Ripples of Change in Indian Film

When the lights came up after a screening of "My Brother Nikhil" at the Castro theater in San Francisco, my eyes were raw and red from weeping. I had expected that India's first film to take on the twin taboos of HIV and homosexuality would be an emotional tearjerker, with sad songs and 100 wailing violins. Instead, it was really about family.

Coming out in India in the late 1980s was a lonely experience. In order to do it, many of us had to isolate ourselves, sometimes putting oceans between us and our families. Yet the family remained, like an amputated limb still tugging us back. And as Onir, the director of "My Brother Nikhil" found out, it's a feeling that cuts across cultures.

"I thought being in San Francisco, people would go for the gay angle," says Onir, who uses one name only. "But a Mexican man who had been positive for 15 years came to me and said, 'Thank you for making a film about family.'"

Coming out as gay is often about the triumph of the individual over family. In queer magazines, hunky gay men and women advertise everything from cruises to pills. They are usually alone, or at most with a cutie they might have met on Families are missing, as if they don't matter. But some of the biggest cheers at San Francisco's annual LGBT Pride Parade are always reserved for gray-haired folks in nondescript T-shirts, marching under the PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) banner.

Watching "My Brother Nikhil," I realized that if attitudes toward HIV or homosexuality are to change, that change has to come from within families. Onir realizes that too. Even the title, "My Brother Nikhil," places the film squarely in the realm of family relationships.

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 '80s, laws allowed quarantining HIV-positive people in virtual isolation in sanatoriums. Yet D'Souza became one of the first openly HIV-positive activists.

"Dominic's face would haunt me," says Onir. But instead of making a documentary about homosexuality and HIV, he decided to make a regular Bollywood film in Hindi. It even has a song.

"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. A critically acclaimed Hindi remake of "Philadelphia" with 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.

Previous queer-themed films like "Fire" and "Girlfriends" had released in India touting their lesbian content. India's right wing, always on the watch for "Western corruption," ransacked theaters. Onir describes his film instead as one about relationships, between brother and sister, father and son and also between two male lovers.

Onir organized screenings for some of the more homophobic distributors as well as some big names in the right-wing parties. "I switched on the lights immediately after the screening," says actor Sanjay Suri, who plays Nikhil. "And I could see they had been crying."

With an estimated 5.2 million Indians infected with HIV, HIV awareness has become the mantra of NGOs all over India. Media is key to this effort. But foundations funding HIV/AIDS awareness want films that have a direct message about prevention. "It never works," Onir says. "It has to be personalized, and then you can talk about the issue afterwards." "People know its all around, but they don't want to spend money to watch a film about AIDS," Suri says.

One thing Indians do understand, however, is family drama. With Bollywood star Juhi Chawla -- a sort of Meg Ryan of wholesomeness -- playing Nikhil's sister, the film, Onir says, gets its point across "without making anyone uncomfortable, without threatening anyone." Even the Indian censor board, a notoriously prickly body, has issued a U-certificate, which allows the film to be screened for everyone from school children to army soldiers.

Some gay activists have criticized Onir for toning down gay content in order to make the film more mass-market friendly. Though the relationship between the film's protagonist Nikhil and his lover Nigel is unmistakable, they are never shown kissing. "Even the heterosexuals in the film don't kiss," Onir retorts. "But from the very first look Nigel gives Nikhil, you know he loves him." The idea, Onir says, was to introduce to audiences homosexual relationships based around love rather than sex.

It works. Onir recalls that some of the crew members 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 OK."

"It's OK" is a small ripple of change. But it's starting at the only place where change might really stick -- in the heart of the family. Gay films have often been about coming out. In some ways, "My Brother Nikhil" is about coming home.

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