such a film, and to find producers, especially since homosexuality was not only socially a taboo but actually illegal at that point.
Onir: But while My Brother…Nikhil got a U certificate without any cuts, I had to fight for six months to get my next film (I Am) released. Shab was an equally difficult fight. All had characters from the LGBTQIA+ community, and these were made before decriminalisation. But now, with my next, We Are, the Defence Ministry is stopping me even before I have made the film. So, if there is one door opening, there are 10 more doors that are shutting today.
Do you think that with OTTs, film-makers can now finally make the films they want to?
Onir: You might think that with OTT platforms, it has become more democratic and easier to make such films, that there is more freedom for film-makers. But when YRF came on board to distribute My Brother… Nikhil, Aditya Chopra didn’t meddle with the film at all. Now with OTT platforms, you have a team who are not film-makers or even have a background in movies, giving out directives and lists of dos and don’ts. There is a legal team asking for changes on the script before it gets a go- ahead. Things have indeed changed, but I am not sure if it is for the better. Moreover, while we are hailing the ‘content-driven’ cinema of today, let’s not forget our history. We had a Shyam Benegal making an Ankur in 1974 or a Deepa Mehta making a Fire in 1996 — the way Shabana and Nandita went all out in that movie, we still don’t have that kind of guts.
HK: Exactly. Now, a legal team is replacing the censor board, which is more troublesome. In fact, today we are regressing. We had some A-rated classic cinema that was shown on Doordarshan while I was in school. A Tamas and a Malgudi Days could then coexist. But now the OTT platforms are scared to touch stories that might hurt the sentiment of the masses, and the masses are hurt by almost everything under the sun these days. I think we always had fringe but now we are giving the fringe too much voice.
THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL: 12 ESSENTIAL MOVIES TO WATCH
Beyond the Bollywood stereotypes and caricatures, here are 12 Hindi LGBTQIA+ movies that were made before the decriminalisation of Section 377 in 2018:
1. Bomgay (1996), directed by Riyad Vinci Wadia and Jangu Sethna
2. Fire (1996), directed by Deepa Mehta
3. Daayra (1996), directed by Amol Palekar
4. Darmiyaan (1997), directed by Kalpana Lajmi
5. Mango Soufflé (2002), directed by Mahesh Dattani
6. Gulabi Aaina (2003), directed by Sridhar Rangayan
7. Bombay Boys (1998), directed by Kaizad Gustad
8. Do Paise Ki Dhoop, Chaar Aane Ki Baarish (2009), directed by Deepti Naval
9. I Am (2011), directed by Onir
10. Margarita with a Straw (2014), directed by Shonali Bose
11. Aligarh (2015), directed by Hansal Mehta
12. Kapoor & Sons (2016), directed by Shakun Batra