That was the painful part. And the enjoyable part? That came from the reactions to My Brother Nikhil. Mainline reviews have gone from calling it “a truly heroic desi endeavour” to a “little gem of a movie,” and the last few days have been a whirl of bouquets and congratulatory SMSs. You can’t blame the first-time producer for hovering over Cloud Nine. It’s his moment in the sun and he’s reveling in it.
He was an actor only 20 percent of the time—when he was in front of the camera, recounts Suri. The other 80 percent was for the producer in him. Says he, “Every night after the shoot in Goa, I’d sit with the accounts, coordinate dates and decide on the next day’s schedule. It was hectic and I was getting rogered from all sides. But luckily for me, things kept moving. We started with a small idea, the right people supported it, it got the correct visibility, it’s been widely appreciated. What more could I ask for?”
Suri says he’d never planned to turn producer. Director Onir and he took the script to various producers but all they got were bizarre suggestions. “One producer even said, ‘Get a star to give Nikhil HIV’! Our sensibilities simply didn’t match. We realized we were losing out on the integrity of the film. Then someone said My Brother Nikhil is a small film. I retorted, it’s a huge film for us. Because when you have a tight budget, you have to work six times harder to save the money, cut corners to do the things you want to. So we finally decided to produce it ourselves.”
The film received much attention also because of its unique marketing strategy. A line-up of celebrities promoted the film with just one line: “I care for my brother Nikhil. Do you?” Says Sanjay, “After we shot the film, I’d gone to Delhi to pitch for sponsorships. But we didn’t have Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan in the film so how would Pepsi or Coke come in? That’s when we hit on the idea: why not ask the corporate world to care for my brother Nikhil? After Karan (Johar) saw the film and liked it, he went out of his way to help me. He introduced me to Aditya Chopra and got him interested in my film. I really can’t thank him enough. When Yash Raj Films took over, they said, why not get youth icons to promote the film. So I met Abhishek and Saif and they said yes without even seeing the film. Through Yash Raj and Global Sports we got Mahesh Bhupathy, Sania Mirza, Rahul Dravid, and Mandira Bedi. I’m extremely grateful to all of them.”
As a producer, Suri says he’s grateful to his cast too. “It’s one of those rare films where no one said no,” he tells us. “We went to Juhi with the script and the very next day she said she was on. It was the same with Victor Banerjee, Purab Kohli, Shweta Kawaatra and the others. Each of them supported us throughout.”
As an actor, Suri admits to being slightly apprehensive about playing a homosexual. “I realized I would be the first actor to play a homosexual character in a mainstream film without mocking the character’s sexuality. Something like this hadn’t been attempted on the Indian screen before. We knew that to make a sensitive and believable film, we had to handle the subject with care.”
He says getting into the skin of the character required some hard work, for he had to play it both on the physical and the emotional level. Sanjay essays a state-level swimmer in the pink of health and then a terminally ill person who succumbs to AIDS. “The look had to be different. I self-trained myself to swim in the choppy sea. I had to be credible as a champion swimmer. But the real challenge lay in playing an AIDS patient.
“I had to lose nearly seven kilos in one month. Emotionally, it was difficult to get into the mindset of a person who has no hope. It’s an area where no one wants to go. We don’t want to think about it. Before you come to terms with the disease the stigma hits you. I did a lot of research about the symptoms of AIDS. As an actor, I needed to know why they lose weight and why the lesions appear.”
The actor hopes more doors in the industry will open for him now that he has proven himself. Now that he understands the trade, he says, “Unfortunately, there were no banners supporting me. So I had to create my own banner.” He chortles. “Look at my luck, I’ve joined the Yash Raj camp as a producer, not as an actor. Ha!” But then he says, “Everyone out here wants to piggyback on someone else—What can I get from him? Can I get into that banner? You know, there’s really no point in complaining that the industry doesn’t give a damn about your talent. It’s all about commerce. If, tomorrow, I can get in the millions, I’ll have 50 producers outside my house. It’s a simple case of demand and supply.”