A Gay Scandal in Bollywood
Recently a salacious article appeared in the Mumbai Mirror, a Bombay (Mumbai), India, tabloid.
In it struggling Bollywood actor Yuvraj Parashar accused Onir, one of Bollywood's few openly gay directors, who tries hard to deal with homosexuality sensitively in his work, of molesting him over drinks at the director's apartment. In the manner of tabloid journalism, the article went into lurid details of the actor’s accusations.
Parashar had recently appeared in a travesty of a film stupidly called Dunno Y — Na Jaane Kyon. The film wins the award for most unimaginative title, ever hands down; it translates as Dunno Y [sic] — I Don't Know Why. A South Asian LGBT film festival in New York had programmed it last year. The organizers realized they had made a profound mistake in showing the film without having screened it. Most who saw it called it "the worst film ever made in India." Unfortunately, India's extremely immature and hyperactive media had decided to label the film “India's Brokeback Mountain." By all accounts, to compare the film to the profound cinema Ang Lee is known for is incredibly laughable at the very least. The film, in spite of this misguided PR campaign around it, bombed at the box office. Even by Bollywood’s, often questionable standards, the film was an embarrassment.
I did not see the film. I am glad I did not.
Onir is an Indian and openly gay filmmaker I met a couple of years ago. At five feet nothing, he is a wisp of a man. He is also incredibly self-effacing and humble and would be unlikely to turn many heads at a party by sheer force of personality or a loud voice. But Onir is one of the few people in this world whose actions speak louder than his words. So does his talent.
And what especially shines is his courage. For those of you who do not know him or his work: In one of the world's most sexually hypocritical societies and its equally sexually hypocritical film industry, this quiet man has repeatedly had the courage to talk about one of India's biggest taboos in an honest and not necessarily shameful way. From his pathbreaking My Brother ... Nikhil, which was the first mainstream Indian film to talk about AIDS, to his recent I Am, Onir has mapped sexuality in contemporary India like no one else has. I still feel that his work will mature even further to not necessarily associate homosexuality with shame (as happens in certain segments of I Am), but in what he has produced already he has shown a remarkable ability to deal with what is considered taboo in incredibly creative ways, and make his gay characters accessible to those who are not.
In short, Onir is a brave filmmaker, a man I really admire.
By virtue of my own choices, I have been what I call "a professional homosexual" for many years now. This means I often make a living from being a "gay, Muslim" filmmaker — and I have increasingly struggled to break out of this rut of my own making — my own sexuality.
In India, where I spent the majority of my life, I was gay and out even through the '90s while working at a prominent media organization. This was a prominent news television channel in India called NDTV, where I would like to think I was probably the only cub reporter who openly talked of my sexuality and hopefully normalized my sexuality (and thus gayness) for many of my own colleagues, who had probably not encountered an out gay man in the workplace prior to that.
A decade ago I moved to the United States. At around the same time I started making my film A Jihad for Love, about Islamic orthodoxy and the shame it brings to its homosexual believers. Among many other things about my work, I also realize now that I would not have been able to make the film had I stayed back in India.
But Onir is so brave. He dares to do what he does in a society and culture that do not necessarily condone homosexuality. He also makes beautiful and meaningful art. He is a role model for thousands of other gay filmmakers and artists in India.
To say that he tried to rape a bad and struggling actor who is almost twice his size is ridiculous. To defame him is profoundly wrong.
The notion of starlets using charges of molestation to get free publicity is not new in Bollywood or Hollywood, where the almost mythical casting couch is a reality. Regardless, if two adult homosexual men flirt over a drink and, God forbid, even kiss, what is wrong with that? Can we please celebrate all the sex we have as gay men (for example) as normal, perhaps? Can our “shameful same-sex kisses” ever reach a point where they are not cringe-inducing? Can our love and our loves be celebrated in mainstream culture as much as heterosexual love is?
I do not question the propriety of Onir’s behavior. And as a gay man, I am proud that he did not deny that they had sex.
I don’t think anybody else who understands the idea of sex between two adults should either. He clearly says there was “a sexual encounter” but that it was one that seemed like “mutual” as a result of “flirting” at the time.
I am proud to know Onir.
I hope he uses this, as with so much in his life, as an opportunity to talk bravely about sexual hypocrisy. I know this can be a profound teaching moment in Indian culture. I hope all of us use it to discuss so much that needs to change, as the country that calls itself the world's largest democracy enters the second decade of this new century.