NEW DELHI — For years, J. Suresh struggled with shame over his identity as a gay man, which he kept to himself. When he joined the “hyper straight world” of the Indian army in the late 1990s, his feelings only intensified.
Worried that he’d be discovered and dishonorably discharged, Suresh retired from the military as a major in 2010 after having served for more than 11 years. He waited 10 more years to officially come out as gay, fearing the disclosure would “somehow be detrimental to the image of the army,” he wrote in a blog post.
When Suresh shared his story in July 2020, it made headlines across socially conservative India. It also captured the attention of Onir, a gay Indian filmmaker who goes by one name.
It “fits my idea of the queer love story perfectly,” said Onir, whose coming film “We Are” is an anthology that tells four stories about LGBTQ characters, including one inspired by Suresh.
Because it involved a former service member, Onir submitted that part of the script for approval by the Defense Ministry in accordance with Indian regulations. The ministry rejected it, effectively halting production. In a January email to Onir seen by NBC News, an army spokesperson told him the “content of the script … has been analyzed in detail” and “the script has not been cleared.”
Onir said a Defense Ministry official told him in a subsequent phone call that “the portrayal of a soldier as gay is illegal.”
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Suresh, 46, who was actively involved in the production of the script, declined to comment. Onir said he was disappointed by the script’s rejection.
“For them, showing [an] army man as gay is demeaning, but for me it is about celebrating my identity,” Onir, 52, said in a phone interview from Mumbai.
‘The army is conservative’
After decades of efforts by activists, the Indian Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality in a landmark ruling in 2018. In their verdict, judges said the LGBTQ community deserved an apology for the history of brutal suppression under the previous law, which dated to India’s time as a British colony.
But the ruling didn’t affect India’s million-strong army, which is governed by its own law. Under that law, the Army Act, homosexuality is still punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
“The army is conservative,” Bipin Rawat, then the army chief, said at the time of the Supreme Court ruling. “We have neither modernized nor Westernized. … We will not allow this to perpetuate into the army. It is a very serious thing.”
Ajay Bhatt, the minister of state for defense, told Parliament last month that the story inspired by Suresh, about a romantic relationship between a soldier serving in Kashmir and a local man, had been rejected because it cast the army “in poor light and raises security concerns.”
Onir pointed out that the government had approved romantic films about Indian soldiers and female civilians.
“It is just a love story,” he said. “How is that a threat to national security?”
When Onir shared news of his script’s rejection on Twitter, some commenters approved of the military’s decision, saying the Indian army “needs ‘men’” and its soldiers “need more strength and power” and “can’t be having sex.”
Militaries around the world are characterized by heteronormative patriarchy, said Muda Tariq, one of the founders of Project Demilitarize, a nonprofit group that advocates for demilitarization in South Asia.
“A soldier is supposed to be a certain kind of man, [but] when you look at someone who is from LGBTQI++, they are seen as a deviant from the norm,” she said. “The military is founded on this hypermasculinity, [and] that is why there is still homophobia within the army.”
Onir said the culture is replicated in Indian movie theaters, where, he said, films about the military glorify violence and have typically masculine leads.
Women have also struggled to make inroads in the army, accounting for less than 1 percent of service members. They are excluded from most combat roles, and until a Supreme Court ruling last year, they were barred from attending an elite military academy that produces many of India’s top officers.
The government’s rejection of Onir’s film must also be viewed in the context of India’s extremist political discourse, Tariq said.
The rise of Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu-nationalist prime minister, is backed by a jingoistic, militaristic narrative, critics say. During his successful campaign for re-election in 2019, Modi emphasized national security and his own strongman image.
“If the government gives an approval to portrayal of a gay soldier, it deviates [from] the narrative,” Tariq said. “They are scared of this, to have this conversation.”
The Defense Ministry didn’t respond to a request for additional comment.
Struggles with censorship
Filmmakers in India have long struggled with censorship. Before films can be screened publicly, they must be approved by a certification board, and the government has proposed a controversial bill that would allow it to ban a film even if it has been certified. Since 2020, filmmakers also must obtain a no-objection certificate from the Defense Ministry for any film involving portrayals of the military.
“Why should the army do any kind of censorship anyway?” Onir said. “There is a film certification board. To stop a film — or stop a discourse — is not healthy.”
Retired Lt. Gen. H.S. Panag, who served in the army for four decades, said the army is burying its head in the sand.
“What is the army afraid of? You have court-martialed generals and colonels [for homosexuality], then why are you hiding these things in movies?” he said in a phone interview. “You are just running away from the prevalence of gay sex within the army.”
Onir, one of the first Indian directors to make mainstream movies about same-sex relationships, won a National Film Award, India’s version of the Oscars, for his 2010 film “I Am,” also an anthology of four stories, including one about gay rights.
“It was when homosexuality was still criminal under the law, and I got a national award for that,” Onir said. “But in 2022, I cannot tell a story that is based on a real incident.”
Onir said he plans to appeal the army’s decision, but he believes that if that fails, he can still make the film in a way that doesn’t cross authorities.
“It is a way to navigate when you are told to not show certain things,” he said. The resistance to the script “makes me more and more determined to tell queer stories, to make it more beautiful without accepting defeat.”