In the 2019 Bollywood film Uri: The Surgical Strike, actor Vicky Kaushal, who plays the role of Major Vihan Shergill, responds to a request by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to cross the Line of Control and avenge the killing of Indian soldiers in Kashmir in 2016.
Unable to cross by air because of the threat of surface-to-air missiles, Major Shergill and his men infiltrate into Pakistan on foot. They kill all the terrorists responsible for the Uri attack of 2016. The film ends with the major and his commandos enjoying a celebratory dinner with the prime minister.
In stark contrast to Uri: The Surgical Strike, which won four National Awards, including Best Actor award for Kaushal, filmmaker Onir’s proposed We Are, has been refused clearance by the Ministry of Defence. A requirement introduced in 2020 makes it necessary for the ministry to approve all films concerning the military.
This implies that when it comes to the army, the government wishes to promote only a certain kind of narrative.
Like Uri, which is based on real-life events, We Are is based on the true story of Major J Suresh. The officer, currently in his 40s, quit the army on account of his sexual orientation, which made him uncomfortable living a life that is a lie. That is why Onir – who uses only one name – decided to make a bio-pic on him.
When I spoke to him, Onir said it was it ironic that the Ministry of Defence should object to the film, given that consensual adult homosexuality was decriminalised by the Supreme Court in September 2018. “When there is a Central Board of Film Certification set up for the purpose of clearing films, where’s the need for additional government ministries to clear them?” he asked.
No objection was raised when Onir in his 2011 film I Am showed policemen beating up a homosexual man (played by actor Rahul Bose) on the street. A Delhi High Court ruling between July 2009 and December 2013 had read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to exclude consenting adult homosexuals from the purview of the law.
At the time the film was made, the verdict on the appeal against the Delhi High Court ruling was still pending. Onir said that the release of I Am without any controversy should set a precedent for the release of films like We Are.
In the US, with which India is fond of comparing itself since both countries are large democracies, gays, lesbians and bisexuals were banned from military service until 2011. A soldier who was dismissed from service on account of his sexuality once famously wrote: “They honoured me with medals for killing many, but punished me for loving one.”
However, in 1993, President Bill Clinton passed a law that introduced a Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy, which allowed gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve in the army, provided they remained closeted. Finally, in December 2010, President Barak Obama signed the Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell Repeal Act, paving the way for a complete withdrawal of restrictions on gay, lesbian and bisexual personnel in the army the next year.
In the UK, gays were accepted in the military in 2000. In fact, the government even apologised to its sexual minorities for discriminating against them.
‘Amounting to discrimination’
No such apology came to us from the Indian government, even after the historic ruling of September 2018, bringing the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to mind: “We will know who is against us not by what they have said, but by their silence.”
Soldiers fight wars. If the government turns to Hindu mythology, it will discover that even during the Mahabharat war, Krishna transformed himself into a woman to become Aravan’s wife for one night, for Aravan was to be sacrificed in the war the next day. This validates both alternative gender and alternative sexuality.
Onir said that the objection to his film was a “basic denial of human dignity”. He wondered why sexuality should be an issue, when alternative sexuality is no longer a crime in India. He said there was “no logic” in the fact that films dealing with military personnel can show heterosexual love but not same-sex love. “This amounts to discrimination,” Onir said.
R Raj Rao’s novel Mahmud and Ayaz is to be published by Speaking Tiger later this year.