He made us all take notice with his first film, My Brother Nikhil. With his latest, I Am, Onir has shown a new side of cinema to the Indian audience. Read about what his opinions are on society, gender issues, film-making and more in this extremely honest interview with Rajdip Ray. 

Rajdip Ray: Anirban Dhar to Onir – why the change in name?

Onir: Actually, the first change was from Anirban Dhar to Anirban when I got rid of my last name in college. In school, I always wanted my mother’s last name, but they insisted on putting my dad’s, which I thought was extremely unfair. So I thought if I can’t have my mom’s last name, let me not have my dad’s either. Later, when I came to Bombay, I changed it from Anirban to Onir because everyone would just mispronounce my name. It started with people calling me Anir Bhatt and Anir Bhan… everything but Anirban! Mostly, it was ‘bhan’ or ‘bhatt’ or ‘bhai’, all of which were equally appalling. Also, I have this strange history. My parents have named me numerous times. The first name that they had given me was atrocious. So, I decided to name myself once and for all.

RR: Tell us something about your childhood.

O: I was born in Bhutan. I came to Calcutta just before college and then studied Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University. I spent my entire childhood in Bhutan and I feel I am very fortunate to have done so. When I came to Calcutta, I was initially very apprehensive of not getting accepted as I felt I didn’t have the requisite exposure, coming from a small town of 25,000 people where I hadn’t seen a television set before class 10. But after arriving in Calcutta, I realized that since Bhutan hadn’t offered me luxuries like the television, I had spent a lot of time reading and playing outdoor sports and enjoying the beauty of nature which had ensured that my outlook was much broader than the people in the city – I was much more willing to accept things. So I experienced a kind of reverse culture shock. For example, in Bhutan I did not know of what eve-teasing was. But after coming to Calcutta I realized what eve-teasing was and how common it was in a city. In Bhutan, we grew up together, and we had never thought of these things existing. My siblings and I were extremely disturbed when we saw the harassment that women have to face every day in a city.

© Onir

RR: Clearly you are still very attached to Bhutan. In recent times, a lot of human rights violations have happened against the people living in Bhutan, and these have primarily been conducted by the police. Do you plan to shoot a movie sometime in the future which highlights their conditions?

O: We left Bhutan because of human rights violations. The entire world has reacted very strongly to it. But I remember, when I was there in the 70s, the entire Tibetan population was wiped out. Then in the 80s, when we left, atrocities were being committed against the Nepalis. And we Indians were made to feel unwelcome. Bhutan for me means home, and it is also a place I can never go back to. I can never go there and shoot a movie, because I will not be allowed to. But I feel that a movie does not specifically has to be made about Bhutan, as long as it covers the broader cause, which is that of internally displaced people, who constitute a third of the world’s population. In I Am, the part, “I Am Megha” addressed this cause with respect to the Kashmiri Pandits in the valley, and the situation is the same with all displaced people whether in Bhutan, or the Tamils in Sri Lanka, or the people in Eastern Europe, or in Africa. I have noticed while travelling around the world, that people can connect to the story, because even though the place may be different, the story is the same.

RR: What prompted you to become a film maker after studying Comparative Literature?

O: I always wanted to become a film-maker, but you need a basic graduation degree before you can join film school. I felt the closest to cinema was literature; that is, the art of storytelling. I love literature but what I loved about Comparative Literature was that our professors delved a lot into Comparative Arts, with a very active reference to cinema and other forms of art. While I was studying literature, I was also pursuing film studies at Chitrabani. So, I was always involved with cinema.

RR: Which film-makers inspire you the most?

O: It’s really difficult to point out a single film maker because I generally enjoy good cinema. But the person who inspired me to take up film making as a profession, created that initial spark, is Shyam Benegal. I remember watching his movie, Junoon when I was 10 or 12 years old and the visual grandeur of the movie left me in complete awe. Apart from that, overall, I am more fond of European, Iranian and Bengali cinema, rather than Bollywood and Hollywood.

© Onir – With Sanjay Suri and Anurag Kashyap

RR: Every movie that you make deals with problems which are plaguing our society. Is it a conscious decision on your part to stay away from the movies that revolve around the typical Bollywood sing-and-dance-around-the-tree sequences, or is it something that just happens?

O: I do not see myself as an art-film maker. I see myself as sensible mainstream. I use all the aspects of a Bollywood cinema, like songs, which form an integral part of my movies, but I use them sensibly. I cannot identify with the regressive Bollywood films, and I cannot be a part of them. I want to explore different forms of cinema, as that will help me grow, but I refuse to do anything that is regressive.

RR: The idea of combining 4 films into 1 is very interesting. What made you direct a non-linear cinema, keeping in mind, that the audience for such movies is not much in India?

A. The thing is, if I was really too worried about it, I would not have made something like My Brother Nikhil as my first film. There were no takers then, and there are no takers now. Two things. First, the choice for combining four stories into one was more of a financial decision rather than a creative one. Initially, I wanted to make feature films out of each one of the stories. But when I realized that I would not get finances for all of them, I decided to combine them, so that I could get my story told. Also, cinema, just like sushi, is an acquired taste. A culture of cinema needs to be developed which is unfortunately dead in our country. So it’s a slow process, and how one slowly goes about making an audience.