Censorship row as Indian army blocks movie about gay soldier

New Delhi (AFP) – Critically acclaimed Indian filmmaker Onir wanted to direct a film inspired by a gay army major who resigned and was released in a publicity fire – but despite the country’s democratic status, the army stopped making him.

Since coming to power eight years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has repeatedly been accused of stepping up censorship in a systematic attack on dissent – including a crackdown on human rights activists. man, journalists and NGOs.

In 2020, he issued an order advising filmmakers to seek pre-clearance for any military-themed scripts, a move described by free speech campaigners as both Orwellian and unconstitutional in the world’s largest democracy.

Onir, who uses only one name, is gay himself and was among the first big names in Bollywood to openly acknowledge his sexuality.

He is known for his films about the lives of socially marginalized groups, and his creative eye was caught by the case of Major J. Suresh, who made national headlines in 2020 after leaving the military and announcing: “ Out!! Proud!! Freed!!”

“I’m gay – and I’m very proud to be gay,” the former army officer – who had served in some of India’s most turbulent regions including Kashmir – wrote on his blog.

He then gave a groundbreaking interview on national television that went viral in the socially conservative country.

Onir’s screenplay, “We Are,” tells four stories, those of a trans woman, a lesbian, a bisexual man, and a fictional tale of love between a gay officer and a Kashmiri boy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has been repeatedly accused of stepping up censorship SUBJIT JAISWAL AFP

But when he approached the Department of Defense for a ‘certificate of no objection’ – which most studios, streaming platforms and producers now insist on to ensure there is no has no legal or administrative obstacles – it was rejected.

“They told me (…) that I portrayed the army man as gay, it’s illegal,” he told AFP.

– ‘Barometer of patriotism’ –

India only decriminalized gay sex in a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, but homosexuality and adultery remain punishable offenses under the Army Act, with prison sentences of up to up to 10 years.

Onir, who uses only one name, is gay himself and was among the first big names in Bollywood to openly acknowledge his sexuality
Onir, who uses only one name, is gay himself and was among the first big names in Bollywood to openly acknowledge his sexuality SUBJIT JAISWAL AFP

At the same time, India also has a long history of censoring post-production films, and concerns over free speech were raised by new social media regulations last year.

The country’s deputy defense minister, Ajay Bhatt, confirmed to parliament last week that Onir’s film was denied permission because of “the depiction of a romantic relationship between a soldier of the army serving in Kashmir and a local boy who casts (the) Indian army in a bad light and poses security concerns”.

He insisted that the screening process was neither unconstitutional nor a denial of free speech, and said the government had taken into account factors such as national security, popular sentiment and the image of the armed forces to ensure that the military “is not portrayed in a way that brings disrepute”.

But Onir, 52, based in Mumbai, stressed that films where officers fall in love with women were never rejected.

“Why do we make sexuality the barometer of one’s patriotism or one’s ability to defend the nation?” He asked.

“Everyone seems to take offense at the slightest thing but what about the creativity or the feelings of the artists?” he added. “We don’t matter.”

Several of his films have tackled gay themes, including “My Brother…Nikhil”, the story of Indian swimming champion Dominic D’Souza who was arrested in the 1980s after testing HIV positive.

Homosexuality and adultery remain punishable offenses under Indian Army Act, with prison terms of up to 10 years
Homosexuality and adultery remain punishable offenses under Indian Army Act, with prison terms of up to 10 years DIPTENDU DUTTA AFP/Dossier

“I Am” combined four stories examining same-sex relationships and other taboo topics such as sperm donation and child abuse.

It was named Best Hindi Film at the 2012 National Film Awards, the national equivalent of the Oscars, but even then satellite channels refused to air it.

In his own life, he said, “I’ve always been out there. I’ve never had a single outing or crisis moment about who I am.”

“Patriotic Chest Blow”

Some of India’s most popular military-themed films and web series in recent years have been nationalistic, flamboyant stories of heroism by soldiers, including “Uri: The Surgical Strike”, inspired by an operation ordered by Modi in 2016 in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

Some of the most popular military-themed movies and web series in India in recent years have been nationalistic, flamboyant stories of soldier heroism.
Some of the most popular military-themed movies and web series in India in recent years have been nationalistic, flamboyant stories of soldier heroism. SUBJIT JAISWAL AFP

The prime minister’s populist vision of a muscular India dominated by the Hindu majority has won him multiple election victories, and he enjoys strong support in the armed forces, whose budgets and benefits he has dramatically improved.

But critics say giving the military control over how it is represented is fundamentally inappropriate in a democratic country.

“It’s problematic,” said Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Caravan magazine. “How can the army decide how it is represented, seen or criticized by the people?”

India’s military has traditionally stayed out of domestic politics, unlike those in neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, all of which have seen multiple coups.

But Modi’s government has “repeatedly invoked the military with its patriotic punches for domestic politics”, Bal said, and now senior generals have “started making political comments”.

“I can think of a democratic parallel where the military is allowed to control free speech: across the border in Pakistan,” he added. “But no one in this government likes that comparison.”