“‘I Am’ should entertain as a film, but at the same time it makes you think” – Onir Anirban

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I Am is the title of Onir Anirban’s newest project, a film comprised of five short films in one: A film defining Identity. Each short film shines the light on a topic that is not generally seen in Hindi cinema, including child sexual abuse, male sex workers and their mistreatment at the hands of the police, and a corrupt NGO (non-government organization). Not only is the film unique in its story-lines and concept, but Onir, and his production company Anticlock Films, decided to experiment in order to get these short films made. In an unparalleled twist to film production, they have opened up the funding of the film to donations by the movie-public. They have also gotten tremendous support from the film and entertainment industries, with many giving their time for free to support this noble project. Onir talked with us about the concept, the writing of the scripts, who is going to be in the films, and of course how you can join in and be a part of making them!

The first film in the series is Abhimanyu. Onir explained, “Abhimanyu basically is a film which is going to be dealing with the story of a survivor of child sexual abuse.” Onir was inspired to write Abhimanyu by two stories he read in the newspaper. “Actually for the last two years I have been doing research on child sexual abuse, because it is a subject that really disturbs me a lot. Recently while I was traveling in Germany I was working on a script in Berlin, on a future script, and I read some articles about a guy called Harish. He spoke about his abuse by an uncle for about 15 years and that kind of triggered off the whole process. I started writing Abhimanyu, which is inspired by actually two people: one is Harish and another guy called Gadesh, about whose stories I read, and it is inspired by their stories.”

The director, who is known for his unique and thought provoking story-lines, said that he had an idea for a film on child abuse for quite a while, but in today’s corporate production house industry and profit making ventures he could not get the funding. Onir said “Actually the whole process is that I have been trying to make this film on child abuse for the last two years. Somehow that was not being made because it does not fall into the scheme of things of any big production house or corporation because it is not seen as a profit making proposition or a project. So I was thinking, so what does one do about it? Either one sits and cries about no one doing anything about supporting it or one thinks of an alternative. I thought, why not make it as a short film, because I really want to make this film and I need to figure out ways that I can do this film.”

Adding, “At the same time short films do not have any scope or exhibition in India, they are all at film festivals and groups. For me the most important thing is that the film should be seen in the theater by the normal film going audience you know – I am not going to do a film for film festivals. So I thought, why not write five different stories about subjects I want to make films on, which would get made as an mainstream two-hour long feature film, and package them together in a way that is not artificially put together. At the same time they each exist independently but they will release together as a film. Like Dekalog [a series of ten one-hour films by Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski based on the Ten Commandments -ed.] something like that.”

Besides Abhimanyu, there is also Omar, Megha, Afia plus a fifth story as well, and each tells a story that Onir felt had to be told. “If you look at the second film which is called Omar, which is talking about the nexus between the police and male sex workers, and how they blackmail and abuse gay men by using article 377. [Law stating that any man caught in a homosexual act can be imprisoned for life. -ed.] The third film is called Afia, which is about this girl who works in an NGO and discovers that a huge amount of money has been misappropriated. That really happens in India very often. It is also inspired by a real life story, and how she realizes that everyone is involved. The 4th story, Megha, is about this woman who is a Kashmir Hindu. She is returning back to Kashmir after 20 years because she has to sign some papers for the house that has been sold. This is about a journey of a woman going back home, who is going back with fear, anger, distress; about having lost one’s home and her encounter with her past and coming to terms with it. These are the kind of subjects. When it is released in theaters, I want people to see it as cinema with interesting content, telling them stories they have not heard about. I don’t want it to be perceived as a public service documentary I am making. It is a film, a film with a certain important content, which makes you also think. It should entertain as a film, but at the same time it makes you think.”

