by Robert Urban, August 17, 2005
So when is the last time you attended a film where the entire audience wept, applauded and stood in spontaneous ovation? Such heartfelt reactions occurred July 1 at the New York Asian Film Festival’s screening of the groundbreaking movie My Brother Nikhil. It is, hands down, one of the finest gay/AIDS-themed films I’ve ever seen.
Sometimes a familiar tale, told from a twice-removed, culturally distant perspective, can enlighten in a special way. For American gay men, especially those who lived through the U.S. AIDS crisis, My Brother Nikhil is striking in its ability to reawaken important, albeit painful, memories of all kinds: the social and familial situations we lived through as queer youth; our own 30-year-old AIDS crisis here in America, and our early response to that crisis–confusion, outrage, hopelessness. Then there is the struggle and awkwardness of having to be the bearer of such uncomfortable tidings for mainstream society–namely that they needed to wake up and recognize the reality of both the disease, and of our gay existence.
Shot entirely on location, the story of My Brother Nikhil unfolds in the Indian province of Goa between the years 1987 to 1994. Nikhil Kapoor is the all round Goan state swimming champion. His proud father has brought him up to be a sportsman/swimmer. His mother dotes on him and his elder sister is his closest friend. Handsome, jovial and charming, he is the idol of his peers and his friends love him. It is the picture of the perfect happy family.
But all this changes on August 8, 1989, when Nikhil is arrested and imprisoned in solitary confinement in a run-down government sanitarium, because his swim team health exam has revealed he is HIV-positive.
As My Brother Nikhil filmmaker Onir puts it, “This film tells the story of a man who suddenly falls from grace and is socially ostracized. His parents, friends and colleagues all turn their backs on him as his whole world collapses. It is also about how relationships redefine themselves in times of crisis; about parents who are unable to face social humiliation and abandon their son; about a son’s remorse at being rejected by his parents and of his longing for their love; about his quest to achieve something in life, and to be loved; about a sister who defies her parents and stands by her brother, caring for him and protecting him with unconditional love; about a gay relationship that withstood social disapproval.”
The film’s action seems to take its measured pace from recurring visual imagery of the slow, swollen, undulating ocean waves that roll endlessly just off this quiet Goan seaside port. Nikhil swims through them, they wash up just off the family home, and all cast members appear at the seashore intermittently throughout the story. For this film, one could say that the endeavor of swimming through oncoming waves is an allegory for one’s struggle through life’s adversities.
There is a Wagnerian size and feel to the overall movie (including an extended, “Liebstod” type finale), and the large, wide feel of its motion works well. As in well-realized Wagner, My Brother Nikhil doesn’t succumb to rushing itself just to get by.
All the actors turn in absolutely top-notch professional performances. Even as they tip-toe around culturally and morally touchy subjects, they captivate with understatement and warmth.
Purab Kohli (Nigel) and Sanjay Suri (Nikhil) as gay lovers–with no onscreen sex or even kissing–offer in their brave portrayals a window for Indian society to see homosexuals in a full, dignified human way. In fact, virtually all the main characters in this movie are role models for tolerance and understanding, and through this first-of-its-kind film are presented to a culture that hasn’t yet come to terms with either HIV/AIDS or homosexuality.
Special mention must be made of actor Victor Banerjee, who plays Nikhil’s father Navin Kapoor. Reminiscent of the reserved, down-to-earth acting style of Adolf Menjou from Hollywood’s golden era, Victor’s performance in this film is a revelation of natural, low-key believability. Early on in the story his character is little more than a generic “Ward Cleaver” kind of one-dimensional dad. But as the plot progresses, his portrayal evolves right along with it.
The culminating scenes in which he breaks down in emotional crisis over the tragedy of his son are nothing less than devastating.
A high point at the film’s New York Asian Film Festival screening was when its handsome star Sanjay Suri, (Nikhil), appeared onstage in person at the movie’s end to speak to the audience. To suddenly see him in the flesh, alive and well, after the torture of watching his slow wasting death onscreen, was an emotional shock to all. It was like seeing a loved one come back from death, and the audience let out a simultaneous gasp and sigh of relief as he took the stage. Also on hand at the NYC screening was the film’s director and screenwriter, Onir.
He noted, in his talk to the audience, that although there appears the standard disclaimer at the beginning of the film–stating it is a fictitious story–My Brother Nikhil is actually based on true historical fact. The Indian government forced him to use the disclaimer in order to gain permission to make the film.
So strong is AIDS discrimination and anti-gay bias in India today that even local Goan churches refused Onir the use of their buildings to film.
Viewing My Brother Nikhil can be an emotionally exhausting experience, because it reminds us of our own recent history, much of which we perhaps hoped we’d never have to deal with again. But when we see the same things occurring in India today that Americans went through ourselves only a short time ago, the term “never forget” has never seemed more relevant.