My Brother Nikhil is India’s first film to take on both homosexuality and HIV. But though neither issue is soft-pedaled in the film, what really comes through in My Brother Nikhil and what allows it find a broader audience is family. Even the title, My Brother Nikhil, places the film squarely in the realm of family relationships.
“I needed the film to be seen in India,” says Onir. “We never promoted it as a gay film or a film about HIV/AIDS.” Onir had seen both those strategies backfire. Phir Milenge, a critically acclaimed Hindi remake of Philadelphia, about a heterosexual AIDS victim, sank at the box office despite UNDP support. Onir turned down an offer from some leading international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on HIV/AIDS to release the film on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day. “People know HIV/AIDS is all around,” says actor Sanjay Suri who plays Nikhil in the film. “But who wants to spend money and watch an ‘AIDS film’?”
The genesis of the story was a film Onir had edited about Indian swimmer Dominic D’Souza. In the early days of the epidemic in the 1980s, laws allowed quarantining HIV-positive people in virtual isolation in sanatoriums. Yet D’Souza became one of the first openly HIV-positive activists. Onir, who had already written four scripts before this about characters living on the edge of society, says, “Dominic stayed on my mind. His face would haunt me.”
But he knew that he didn’t want to make a docu-feature about D’Souza. He knew he wanted to make it with real stars. First he approached Sanjay Suri who he had been friends with for years. “The first time I read the script I was crying,” recalls Suri. “I was reacting to the script as never before. I knew it had to be done.” Well-wishers warned him it was professional suicide. Funders said if the character was made heterosexual, funding could be found. “But I couldn’t disturb the integrity of the script,” says Suri. “This was a role I would give my right arm for. I thought, come what may, let’s do it.”
Eventually Suri and other friends came together with Onir to fund the film and get it off the ground. Juhi Chawla, who had played Suri’s wife in Jhankar Beats, signed on for the pivotal role of Nikhil’s sister. “I needed a star with a lovable face and Juhi was perfect,” says Onir. For the father’s role he approached Victor Banerjee. Onir remembers couriering the script over to the actor in Mussoorie. The veteran of films by Satyajit Ray and David Lean responded, “Finest script I have read, I am doing it. Don’t worry.”
But once the film was done, its real journey started. That was when the battles with censor boards, distributors, public apathy all began. “We had zero promotion,” says Onir. “Compare that to the film Black getting 20,000 write-ups and none of them even mentioning that is really a remake.” Onir says the way the media circus works is to get the attention of movers and shakers like Shobha De or Parmeshwar Godrej. “Otherwise the media is much more bothered about Mallika Sherawat’s panties,” he quips acidly. HIV/AIDS is a cause du jour these days in the industry but Onir says “it’s not from the heart. It’s a socialite thing. There can be expensive corporate campaigns like Coke Cares but there’s no money unless you get Shah Rukh Khan.”
Where Nikhil lucked out was it had some early champions in the industry. Director Karan Johar was so moved by the film he helped get Yash Raj Films to distribute it. Sanjay Suri says that in India, celebrities do matter. “It works on a macro mass level if you can get either politicians, cricketers, or film stars to endorse your cause.” Or if not endorse, at least not obstruct it. Suri and Onir cleverly muted the sort of negative backlash films like Fire received by reaching out to all sectors. “We dipsticked the film with some hardcore, commercial, anti-gay distributors,” remembers Suri. “When they realized what it was about, the body language became fidgety. But in the end, I quickly switched on the lights and caught them crying.”
What works, says Suri, was the film managed to make its point “without pointing a finger at anyone.” It even surprisingly nabbed a U censor certificate. He was surprised how well the film fared among men. He thinks the difficult father-son relationship was something many men could relate to. He knows married gay men who say they saw themselves in the initially closeted Nikhil. “I thought but Nikhil stopped and you succumbed,” says Suri with a small smile.
Among gay men, the film has had its critics who complained that though Nikhil’s relationship with Nigel (played by Purab Kohli) is quite clear, they don’t even get to kiss. “In a normal Bollywood film, a kiss causes so much hoo-haa,” says Onir, pointing out that Juhi’s character never gets to kiss her boyfriend either. “But from Purab’s look, right from the first scene, and his body language as he is getting him tea in the morning, you know this is about love.”
“Onir didn’t have to remind us that we were in love,” says Suri. “We were so much in sync. I am anyway a highly emotional person. And Purab was so comfortable.” In fact, Kohli’s main question to Onir about how to play Nigel was, “Am I supposed to be the woman in the relationship?” Onir told him he wanted him to be gay but not effeminate. This would be a “portrayal of homosexuality that was not a caricature.”
The idea, Onir says, was to introduce to audiences homosexual relationships based on love rather than sex.
It works. Onir recalls that some of the crew were uncomfortable with the theme of the film. But toward the end of the shoot, he overheard the gaffer telling the cameraman, “I never thought of these things in this way before. I think it’s okay.” One of the lightboys came up to him and said, “Aapne jo friendship dekhaya hai, woh accha hai. (The friendship that you have shown is good.)”
This goodwill has propelled the film forward to many unlikely venues. Onir says one of the most rewarding screenings was with the Assam Rifles contingent. “More people are dying of HIV in the army than any other sector and they know you cannot ignore it,” he says. “We had four free shows and they were all packed.” The film has been provoking a lot of interesting questions. Suri remembers being asked why Nigel does not contract AIDS. He feels the film has actually opened up spaces to talk about sex. “We have no sex education. We want to sideline the issue even though we are sitting on a bomb with some 5.2 million people reportedly infected,” says Suri.
Onir says many NGOs working on HIV issues do not know how to go about having this conversation. He says many of the organizations working on AIDS in India didn’t want to put any money into Nikhil because “they need a direct message about AIDS prevention in the film.”
“It never works,” Onir says, his voice tinged with frustration. “Go indirect. Support the film. Then after its release you can talk about all the issues.”
And the issues, says Onir, are critical. Some might wonder why he did not choose to update the film to more contemporaneous times rather than the late 1980s when ignorance about the disease was rampant and society accepted laws quarantining homosexuals. “The laws have changed,” admits Onir. “But the attitudes from society have not necessarily changed. I read about five students from Tamil Nadu who were expelled for being HIV positive. Three positive patients jumped out of J.J. Hospital in Bombay. It is still a ‘dirty disease.’”
The problem is that despite numbers like 5.2 million much of India’s burgeoning middle class never sees the face of the disease. Even Onir admits that at first he didn’t know anyone with AIDS other than friends in Germany. For most Indians, AIDS still remains a remote disease they read about because friends and family members who might be positive will rarely admit it. Even the gay community in big cities like Mumbai, says Onir, is often more interested in parties. But in Manipur, says Onir, he knows of 180 people who died of AIDS within a radius of one kilometer.
In the end only time will tell what impact one film like My Brother Nikhil will have in changing attitudes about a “dirty disease.” But for Sanjay Suri it has already done enough. “It’s something which I will treasure,” he says. “It’s truly different and I will never forget what all we had to go through and where the film is taking us.”
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.