The Indian military has blocked the upcoming Bollywood film ‘We Are’ by the critically-acclaimed director Onir (goes only by the first name). It was inspired by a true story of a retired Major J Suresh, who came out as gay in 2020. The blocked film was a sequel to Onir’s 2011 film ‘I Am’, which also paid tribute to queer love and life. The director was one of the earliest prominent Bollywood celebrities to publicly announce that he was gay.
‘We Are’ Celebrates Gay Love
The filmmaker described that ‘We Are’ told the story of 4 characters from the LGBTQ community in 4 different parts of India. These characters include a bisexual man, a trans woman, a lesbian, and a gay army man who falls in with a Kashmiri boy. Onir is known for creating movies on similar subjects, showing stories of marginalised groups. His 2005 film ‘My Brother….Nikhil’ was inspired by a real-life Indian gay swimmer/activist Dominic D’Souza, who was arrested in the 1980s for getting infected with HIV.
India has a history of post-production censorship regarding certain films. Most of these movies included taboo subjects like the assassination of Nehru-Gandhi family members, treatment of Muslims during the 1947 partition, 1984 Sikh genocide, homosexual content, and Khalistan ideology. When Onir went to the defence ministry for the no-objection certificate (NOC) for his new film, the military wing rejected it. Every big studio, streaming platform, and producer in India insist on getting the NOC to make sure authorities have no issue with the film. The defence ministry told Onir that his script portraying an army man as gay was “illegal”.
India decriminalised gay sex in 2018, but under Army Act 1950, homosexuality and adultery remained punishable offences with imprisonment of up to 10 years.
Why Military Cares about What People Want to see?
Ever since the Hindu-nationalist government of BJP came to power in 2014, systematic attacks on dissent have become often. India began charging government critics, journalists, human rights activists, and NGOs with sedition, a colonial-era law with punishment up to life imprisonment. In 2020, the government ordered all filmmakers to get clearance before releasing a film based on a military theme. Free speech campaigners described this law as unconstitutional and Orwellian, a societal condition identified by novelist George Orwell as “destructive to a free society”.
The Indian army said it refused to permit ‘We Are’ because it depicted an army officer in a romantic relationship with a local Kashmiri boy, which portrayed the Indian army in a “poor light” and raised “security concerns”. It advised maintaining the image of armed forces by ensuring that the film did not bring “disrepute” to the military.
Is India’s Definition of Patriotism linked with Sexuality?
Onir argued that several Bollywood films showing army soldiers in the killing mode were never rejected or considered as bringing “disrepute”. Moreover, the ones showing Indian officers falling in love with women from other countries were also allowed to screen, so what was wrong with ‘We Are’, which was way soft and highlighted the sentiments of LGBTQ? If falling in love with the opposite sex from the other country was not a security issue, then why same-sex was? He questioned whether the military judged someone’s patriotism with their sexuality rather than ability.
Most of the Indian films, based on military themes, are filled with violence and promote war with the neighbouring country; for example, Uri: The Surgical Strike, based on the 2016 operation in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir ordered by Modi. Modi has gained massive popularity among the army by flexing India’s muscles and has won multiple elections. There are also significant improvements in the budget and benefits of the armed forces.
Critics have raised many alarms about the military’s power to shape public perception and how it wanted to be seen by the masses.