INTERVIEW: Onir and cast of queer film Pine Cone on marriage, acceptance, love in Pride Month

As Onir wins Kashish Rainbow Warrior Award for his latest queer film, he talks about spotlighting queer gaze, longing for marriage and more. Actors Vidur Sethi and Sahib Verma also join in.
A still from Pine Cone
A still from Pine Cone

Renowned filmmaker and advocate for the LGBTQIA++ community, director Onir had the screening of his highly anticipated film, Pine Cone at Kashish — South Asia’s largest queer film festival during the Pride Month. The movie promises to enthrall audiences with its multi-layered love story that follows the journey of a gay man as he navigates through the complexities of love, loss, and desire. Onir, a proud gay man and National Film Award winner has devoted his career to celebrating the rainbow community with films like My Brother Nikhil, I Am, Kuchh Bheege Alfaaz and documentaries like Widows of Vrindavan. For the latest project Pine Cone, he gives us a peek into this narrative-shifting film that decodes queer gaze. With bated breath, he eagerly anticipates a time when the laws of matrimony will extend their loving arms to marriage equality.

Pine Cone also features Delhi-bred actors Vidur Sethi and Sahib Verma. While Vidur is a queer individual, Sahib is cis-gender; together they portray the depth and intricacy of love and desire, letting go of the differences in the gender spectrum. Vidur is an interdisciplinary culture practitioner, who often finds himself at the intersection of performance, writing and curation. The master’s graduate in literature left his biological family at the age of 24 due to non-acceptance in the society. He speaks to us about the treacherous valleys of trauma, healing, and ultimately finding solace in art. And then there’s the boisterous Sahib, a spirited Punjabi ,who came to Mumbai from Delhi with the hunger for playing unconventional roles, all thanks to his breeding in theatre. He’s not just open to diverse roles but also doesn’t shy away from sporting gender-neutral style — imagine winged eye-liner and ear studs on fleek. As we celebrate the Pride Month, the Pine Cone team tells us how they see love in all colours! Excerpts:

Film Poster
Film Poster

What sets Pine Cone apart from other queer films?
Onir: The story portrays its characters with empathy and love while showcasing a plot from a queer perspective instead of a cisgender gaze. The decision to predominantly cast queer individuals in the roles stems from the belief that they inherently grasp the nuances of the role as they have lived those experiences unlike cisgender actors, who often require extensive training.
Vidur: In most LGBTQIA++ films, the narratives often revolve around themes of coming out or exploring love, longing, and desire, which are undoubtedly significant. However, this particular movie stands out as it portrays a protagonist who is a successful filmmaker from the community which means the director has granted him the power. Moreover, Onir takes a different approach by avoiding glamourisation of characters and in fact, takes the audience to their very private spaces, unveiling raw and authentic emotions. The characters in the movie are layered where you may dislike them one moment and empathise with at other times.

What were your initial thoughts on being a cisgender playing a gay man in Pine Cone?
Sahib: I have a wonderful circle of friends from the queer community. I believe love should transcend all barriers. However, initially, I was somewhat hesitant. It was an unfamiliar territory for me, but I decided to take on the challenge because I had never explored such a role before. Furthermore, my training in theatre taught me to embrace unconventional parts. It was after being in the role that I delved deep into their experiences — losses, love, desires, and struggles — firsthand. Initially, I had reservations about discussing this role with my parents due to their ingrained beliefs and societal conditioning. But I did not wish to pursue the role in hiding. In fact, I am proud of my work. I shared the news with my parents and they embraced it wholeheartedly.

Do you find cinema a safer space to discuss queer issues?
While cinema has the potential to wield significant influence over people’s minds, it can also pose problems. In today’s era, most queer-centric films perpetuate stigmatisation and stereotype the community. In fact some movies depict the queer community in an ugly light, using derogatory language. Regrettably, such films garner appreciation from society as they align with prevailing sentiments held by the majority. It is important to acknowledge that cinema possesses a powerful capacity to shape societal attitudes. However, the responsibility lies with filmmakers and society as a whole to ensure that queer representation is portrayed authentically, with dignity and respect.


You were born in Bhutan, and then you moved to Kolkata, Berlin and finally to Bombay. How has each experience shaped you?
Onir: I often express that my soul resides in Bhutan due to my upbringing amidst nature. I was fortunate to be born into an egalitarian family, which provided me with a strong foundation. As I grew older, Kolkata played a significant role in shaping me intellectually, offering me exposure to art, literature, and cinema. Later, when I went to study film editing in Berlin, I had the opportunity to hone my craft. Berlin also enlightened me about a country that has faced its fair share of historical challenges but has embraced growth by acknowledging past mistakes and progressing forward. It has managed to reconcile conflicts with love, avoiding the repetition of past errors. It was there that I felt completely safe as a queer. Bombay further gave wings to my dreams. It is a city that embraces individuals for who they are, without judgment.

