New Indian Queer Cinema: Onir’s I Am [1]

rhitsvu's picture

Independent Queer Cinema in India first made its appearance in 1996 through Riyadh Wadia’s much acclaimed Bomgay. Since then Indian Cinema has come a long way accommodating Queer desires within its narrative. These explicitly queer themed films have only been screened privately or at festivals (in India and abroad) thus having a limited release. By rejecting aesthetic, production and generic conventions of mainstream cinema, one finds bolder imagery and subject choice. Since 1996, more than a hundred such films have been made for public consumption.

As cultural markers they provide an alternative lens to examine attitudinal transformation and creating dialogue between the community and the larger populace, however this interaction has been very limited due to societal constraints and the economic structures which prevents such films from entering the mainstream market. However in the last five years, ‘queer; has finally entered the mainstream discourse and the queer protagonist is no longer constrained to being a comic relief or a silent ‘desire-less’ spectator. There has been a marked change and ushering in this new movement is Onir.

Onir who made his presence felt within the Indian Cinema narrative with his very first film- My Brother Nikhil, can be credited for introducing a gay character who was not only the protagonist of a mainstream Indian film but also challenged the stereotypes of the gay man who was portrayed as effeminate on public media discourse. Onir’s Nikhil was masculine, erotic and in every way desirable for audiences of both sex. Addressing issues, of homophobia, HIV/Aids and stigma, the film has gained a cult status for registering the queer space in mainstream Indian film discourse for the first time.

Onir’s latest, I Am is a film quartet which breaks every single convention of mainstream Indian Cinema. It deals with four separate narratives all within a common strand which explores various (un) conventions of human and social interaction ranging from sperm donation (I Am Afia), child sexual abuse (I Am Abhimanyu), Ethnic strife in Kashmir (I Am Megha) and Queer rights (I Am Omar)

Most films which deal with homosexuality often take recourse to the assertion of heterosexuality (Dostana, Kal Ho Na Ho) but Onir does no such thing with I am Omar. He questions heteronorms and shapes a new narrative of male desire within the Queer Space. The silent monolith of Queer desires is dismantled and there is a sense of jubilation when Jai (played by Rahul Bose) shouts ‘We are legal now.’

Ruby Rich in her inaugural essay on New Queer Cinema talks about the role of these films in social constructionism. Onir can very well be placed within this rubric as he makes that his political agenda within this film- political awareness and mobilization. He alludes to the antiquarian anti gay law- Section 377 and seeks to challenge it. Onir very rightly portrays the society as one which functions through exclusion and repression. He also problematizes the notion of gaze. Abhimanyu, a survivor of multiple child sexual abuse has an ambiguous gender identity and sexuality, something very common with abused children, as Kali Munro states in many of her works [2] The film very jarringly portrays the systematic and institutional repression of Queer desire by society. Abhimanyu’s ambiguous gender and sexual identity in this case becomes an ultimate act of identity assertion signifying the very nature and fluidity of the Queer space.

Afia and Megha’s narratives too complement in the exploration of the various facets of human desire and emotions. John Clum’s model of ‘anarchic impulse’ which he sees as a way of ‘ridicule(ing) straight society and its institutions in favour of creative chaos which allows free expression of sexual impulses’[3] can be seen as a recuperative logic used by Onir in creating this very sensitive queer narrative.


[1] I borrow this term partly from Ruby Rich’s New Queer Cinema and Tejaswini Ganti’s New Indian Cinema. See B. Ruby Rich, ‘The New Queer Cinema’ in Queer Cinema: The Film Reader, ed. Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin (New York: Routledge, 2004) pp. 53 and Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood, (London: Routledge, 2004)
[2] Kali Munro, ‘Am I Gay Because of the Abuse’, (Accessed on 10. 03.2011)
[3] John Clum, ‘A Culture That Isn’t Sexual: Dramatizing Gay Male History’, in Theatre Journal 41.2 (1989), pp. 169-89.

-Rohit K Dasgupta-


lonewolf678's picture


... very interesting subject! I should get to seeing some of these films.