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BFI Flare 2024 (38th) – “Joy and pain of filmmaking” as out Indian director Onir talks about latest ‘Pine Cone’ feature…

BFI Flare 2024 (38th) – “Joy and pain of filmmaking” as out Indian director Onir talks about latest ‘Pine Cone’ feature…

One of India’s leading social justice directors speaks to us about his very personal film which premiered in the UK last week…

WHEN the writer-director Onir talks about the recent screening of his ‘Pine Cone’ feature, he mentions joy several times.

The Indian director is best known for his ‘My Brother Nikhil’ (2005), a searing tale about a young Indian man in Goa, who has HIV, is abominably treated by the authorities in Goa and shunned by nearly everyone except his sister and his queer community.

Onir – picture; Courtesy of BFI ©Millie Turner

His latest film, ‘Pine Cone’ is a semi-autobiographical film and clearly does have a sense of joy about it and the cinematography, especially, the last part shot in the foothills of Himalayas, is stunning and romantic.

That the two teenagers in this part of the film are burgeoning young men who find joy in being together is perhaps no surprise for a film that showed at British Film Institute’s (BFI) 38th Flare Festival (March 13-24) – the BFI’s celebration of celluloid LGBTQIA+.

What is refreshing about this is that the co-writer (with Ashwini Malik) – director’s take is one that avoids the common tropes that characterise some ‘gay’ films – of course, there is a place for angst, for fear, for the need to combat prejudice and counter the way society discriminates against those who happen to love others of the same gender and the pain and conflict of those forms of relationships.

Young Sid (Hanun Bawra) and Derek’ (Aniket Ghosh) in ‘Pine Cone

And… sometimes, the representation is (too) bleak and unremitting. We don’t want to decry those sorts of films – everything needs to be viewed fairly and on its own terms – but it is refreshing to see an Indian filmmaker just make a film about a man – a filmmaker – whose romantic relationships with men – are beset by quite common issues.

“I wanted to celebrate the joy and the journey that includes both pain and loss,” said Onir to as the film screened on the last day of the festival.

In the film, the last relationship is depicted as a flashback – and is the main character Sid Mehra’s first.

It is his first love and one that continues to haunt him through all his subsequent (serious) relationships.

Siddharth ‘Sid’ Mehra (Vidur Sethi) and
Mirage/Sudhanshu Shah/Mohit Shah (Amit Gurjar)

‘Derek’ (Aniket Ghosh) takes the lead and shows few inhibitions – but the very next day tells the young ‘Sid’ (Hanun Bawra) that what they did was wrong, shameful and cannot be spoken about again.

Onir is open about the experience being close to his own.

“He was one of my closest friends and like the character in the film, I did go back to that place and go outside his house but there was no meeting.

“It’s about being in that situation where one is experiencing love for the first time and then it is being snatched away,” he explained.

The title comes from a gift that ‘Derek’ presents to ‘Sid’ and it is like a central motif in the film with the accompanying question – can you as an adult find a love that is pure and sincere as your first (might have been)…

While the film is pegged around significant dates in the legal fight for gay equality in India – there is actually very little political or social context in ‘Pine Cone’ and for this writer, it works.

The focus then is not on the character’s sexuality but their motivations, desires, dreams, ambitions, fears and failures – much like it would be if this was a production was from a heteronormative gaze.

“I wanted to keep the politics much more in the background and I wanted to do this because you don’t see films from this perspective – the inner struggle and the (shifts in) acceptance because of what is happening outside – and the way the characters behave is a lot to do with that.”

Onir at the BFI Southbank
pic: Courtesy of BFI ©Onir

Onir said that while the legal position of same sex relationships has improved – in 2019, it was decriminalised – but more recently same sex marriage was rejected by the Supreme Court of India – it is still tough as a filmmaker who wants to cover these sorts of stories.

“It’s a lot easier if you are trying to tell a story which fits into the heteronormative.”

“It’s better,” he said about the general position of those who identify themselves as gay, in India. “We are accepted but there is lack of funding…”

Most early filmmakers will have to contend with this – but Onir stresses that for filmmakers like himself, it is doubly difficult and they shouldn’t be forced to compromise, he believes.

“I am part of various mentoring programmes and I’m always pushing people to tell stories which is from our gaze and to stop constantly thinking of what is more acceptable (to society).

“And in India, we need to keep pushing and non queer audiences should watch and learn to accept. You don’t usually have films which celebrate queer desire. I try to bring that element in because it is often not acknowledged.”

He said he was surprised at how popular the film proved at BFI Flare and that much of the audience was not South Asian.

The film first premiered in June 2023 at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, which is India’s largest and best-known celebration of Queer Cinema.

And while there have been special screenings, Onir is worried about censors in India – the film is pretty tame by western standards – there is nothing graphic but there are lovemaking scenes between men.

“I recently saw all ‘All of Us Strangers’ (with stars Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott) in the cinema theatre – and all the love scenes were edited out, so I don’t know what I will face.”

Onir had originally wanted to make a film about an army guy who falls in love with a local in Kashmir but the authorities stopped him in his tracks.

While ‘Pine Cone’ may not have been the film he most wanted to make initially, it’s entertaining, interesting and stimulating in the way that approaches its subject and has much to offer both queer and non queer audiences.

‘Pine Cone’ screened at the BFI Flare Festival March 13-24 2024


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Written by Asian Culture Vulture