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Onir is an Indian film director, screenwriter, and film editor who gained critical acclaim and recognition for his film My Brother… Nikhil released in 2005. He has been known for his independent and unconventional approach to filmmaking, addressing important subjects and narratives that are often overlooked in mainstream cinema. His latest film, Pine Cone opened at Kashish, South Asia’s largest queer film festival. 

The team at Social Nation had the honour to speak to Onir, along with Pine Cone actors- Vidur and Sahib. Presenting snippets from the long and enriching conversation we had with the trio. 

SN: Onir, how has your journey as a filmmaker been?

Onir: ‘It has been enriching and empowering because ever since I was in class 8, the only dream I had was to become a filmmaker… To be living that dream and to be making the kind of films that I want to, itself, is very gratifying and I feel that I could not have asked for more.’

SN: How have your personal experiences impacted your filmmaking journey?

‘My first film, My Brother…Nikhil is inspired by Dominic D’Souza’s life but I was constantly thinking that when I had to tell my story, who would it be? And I thought it would be my sister and that’s how the title came…’

Onir talks about Queer Community and Pine Cone

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‘It’s kind of ironic… I released my biography last year, “I am Onir and I am Gay” and it was co-written by my sister… I do films that touch me deeply and might be personal directly or indirectly.’

SN: It is said that the Pine Cone is also autobiographical. How much of it is inspired by your life?

Onir: ‘Firstly, it’s semi-autobiographical. In 2021, I started a film called We Are, the story was based on an Army Major who was gay and out and proud. However, the defence ministry banned that film. I was so infuriated and that’s when I thought why not take episodes from my biography and make a film? Pine Cone is the journey of a gay filmmaker and how he navigates his life over 30 years. It starts in 1999 and the last chapter is in 2019.  I wanted to show that society is changing, rules are changing and how this impacts life (of the queer community) indirectly…’

Also Read: This Twitter Thread Makes You Want To Rethink Life Facts

SN: Tell us the significance of the LGBTQIA+ representation in mainstream Hindi cinema. Why is it important to be inclusive?

Onir: ‘For me, it’s a personal thing. When I made My Brother…Nikhil, that was the first mainstream Hindi film where the lead character was Gay. For me, it was always important to tell our tales because nobody else was telling them. After Section 377 was overruled by the Supreme Court many people started making films (on LGBTQIA+). The kind of films they are making now on acceptance, I made that film 15 years ago. Now the kind of films that I am making are about our lives. Our lives just do not depend on acceptance by the heteronormative world. It’s important for me to tell stories which are from our lived experiences.’

SN: Is there a level of misrepresentation of the queer community in mainstream Bollywood?

Vidur: ‘Misrepresentation has been there for a very long time. That has been a part of our cinema. That is also something Onir brings to the forefront which is bringing in the queer gaze, bringing in the narratives that are not so glamorised and he also speaks about what is happening in real life…  So all of those things have started now. It will take time but I am pretty positive about it that we are going in the right direction.’

Onir: ‘I especially think the representation of trans characters is very problematic. Very often they are shown as scary, and dangerous and it makes their life so much more difficult.’

 SN: Sahib, you’re portraying a gay man in “Pine Cone.” Did you have any preconceived reservations before the shoot? Did those change? 

Sahib Verma: ‘Yeah, I think somewhere the community is shown in a certain way. If you’re from the community you’ll speak a certain way and act a certain way. I also did not know about the community much until this film. When I stepped into the character…, I realised all of it is very normal and it is as simple as living life… We should make the space comfortable for everyone. The world needs to be more inclusive, where everyone can feel like it’s no big deal.’

SN: Tell us about your challenges while working in Pine Cone, especially with respect to portraying characters from the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Vidur: ‘- … Coming from the community, whether you’re doing any kind of job, you can see marginalisation happening since childhood. The fact is that the community just got decriminalised and we are just moving ahead into a sphere where we can now talk about ourselves, and express ourselves freely. We have various organisations that are slowly and gradually gearing up.’

The main struggles have always been internal. To see that we do not buy into the perception of those who are trying to control us. For me at least the journey has been a little easier in terms of … all of the privileges that are there. But the moment those privileges are kept aside, then the challenges keep on increasing. For people who are coming from privilege, we should keep excavating more and more so that there is a path created for everyone to come along…’

SN: Can you tell us a little about your book, “I am Onir and I am Gay” and the book writing experience?

Onir: ‘When I contacted my agent, Kanishka, I wanted the book rights of some other book and she kept pushing me to write my biography… When you speak up, it empowers people. That’s when I thought, let’s do it.’

