Interview with the Designated Star of the Indian New Wave

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Onir is a rising star in the world of parallel cinema in India. Bollywood, which is full of glamour and a galaxy of shimmering stars, he decided to make his career in the art films, which is passing through a critical phase in India and all over the world.
Wikipedia says Onir was born as Anirban Dhar in Thimphu, Bhutan. His father Aparesh Dhar and mother Manjushree are of Bengali origin. Onir spent much of his childhood going to the cinema. In 1986 his family left Bhutan after the government made “driglam namzha”, the Bhutanese national dress and etiquette code, as mandatory. Onir revealed in an interview that, “I didn’t want to be a second class Bhutanese citizen; I preferred to be Indian citizen.”
In Kolkata, Onir studied comparative literature and took a few film classes at Chitrabani Film School. He graduated from Jadavpur University in 1989, but left before getting his post-graduate degree when he received a scholarship to study films in Berlin. He later returned to India and worked as an editor, scriptwriter, art director, music album producer and song/music video director. He also served as an assistant to Kalpana Lajmion on Daman: A Victim of Marital Violence (2001) where he had his first experience directing a full-length feature film.
Recently Onir visited Karachi, Pakistan to attend India Pakistan Social Media Conference 2012, where this scribe talked to Onir about his career, filmmaking and new trends in India and world cinema.

Q. When did you realise that filmmaking could be your career?
Onir: My parents were teachers in Bhutan. I grew up watching lots of movies as my mother Manjushree was a film fan. My parents exposed me to both mainstream and art house cinema at an early age. By the time I was in eighth grade, I was in love with films of Shyam Benegal and Satyajit Ray and knew this would be my world.
Q. How has Indian audience received “I Am”. What is the future of short films in India?
Onir: The film was one of the most highly rated films of 2011 and went on to win the National Award as the Best Hindi Feature Film and National Award for Best Lyrics. That is unique for a film with four taboo or unspoken stories. Theatrically the business was not great because of the subject but it did good business on DVDs—even through piracy (laughter).
Q. Do you think that parallel cinema in India has the potential to bring profit?
Onir: Parallel cinema is going through a major crisis in India and many parts of the world. That is partly because of the lack of exhibition and distribution support. Unlike Europe, we do not have a chain of theatres that show only indie films. So competing with studio-backed multi-star films with huge publicity money in multiplexes is difficult. But, having said that, I will also add that slowly and surely there is a growing audience for this new Indian cinema in India and worldwide. But it will take a little time and it will surely make some economic sense too. I am positive.
Parallel cinema is going through a major crisis in India and many parts of the world… Unlike Europe, we do not have a chain of theaters that show only indie films. So competing with studio-backed multi-star films with huge publicity money in multiplexes is difficult. But… surely there is a growing audience for this new Indian cinema in India and worldwide – Onir
Q. Digital technology has become very popular nowadays. What is its future?
Onir:. I think it will make cinema more accessible to the masses. In terms of making and distribution it will reduce costs and hence become very important medium for indie films.
Q. Do you think that digital technology can replace the traditional format?
Onir:  Thought the traditionalists refuse to accept but negative is on its way out and soon digital will catch up in terms of quality.
Q. Do you think that India is ready to openly talk about controversial issues that you have raised in your films?
Onir: Well, the fact that I am being able to make my films and survive in India shows that there is an audience and the society is ready to look into its darkness. I think when you accept the darkness within, then that is the first step towards light. The problem is that the Diaspora Indian audience which forms an important part of the revenue for Indian films only watches big stars’ mainstream films. Because of their nostalgia of “home” and “culture” they very often do not want to see the darker side of our society. That is why indie films are rarely released overseas.
Q. What is your stance on the current trend of adopting Western trends like rapping and skimpy dressing by Bollywood?
Onir: I do not think it is a recent phenomenon. What I do not like is when bodies are turned into commodity by the lenses and women are shot and portrayed in a way to feed the male gaze. Otherwise, we always had actresses like Nargis and Sharmila Tagore who carried a swim suit with grace. I think the word “skimpy” is relative. I feel if a scene needs an actress to be swimming we should see her in a swimsuit. And I think just like we men have the right to wear shorts and jeans women have the right to choose how they want their bodies dressed up and seen.
Similarly, I feel that a cinema prospers as it embraces other cultures. India is an amalgamation of cultures. What is termed as “Western” is as much a part of our culture as the Taj Mahal. For me, greetings such as Aslaam-o-Alaikum, Namaste and good morning—are all part of my culture.
Q. Do you plan to continue to highlight social issues in your films?
Onir: Well, I believe in telling stories that touch me. All my films are not what is traditionally called message-oriented. Neither will they be. But whatever I do, I will not have any regressive messaging there. For me that is important.

Q. What about your upcoming projects? What’s your focus now?
Onir: I am working on a couple of films. I am producing a few films with a company named Sanjay Suri and under the banner Anticlock Films. They are Chauranga, Coach Kameena,
Chauranga is a story about a 14-year-old Dalhit boy who falls in love with an upper class 16-year-old girl and what follows in a racially charged society. It is based on a real even that occurred in 2008. We started shooting that film in September with debutant Director Bikas Mishra.
Then there is Coach Kameena. This is a story of a 16-year-old boy’s love for sports and the pressure on him to perform well in academics from school and family. This will be directed by Ashwini Malik.
Apart from these, we have two of my films under pre-production. SHAB is a love story with a twist and the other is an adaptation of Hamlet. I also look forwarding to casting some Pakistani actors in my next films.
Onir has directed films such as Tiger’s Nest (1991), Fallen Hero (1992), My Brother Nikhil (2005), Bas Ek Pal (2006), Sorry Bhai! (2008), I Am (2011) and The Face (2011). He also wrote the scripts for My Brother. Nikhil, Bas Ek Pal and I Am. Apart from these, he has also been editor and producer for a number of film projects.
Q. Do you think that Bollywood is successful in creating its own school of thought and style in the world of filmmaking?
Onir: Bollywood has a distinct identity and definitely a language that is recognised world over. I have travelled a lot and it feels good that wherever you go, you find someone who hums a familiar tune to you or knows names such as Raj Kapoor, Amitabh Bacchan or Shah Rukh Khan.
Q. What is the importance of parallel cinema and why is it needed in the first place?
Onir: You might ask: What’s the need to breathe. I may be exaggerating but yes…It is like asking why you need literature or painting or sculpture. Cinema is also a form of art and can be a very important tool for change. It provides a window for the mind to look at the world with a different perspective. It encourages the mind to question things. That is what parallel cinema does.
Q. What do you say about Indo-Pak collaboration in cinema? Do you have any plan to take this initiative?
Onir: We already have many Pakistani actors and musicians working in the Indian film industry. I think we need to open up our TV and Film worlds to each other. It will be great for both the countries. But you should have what we need. You need to protect Pakistani cinema by making sure that multiplexes will always have enough screen time and space from your own films and have cheaper tickets for them while allowing Indian cinema to come. It is important that it does not drown your own cinema the way it is killing parallel cinema and regional cinema in India.
(This interview was originally published in The Rationale, August 2012; Photo: Onir’s Facebook page)
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