The films’ stories are inspired by real life and writing the scripts has taken its toll on the director/writer. “It is exhausting. I have been working on the script, even the short films we just started writing in Berlin, co-working with a German writer. It has been very exhausting for me, especially Omar and Abhimanyu. For example, for Abhimanyu, every second or third day I have some man or woman coming to me saying we have never spoken about it to anybody, but we just feel that we want to come and talk to you about it: we have been abused. And they are sitting in my office, in front of me talking about their stories, crying. I’m not a shrink, you know I just feel good that they trust me, but this can be emotionally very, very draining.”

Besides talking to survivors, Onir has also used other paths for the extensive research he has done for each of the scripts. “To try and understand by not only talking to survivors but also doing a lot of reading. Like right now, I have been in contact with different NGOs from whom I get research material, and talk to them about dos and dont’s. Thankfully, because I am getting a lot of official support and tie ups from NGO’s across the country, the NGO’s which are dealing with alternate sexuality or like organizations. They are from all over from Bangalore, Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai. So, across the board I am having NGOs come over and support this project.”

Each film, and the project as a whole, is being supported by donations from the movie-going public. “Some of the finance is being based on the company but for the other 50% what we are doing is raising it, in a way, from the audience by making them part owners of the film. The whole idea is that not only are you raising money, but you are making an audience which is an active audience, supporting the kind of film that is getting made, right from the stage of making, and whom you constantly interact with in terms of what is the film about and what is the content. For example, we had this whole thing about let’s name the films. Like, when the five films are put together collectively what will be the name. Let’s all think about it. So everyone is participating, and at the end of the day when the film comes out these people will see their money, they will not only come because their names are there, they will get their friends to see it because they feel that this is also their film. I feel it is an experiment for me to try and create a different audience for the kind of films I want to do. It is an experiment – let’s see where it goes,” Onir explained.

When asked, ‘What would you say to people who would be interested in becoming part of this project?’ Onir replied,”[What] I would like to tell people who are interested in the project is one, that I feel it is an unique kind of project that allows them to participate in the making of the film, they can own the film. It is not just a film they are supporting, it is a cause they are supporting, which it takes it to a certain level. For me, it is inviting people to join to create this kind of cinema to stand for certain things in life and be part of a movement. It is a kind of movement for me that we are trying to do. It is also a commercially viable project because people are volunteering not only in terms of money, but they are also volunteering to work on the film. I have ADs from all over, like Bangladesh, from Pakistan, from Nepal, coming all the way to Bombay to work for free on the project. There are people designing the website for free, doing the ‘making of’ for free. A lot of positive energy is coming together to make this possible. I think that all that anyone would be involved in the film would get a lot of love and positivity.”

So does he think this new kind of cinema can bring change to the world? “See, I don’t think anything that huge is going to happen overnight, but I feel that every small step is a step forward. Even if ten people change their mindsets, it is still a movement, and I strongly, strongly believe that! I believe that this is a medium that can change mindsets, and it is a medium that can create awareness. It has always done, all through history. I will not say art has changed everything but it has always played an important part in making people question people in life. For me, the main thing is that these films make you question things.”

Abhimanyu, the first in the series, began shooting in July and has now been completed. The film stars Sanjay Suri in the title role and the cast also includes newcomer Pooja Gandhi as well as Rahul Bose and Anurag Kashyap. On August 16th Omar, the next film in the series, begins its journey with Rahul Bose and Abhimanyu Singh and newcomer Sahil Saigal. According to Onir, “All five films will have ensemble casts and will feature people like Juhi Chawla, Sanjay Suri, Purab Kholi. You know people I know Purab, Abhimanyu Singh, Mahi Gill and I will also be introducing at least 5 new actors and actresses.” The director expects to have all 5 films complete by October 2009. About how it is going so far Onir says, “It seems unreal sometimes that a film is getting made through Facebook funding, but now that I have completed the first shoot and starting the second…. I feel confident that this could be a new way for independent cinema.”

If you want to be a part of this new way for independent cinema you can find out more and make your contribution at I am Abhimanyu Blog. Besides the blog, you can also get up-to-date information on the films on Facebook: Abhimanyu and Omar.

We applaud everyone involved in this project and will be sure to keep you updated on I Am, so keep checking back often.

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