A debate that has been raging on in recent months— further strengthened by the release of Alia Bhatt-starrer Gangubai Kathiwadi in February — is whether queer characters in mainstream movies should be played by actors belonging to the LGBTQiA+ community.
A Sanjay Leela Bhansali biopic based on ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai’ had received flak even before it was released; the trailer of the film showed Vijay Raaz, a straight, heterosexual, male actor, playing the role of Raziabai, a trans-woman-turned-mafia don living in Mumbai’s infamous Kamathipura area.
Citing how homosexual and transgender actors in Bollywood face a scarcity of employment opportunities, the queer community used social media to suggest that Raziabai’s role should have instead been played by a trans person.
It was not the first time this debate had made its way to the surface of public discourse. In 2019, the coming-of-age romantic comedy Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, starring actors Sonam Kapoor and Rajkummar Rao, in which the former plays the role of a closeted lesbian, received similar criticism. However, in what is now touted as a first, filmmaker Onir has roped in queer actor Vidur Sethi in the lead role for his upcoming LGBTQiA+ centric film Pine Cone.
Onir’s debut film, My brother…Nikhil, released in 2005 and starring actors Sanjay Suri and Juhi Chawla, is considered by many to be ahead of its time. It portrays the life of Nikhil (played by Suri) between the years 1987-1994, when he was arrested by the Goa police and kept in forced isolation because he was HIV positive. The conversation around AIDS and HIV was hush-hush in Indian society at the time and awareness about the disease was low primarily due to the social stigma that came attached to it.
In January this year, Onir’s film We Are — based on the real-life story of Major J Suresh, an Army officer who is gay — was rejected by the Ministry of Defence.
Onir says he was frustrated and angry when the ministry refused to give him a no-objection certificate (NOC). “That is when I began writing Pine Cone,” he told The Federal.
“The film is about the journey of a person and is narrated in three parts from the lens of the protagonist: when he is a teenager, when he is 28 years old, and finally when he is 38,” says Onir.
The three periods are synchronized to take place during pivotal movements: first, in 1999, when the first-ever gay pride parade took place in Calcutta, followed in 2009, when the Delhi HC decriminalized homosexuality, and in 2019, a year after the Supreme Court struck down the law that criminalized gay sex throughout India. All in all, the movie has a strong presence of the historical perspective of how an out-and-proud queer person negotiates his life.
Onir says he has decided to make the film independently “without thinking of eyeballs.” Shooting is scheduled to begin on May 10 in Kochi and is likely to finish by the end of June.
“I haven’t gone to any platform (for release) yet…I want to make the film on my own terms and travel to the film festivals and explore with the same spirit that I did with I Am and My brother…Nikhil,” says Onir.
“Vidur was finalized for the lead role…and it was only after that that he told me he identified himself as queer,” says Onir. “Broadly, most queer/gay films that are made are about society taking baby steps, wherein people are trying to accept us…they (the films) are always targeted at others who are incapable of figuring out how to accept…this film is not that. It is much more unfiltered and unapologetic in its approach,” says Onir.
“The number of actors who are established and who are relatively new are all uncomfortable with the intimate (queer) scenes. Some of them say they’re okay with a peck, or that they would be more comfortable if the other person was a woman. Some of the younger actors are worried about what their families would say. I am sometimes amazed about people not being worried about acting like a rapist but more about being perceived as gay. It’s a serious problem in the way people think but it is what it is. At the same time, I don’t believe that a gay actor has to be cast for a gay role, just as the way a straight actor must be cast for a straight role. A gay actor should be able to do straight roles (and vice-versa) because sexuality is just one aspect of film and actors should be judged according to their skills. Having said that, I think it is easier for a gay person to act in a straight role because we have grown up accepting this straight world whereas the straight world is still trying to grapple with us. I feel we (the queer community) are much more empowered and inclusive as human beings,” says Onir.
According to the filmmaker, Vidur brings queer gayness to the character because of his experiences. “As gay people, we have lived experiences of both — straight lives and queer lives. He enriches the role and has brought in certain new elements because of the way he is.”
Vidur Sethi, who identifies with the pronouns they/them, told The Federal: “It (the film) is the story of Sid, the protagonist, which tries to understand his queer experience. That’s all I can say for now. As a queer person, I know that there are certain experiences that one carries.”
“Representation is important, yes, but if you look at the larger realm of things, it’s not just about the queer community but about marginalized communities in general, and how certain kinds of narratives need certain kinds of representations. We are currently living in a socio-political climate where we need to acknowledge that more and more queer and marginalized folk come out in certain public spaces and get access to opportunities. Although we are getting access to different public spaces, a lot of different queer folk have to reinstate their identity for it,” adds Vidur.