Do you feel finally settled and accepted? Do you plan to marry?
Onir: I still don’t feel soothed because I await the judgment on equality marriage from the court. We long to live as ordinary citizens of this country, experiencing love and dignity just like anyone else. Until that day arrives, satisfaction remains elusive within our community. I would love to get married and find a suitable partner (laughs). It’s ironic that in our country, unlike heterosexual marriages that are often matched after considering caste, class, religion, dowry and whatnot, homosexual marriages are solely built on love. Despite that, we face significant resistance.

After having made mostly romance dramas, would you also like to make a superhero movie with queer people as leads?
Onir: I would love to make an action, superhero or horror movie with members of the LGBTQIA++ community, provided there is sufficient financial backing (laughs) and support. It is disheartening that our country lacks representation of LGBTQIA++ heroes, let alone superheroes. I feel we should not celebrate the act of returning to the closet (which is seen in many mainstream films today) as it contradicts the principles of self-acceptance.

Was your family accepting of you when they learned you are a queer individual?
Vidur: No. I hail from a middle-class, conservative family with strong religious beliefs, where the concept of queerness was not even comprehensible. During my childhood, I was indoctrinated into a religious cult that expected me to embrace celibacy by the age of 16. Rather than celebrating my true identity, I was conditioned at home to conform to this mindset. It took me a long time to break free from that restrictive mentality. My family consists of teachers and individuals who adhere to traditional gender roles, to the extent of even labelling academic subjects with specific genders. For instance, when I expressed myself by painting on walls, or drawing provocative images, people thought there was something wrong with me. I felt emotionally marginalised at home and hence wanted to prove my worth by being excessively hardworking. It was a way to compensate for who I am. I would come home from school and immediately sit down at my desk to start working, while my parents would ask me to take it easy without realising what I was going through. Now that I have grown older, I realise that the standards and pressures I inflicted on myself were a sham. I have come to understand that perfection is unattainable. It is through taking risks, making mistakes, falling down, and getting back up that we truly learn and grow.

Vidur Sethi
Vidur Sethi

You have been into performance arts for the past several years. What made you take it up?
Vidur: I wanted to address urban conflicts and queer issues. Being a member of the queer community and living independently, detached from my biological family, shaped my perspective. The central theme of my work revolves around self-exploration and shaping of identity. I am processing deviance which means challenging the conventional societal norms that dictate how we should dress, speak, think and behave. These rules encompass aspects such as clothing choices, speech patterns, and gender-specific expectations. By deconstructing these orthodox notions, I aim to explore new possibilities.

When people treat you differently, how do you deal with it while taking care of your well-being?
I use art and poetry as my tools at my disposal. When someone directs a derogatory remark towards me, my natural response is to question them. I ask them ‘what made you say that or why do you feel so’. At the same time, I try to be empathetic and understand their perspective. If I start buying into their narrative and feeling insecure, then I become part of that regressive system. This often leads to me having long conversations with others. However, there are times when my mental health has been deeply impacted by hateful encounters. I have cried a lot and sought therapy to cope with it. Additionally, I find solace in poetry. In the past, my poetry originated from a place of anger and depression. But now, it stems from a space of empathy and love, where I strive to understand even the perspectives that contradict my own.

From a commerce course to shifting to theatre and films, how come life took a U-turn for you?
During my first year of college in Delhi University, I had aspirations of later going to IIM Ahmedabad. However, everything changed when I watched the movie Rockstar during my second year. I fell in love with the artistry of Imtiaz Ali and the brilliant performance of Ranbir Kapoor. Within a span of one to two months after watching the movie, I joined my college’s Street Play Society. When I finally gathered the courage to share my dream of becoming an actor with my parents, their reaction surprised me. My father, rather than opposing my decision, advised me to go to Mumbai and explore opportunities in the film industry. He encouraged me not to waste my life pursuing something I wasn’t passionate about. This reaction caught me off guard, as I had anticipated resistance.


We see you experimenting with new get-ups. How do you interpret fashion and beauty in your lifestyle?
Vidur: When it comes to women, queer people, or any marginalised community, fashion and beauty hold great significance as they provide a chance to express their individuality, which is often limited. The desire to express oneself is crucial. Let me illustrate this with my own experience — till the age of 24 when I lived with my family, I was not given the chance to voice who I am openly. There I used to have makeover only in my room or the bathroom. But when I began living independently, I felt liberated to dress up often. The act of dressing up, applying makeup or looking glamourous is not intended to impress others or seek their approval but for myself. Unfortunately, there are limited spaces where this desire can be openly expressed. Whenever I do, I let my heart run wild.
Sahib: My fashion choices are dramatically influenced by my mood. I veer towards colourblocking and sporting vibrant looks. I enjoy experimenting with accessories such as earrings and even eyeliner and believe in gender neutrality.

Pine Cone was screened at Kashish on June 7. 
Twitter: @RanaPriyamvada

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