For me, the challenge was to decide how open I would be about myself and I thought that I would be as honest as possible… I showed the first draft to my sister for editing and I told her just don’t judge me and don’t get shocked. Now when I look back at what it was like, …it has been a beautiful journey…’

SN: Sahib, how did you prepare for your character?

Sahib: ‘For me, it was not very easy but I was very excited to play this role. I asked Onir if I could audition for the part and he agreed.. and I got selected. The day we landed in Kerala for our first schedule, I was very nervous. My acting mentor called me out of nowhere. He just told…, You are this person. You don’t have to pretend anything. I just surrendered completely. I believed it’s my life, my truth and it’s me. Genuinely… things were happening automatically. In fact, I also surprised myself by doing so many things. It was very liberating for me, the whole process, the whole film, the story…’

SN: Sahib, Why did you want to audition for this character?

Sahib: ‘There was no particular reason. Since the very beginning, I have had this Chul to play different characters. I don’t want to portray the regular basic characters. Honestly, I found this character a little challenging but I also felt that I will never get an opportunity like this…’

SN: Do you think it is important for the LGBTQIA+ community to play their part themselves?

Vidur: ‘At this stage, yes. There are a few reasons for it.

How many openly queer actors do you really see in the scene? All the representation that happens is also coming from a kind of understating, of intimacy, of what queer lives mean but it is always a little distant… Growing up as a child I remember when we would listen to any Hindi song, the image that would come to our mind is that of a man and a woman, whereas I was falling in love with a boy, so there was always this distinction I would feel…’

‘It creates a lot of employment (for the community). We need different kinds of people and different kinds of experiences… There will be trials and errors, comedy of errors, there will be a lot of things that will happen around it but eventually, the task is to have more and more people from the marginalised communities because these are the people who will shift the narrative completely and present to you a different kind of media.’

‘Pine Cone has beautiful songs in the film. I was happy for the queer small boy who is sitting in his house. He would be able to imagine these two people romancing and it gives a moment of hope, some respite and sometimes that is enough.’

SN: What is the one thing you’d want the viewer to take away from ‘Pine Cone’? 

Onir: ‘I would like the audience to see that our lives are beyond just being accepted by the heteronormative world and we are just not trying to fit into the world. You constantly see in the films, the queer community has to feel grateful that at the end of it, that we are accepted but the vision should’ve been that the heteronormative world for the longest time has not accepted another human and they should be feeling better that we have become a better human being…’

Sahib- ‘I also think this happens because people have not seen a lot of cinema about the LGBTQIA+ community. Pine Cone will be one of the first films from which people will see a world where two people (of the same sex) love each other and what problems they face… This film will give an idea about the community and help people to become better human beings.’

Vidur- ‘This film will also help people see how repression works. For somebody who belongs to the marginalised community and is successful also faces repression. There will be an expression of repression sometimes from this person as well… This is another aspect I want the audience to take back with them. Barring that, just the rawness of how it is all shown (in the film), which I found to be extremely exciting…’

SN: How can people accept themselves and how can the world accept people?

Onir: ‘… Today if I get married how does it affect your marriage? If I open a bank account, how does it affect you? When my friend gets married, I enjoy and participate, what stops you from wanting to be a part of my joy? Why can’t we just share the joy? That’s why it’s important for people in power to come out. Invisibility is not empowering, because when you come out, it empowers so many young people who are scared to come out… It’s not just about you accepting yourself, of course it’s important, but unless the world does it, it doesn’t change anything.’

 Sahib- ‘I give this very basic example everywhere.  If you like to have dal and I like paneer, why will I have a problem with you having your favourite? Instead, let’s sit together at a table and enjoy our favourites.’

Vidur: ‘Just being honest, I think that’s the hardest part. There are a lot of difficulties in it because there’s risk involved but that’s the fun part too. I feel in the long run, if you’re honest, everything works out. Then there is the support structure… They support you and that becomes extremely crucial. You have to command acceptance for yourself. You can’t go around telling people to accept… It’s important to understand desire… For people, desires are needs. When you’re not able to express yourself in so many spheres of life, this expression of small desires could only be a means to survive.’

Pine Cone is a layered and complex love story that peeps into the world of two men falling in love with each other. To be able to witness Onir’s unfiltered charm would be exciting, more so after knowing about the film so much. We wish the cast and crew of Pine Cone all the luck as we patiently wait to watch the magic ourselves.