The New York Asian Film Festival has wrapped for this year but we've still got reviews coming in ... Here's Josh Ralske on My Brother Nikhil.
It’s me again, that movie critic who doesn’t respond to button-pushing tearjerkers like MARATHON (which I saw at the NY Asian Film Festival and reviewed for ScreenAnarchy earlier). Unfortunately, the estimable programmers of the NYAFF have put me in the position of strongly recommending another button-pushing, melodramatic tearjerker, this one from India, entitled MY BROTHER NIKHIL.
MY BROTHER NIKHIL, a Hindi film, is, like MARATHON, about a talented athlete who faces his own set of challenges. It doesn’t have the slick production values of the Korean sports flick. It’s clearly a low-budget film, and it’s amateurish by comparison. What it does have, in abundance, is absolute sincerity in its good intentions. That’s not enough to make it a great film, but when the entire production is clearly infused with such goodwill, it does add to its emotional impact.
Nikhil (Sanjay Suri, who signed onto the project with director Onir from the beginning, and also co-produced the film) is a champion swimmer from Goa, and a popular guy who enjoys the love and support of his older sister, Anu (Juhi Chawla), his doting mother (Lillete Dubey, who Mira Nair fans may recognize from MONSOON WEDDING and VANITY FAIR), and his gruff old man (Victor Banerjee), a former athlete himself, who takes vicarious pleasure in Nikhil’s accomplishments. Dad also has a problem with the crowd Nikhil hangs with, which includes his close friend Nigel (Purab Kohli).
Nikhil’s world crumbles around him when he discovers, through a routine blood test, that he has HIV. Most of his friends and his fellow athletes desert him. His family is publicly scorned, and even his parents seem disgusted with him. Worse yet, Nikhil is arrested (until surprisingly recently, being gay in an of itself was essentially a crime in India) and thrown into a rundown, rat-infested, abandoned sanitarium, where he is held against his will. The only people who stand by him, Anu, her husband Sam (Gautam Kapoor), and Nigel, who turns out to have been Nikhil’s lover, fight for his release.
Nikhil’s family and friends address the camera directly, as though the film was a documentary, and the story flashes back to show the events described. This isn’t an entirely convincing way to present the story, but it does have the value of humanizing Nikhil’s parents (who say and do some pretty horrible things as the film progresses) and highlighting the wonderful emotional honesty of Chawla and Kohli’s performances.
The film is set in the 1990s, so the ignorance and hostility Nikhil faces, while it may seem outrageous on its face, is fairly believable. Director Onir and actor Suri attended the NYAFF screening, and explained that despite a disclaimer saying it’s fiction, tacked onto the film to get it through the censors, the film is essentially a true story.
MY BROTHER NIKHIL is by no means a typical Bollywood production, despite the existence of a naturalistically presented musical number or two. (It’s mainly one touching song, “Le Chale,” repeated with variations throughout the film.) It’s also not the first Hindi film to deal with HIV and AIDS. (PHIR MILENGE, essentially a Bollywood remake of PHILADELPHIA with a straight woman in the Tom Hanks role, was released in 2004.) It is probably the first Hindi film to address homosexuality in such an open, nonjudgmental way. The brother-sister relationship is central to the story, and these are likeable, believable characters, but it seemed a bit of a copout. Appropriately enough, the emphasis does eventually shift to Nikhil’s relationship with Nigel.
There was a hilarious sketch on the late, lamented HBO comedy series, MR. SHOW, in which awards, called “The Speshies,” were given out to self-congratulatory Hollywood actors for taking on “brave” roles of variously disabled and handicapped folk. Both MARATHON (about an autistic runner) and MY BROTHER NIKHIL, with Suri’s bluntly depicted descent into full-blown AIDS, reminded me of that sketch. But in the case of MY BROTHER NIKHIL, I knew that the cynical part of my brain was being unfair. Context is all. Whatever the merits of Suri’s performance, and to me, it’s good but distinctly uneven, there’s no denying that there’s a large degree of real, honest-to-goodness bravery in an Indian actor taking on this role, and helping to shepherd the film into existence. Beyond that, in the end I found myself genuinely moved, in spite of my determination not to be crudely manipulated.
Review by Josh Ralske.