Everyone has some childhood memories associated with train travel. Noted filmmaker, Onir, recalls his train journeys and how the experience helped him to capture life later.
The heritage toy train of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway enjoyed its four minutes of fame in the Seventies’ love anthem, Mere Sapno Ki Rani Kab Aayegi Tu, filmed on Rajesh Khanna-Sharmila Tagore in Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana. In the song, Khanna crooned from an open-top Willis jeep as it meandered alongside the toy train where his lady love sat blushing behind an Alistair McLean book. Khanna’s female fans swooned over the sight, and it came as no surprise that the film went on to become a blockbuster, catapulating him to stardom. But what caught the attention of a young boy Onir from Thimpu, Bhutan, on his first joyride in the toy train years later, was how Khanna’s Nepali topi could stay put on his head in a moving vehicle, withstanding the twists and turns of the hilly road and his constant head movements? Still amused and intrigued by this sight, he is today making waves with his approach to the craft of cinema and the art of storytelling and film-making by being the voice of the victims of social injustice.
TRYST WITH DESTINY
Born as Anirban Dhar in Thimpu, he spent his early years in Bhutan where his parents were settled before moving to Kolkata in 1986 to pursue his undergrad degree in Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University. He has an elder sister Irene Dhar Malik, who is a film and television editor, and a younger brother Anshuman, who is a physicist. “At home, we three were equal. There was no role definition whatsoever, and we grew up reading, trekking, fishing, gardening and enjoying the little pleasures of life. I had not watched TV till I was in Class 10.” The first film that Onir happened to watch was Shyam Benegal’s Junoon with his film buff mother and that too when he was in Class 8. “I was very young at that time and didn’t understand much, but the visuals made an impact on my subconscious mind. The imagery was strong, and it kindled a desire to become a part of the films.”
For Onir and his siblings, if Thimpu was synonymous with home, Kolkata meant holiday. “Every year, we anxiously waited for our winter vacation. For 15 years, travelling to Kolkata in winters was a ritual that our family of five followed without fail. The train journey from Jalpaiguri to Sealdah in Darjeeling Mail was nothing short of an expedition,” he says. But what has stayed on with him are the sights and sounds of those fun-filled train trips when one carried almost the entire household along, bedding sets, food, water, tea, playing cards, books, walkman, anything and everything, and a journey seemed more like a community activity. “Travelling by trains is a wonderful experience. One gets to see nature, human beings, towns… and rivers, in fact, life,” he recollects.
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
While pursuing his degree, he also completed a course in film studies at Chitrabani in Kolkata. His first documentary, Glimpses of a College Street, was screened at a workshop organised by Max Muller Bhavan and Chitrabani. He received a scholarship to study film-making at SFB/TTC in Berlin. After returning to India, he produced and directed Fallen Hero, his first independent documentary portraying a painter’s life and his dilemma with the volatile political discourse in Bengal. Onir worked as editor, song designer and producer of music albums before writing, directing, and coproducing his first commercial feature film, My Brother Nikhil. It was the first mainstream Hindi film specifically addressing homosexuality in the context of human rights and HIV-AIDS. “It took me ten long years to make my first film in Mumbai. But I knew that it would take time, and I was patient all through.”
Together with Sanjay Suri, he started Anticlock Films, a production company that is at the forefront of being the voice of independent cinema. His next two directorial ventures Bas Ek Pal and Sorry Bhai failed to set the cash registers ringing but brought forth Onir’s sensibility as a director who cares to take the road less travelled and creates a lasting impression in the minds of the audience with sensitive characterisation, unconventional plots and soulful music in his films.
His I Am which consisted of four short films based on themes of single motherhood, displacement, child abuse and same-sex relationships went on to win the National Award in two categories — Best Film and Best Lyrics. The film was one of India’s largest crowd-sourced films with 400 co-producers from 40 cities across the world. “For me, every day is a part of a dream that I am living to the fullest. My focus is to keep doing my kind of cinema and nurturing and introducing new talents.”
He went to produce Bikas Ranjan Mishra directed Chauranga that he calls a great journey as a film-maker.
Most of his directorial outings have taken the international film circuits by storm, winning awards and creating waves with their sensitive portrayal of off-beat, non-conformist but yet relatable characters.
His next Shab, starring Raveena Tandon, is set in Delhi and tells the story of the search for happiness and love of multiple characters caught in the web of circumstances. It was the first script that he had written way back in 2000. “After ages, I travelled by train for Shab’s shoot. And I was not alone in this journey; the cast and crew travelled with me in Rajdhani Express. It was fun to be back on the train. My concerns were hygiene and safety, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the change. The services have improved a lot,” says Onir. Buoyed by his experience, he says, he is tempted to travel by trains more often. “A lot is possible on a train: a great meal, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and conversations with strangers, so much and so more.”