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Book Review

A missed opportunity

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

A missed opportunity

A lack of structure or thematic transition to all the stories that Onir wishes to tell works against this memoir.

“Imagine growing up in a world where you never heard stories about yourself, where you were never present in a history or a biology class. Never present in cinema or TV apart from being ridiculed with over-the-top caricatures that you could not and did not identify with. Your sense of identity was absent since your childhood. And then, one day you realized that you are the ‘other’.”

In one of the rare memorable bits of his memoir I Am Onir and I Am Gay, the film-maker Onir evokes the kind of longing reminiscent of his best works such as My Brother… Nikhil (2005) and the National Award-winning anthology film I Am (2010). In the segment titled ‘Bittersweet’, he recounts in vivid detail his struggle to find enduring love, and even when the writing misses the mark the emotions manage to leap off the pages.

Onir is undoubtedly a significant cinematic voice of his generation, however, there are only traces of that inspired voice in this book that rarely soars.

Co-written with his sister, Irene Dhar Malik, the book starts off on a promising note with glimpses of Onir’s years growing up in Bhutan and Kolkata. Early on, Onir discovers heartbreak and that falling in love with a man was not deemed ‘normal’. Then he touches upon his parents’ roots; his father, a man who hailed from Sylhet in pre-Partition Bengal, always felt like an outsider after he moved to (then) Calcutta in the mid-1950s. That also becomes a gateway to cinema for Onir, who relates to his father’s predicament watching Ritwik Ghatak’s films, including his best work Meghe Dhaka Tara. This budding love is nurtured in Thimphu’s Luger Theatre, where he discovers both mainstream and independent Hindi cinema.

The stage then shifts to Kolkata, where Onir makes a piercing observation about the treatment of women on the streets of the ‘cultured city’ as opposed to his childhood home in Bhutan. As he begins to find his moorings in cinema while studying at Jadavpur University, he encounters a name that many Satyajit Ray enthusiasts will recognise – Father Gaston Roberge. Roberge, who pioneered film studies at the cultural centre Chitrabani in Kolkata, becomes a mentor to him and his influence is such that in My Brother... Nikhil, he names a character after Roberge.

I am Onir and I am Gay
By Onir with Irene Dhar Malik
(Penguin Viking, 2022)
Pages: 288
Price: Rs.599

One standout passage from this segment is when he delves into the hypocrisy of the ‘Western gaze’ in terms of the concept of private space. He recounts how this German documentary film-maker (a friend and teacher of his) had no qualms ‘shooting people sleeping on the footpath or a woman from a slum putting on a sari’ in Kolkata but would tell Onir to avoid ‘intruding’ on someone’s privacy whenever Onir tried to shoot someone in a public space such as a restaurant or a park in Berlin. He rightly points out how this Western gaze, in the garb of highlighting the problems of the ‘third world’, often seeks to absolve the West of the past horrors it has inflicted on its people.

It is, however, in the segment titled ‘Living the Dream’ that the fault lines in the storytelling begin to show. When Onir talks about the different aspects and nuances of film-making, he appears to be on a firm footing. But he constantly interjects his own account with anecdotes about people who appear only for a paragraph or two and are not central to the narrative, which is irksome to say the least.

Here is the thing–it is perfectly fine for books, especially memoirs, to adopt a conversational tone so that the reader’s experience is akin to listening to the writer in one’s drawing room. And we need to look no further than our epics to know that in an oral storytelling tradition, there are always digressions before the storyteller returns to the primary narrative.

But I am Onir and I am Gay is no epic, and the numerous digressions leave the reader weary. A lack of structure or thematic transition to all the stories that the writer wishes to tell works against the book and one ponders if those in charge of editing could have worked harder to bring some coherence to the narrative.

Of course, this review would be remiss without talking about Onir’s sexuality given the title of the book. There are times when one wonders about his sexual orientation as he seems infatuated with certain women early on and then goes on to describe his relationships with men in the latter parts of the book. But it all comes together with the aforementioned passage, when you realise how the near-total absence of the queer community from popular culture is a form of deprivation–so much so that it takes years before individuals are able to come to terms with something so integral to their identity.

However, such profound reflections are overcrowded by insignificant episodes that ensure that this memoir never becomes anything more than a breezy read. Which is unfortunate when you consider that instead of a seminal work of biography, someone of Onir’s stature delivers a book that can best be described as a series of disjointed vignettes. And one can only put this down as a missed opportunity.