Bollywood Does AIDS

My Brother… Nikhil. Directed by Onir. India, 120 min. Hindi/English.

Song and dance against a verdant valley. Good pitted against evil. Fantastical villains. Bright colors. Spectacle and turmoil. No more, no less, this is Bollywood as the Indian film industry has been known for decades.

Yet, since the 1990s there has been a perceptible change in the quality and subject matter of Hindi films. Against this backdrop comes a commercial film about a gay man grappling with AIDS called My Brother… Nikhil directed by Onir.

At the New York premiere held at the Asia Society, audience members gave a warm reception to the film. The story is related in a flashback as the family and friends of the central character Nikhil document his story. Loosely based on the life of one of the first victims of AIDS in 1980s Goa, it recalls the social stigma that was aroused due to a lack of awareness of the disease. Nikhil is a state championship swimmer who is cast out by his parents, arrested and put into solitary confinement in a dirty sanatarium by the law of the country at the time, and treated as a social outcast. It is only with the help of his sister and gay partner that he fights the law, creating awareness and social sympathy for his cause in the process.

"This film is primarily about human relationships. It is about a character who lives on the edge of a society that finds him unacceptable. I did not write the  film as a platform for gay rights and AIDS awareness. But I am happy to know many activists have embraced this film. In fact, many gay people are using the film to call their families in to come out into the open," declares Onir, the director of the film.

This is no light claim. India is a country where 5.2 million people are afflicted with AIDS. Despite growing awareness, social discrimination and outrage still accompany those affected by the disease. The burden is even worse when one is gay. "Just recently, five men in a progressive city like Mumbai jumped out of a hospital window when they discovered they had AIDS. A woman in Gujarat was recently beaten to death for the same reason," continues Onir.

Bollywood has massive outreach, with 177 Hindi film releases bringing 2.7 billion admissions to cinemas in India in 2004 alone. Many of these films are escapist song and dance spectacles, engaging traditional themes of love, marriage and family. The success of My Brother… Nikhil provides much optimism for those who wish the Indian film industry to engage socially realistic subject matters.

"It was no easy task raising money for the film. Traditional, mainstream producers believed that we were committing commercial suicide, depicting a homosexual man with AIDS as the central character. One producer even told us that he would get us funding if we got a popular actress like Aishwarya Rai to give Nikhil AIDS. That wasn't possible of course since Nikhil is gay," laughs Sanjay Suri, the producer of the film who also plays the central character of Nikhil. Ultimately, the filmmakers chose to invest their own funds rather than compromise their creative integrity.

More than his own personal trauma, the film documents the outright rejection of a hapless young boy by a society that has nurtured and celebrated him until then. Its style is unusual, given conventional norms of Bollywood blockbusters. "The film was shot as docu-feature. It is not meant to be a fairytale. Its technique is not unique to international cinema, but is experimental given the typical Hindi film," adds Onir.

Interestingly, there has been no reaction from the religious right in India, a faction that just a few years back reacted violently to Deepa Mehta's "Fire" depicting a lesbian relationship. "This was one of the first mainstream Indian films where the lead character is gay. I was not graphic in my portrayal of the gay relationship between Nikhil and his partner because I did not want that to become a focus of attention, rather than the film itself. I also did not specifically reveal how Nikhil contracted AIDS because in India the perception remains that if you get AIDS from a prostitute or if you are homosexual, then you deserve it, while if it's through a blood transfusion then everyone is sympathetic. I wanted this film to be about acceptance, no matter what the circumstances," elaborates Onir.

Even more surprising was the fact that the film failed to find a distributor in the overseas sector, given that Indian producers recoup a substantial twelve percent of their production budgets from overseas rights sales. "It was very disappointing. We need a little bit more support for changing India, especially for films that go beyond traditional stereotypes. This is the reality of India," expresses Mr. Suri. 

Mainstream Bollywood films that have gained popularity abroad tend to be as geared towards the Non-Resident Indian audience that locate their history in India as to the emerging westernized, urban Indian middle class discovering the luxury of multiplex theaters. My Brother… Nikhil is no exception. "Our target was the urban, multiplex audience. Yet, despite the seemingly controversial theme, the film traveled beyond the urban metropolises to smaller towns and remote areas," explains Onir. However, it has failed to find much of an audience abroad. 

For those who have had the opportunity to see the film in a few select screenings in New York, there has been a positive reaction. "It is a very bold and brave film, fighting the ignorance that accompanies gender differences and AIDS. In our annual Indian Film Festival held in New York, we look for good films that engage society. The more they discuss the better," comments Aroon Shivdasani, Executive Director of the Indo American Arts Council.

In a similar vein, Kevin Huang-Cruz, Policy and Capacity Building Specialist for the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS says, "The proto typical example of an Asian with HIV is denial. There is a sense that the disease is out there but I am not going to get it. This film opens the door towards discussion and awareness. It also shows how activism can change community and family attitudes towards homosexuality and AIDS."

Comments At the New York premiere captivated at the Asia Society, admirers associates gave a balmy accession to the film. The adventure is accompanying in a anamnesis as the ancestors and accompany of the axial appearance Nikhil certificate his story.
"Gr8 article.I do have friends who are gay. Never been such ""unusual"" & palpable human emotions & relationships have been looked upon with so much respect . I congratulate Onir & Madhur for bringing that out."

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