Two Reeling films address social intolerance through individual portraits

On Saturday, November 5, at noon, the Landmark will screen My Brother…Nikhil, which has drawn comparisons to Philadelphia while circulating on the festival circuit. The film, the first mainstream release in India with a gay protagonist, is structured as a retrospective, with Nikhil’’s story being told in flashbacks and interviews with surviving friends and family. He was a champion swimmer, but harbored a secret that could and would destroy his budding career: He was gay, and he had contracted HIV. One didn’t necessarily lead to the other (Nikhil had received the virus from a needle when he was sick), but it might as well have, given the ignorance—–and, thus, intolerance–—levels about the disease in the late 1980s.

When Nikhil is unjustly imprisoned in a sanitarium, his family moves away after being ostracized by society. However, Anu, his older sister, refuses to abandon him. With Nigel, Nikhil’’s lover, Anu launches a movement to have Nikhil released and to educate the public about HIV.

The premise of the film is a brave one, though it falters in its execution. The three musical numbers were attached ostensibly to show that the situation wasn’’t always doom-and-gloom, but they seem extraneous to the purpose of the film. The film also shies away from depictions of gay culture as a whole (there is nothing to suggest a relationship, or even attraction, between Nikhil and Nigel), perhaps due to the fact that such a portrayal might have been deemed too scandalous for the Indian censorship boards, and instead chooses to focus on the all-conquering influence of family.

The film succeeds there, as it does in its most important facet: illustrating the fear and social prejudices Nikhil faced during his tribulation, and how, with the help of a loving support system, he was able to regain his dignity. The interviews lend a documentarian feel to the film, but I’’m not sure whether their effect was heightened or dampened by the sentimentality. And during the flashback sequences, Nikhil (played convincingly by Sanjay Suri) allows the audience to experience his alarm, distress, and agony at finding out he is HIV-positive—–he knows all too well what will happen to him, and so do we, a sickening feeling in our stomachs. Anu’’s indignation and courage is felt keenly, as is Nigel’’s determination to stand by his lover.

To hail My Brother…Nikhil as the dawn of a new chapter in Indian film is perhaps going overboard, but there is no denying that this is an important film, mostly for its powerful portrayal of a man who not only fights against his disease but also against a society that fears him because it doesn’t understand him.