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Bittersweet tale of brother and brotherhood
Cause combines with craft as a former Jadavpur University student focuses on a family torn asunder by the spectre of AIDS. Will the audience take to another small but significant film like Nikhil takes to the choppy waters, wonders Sudeshna Banerjee

I care for my brother Nikhil. The message, loud and clear, comes from star actors, directors and icons of the sports fraternity. Abhishek Bachchan and Saif Ali Khan, Karan Johar and Mandira Bedi, Rahul Dravid and Sania Mirza, Indian Idol Abhijeet Sawant and Mahesh Bhupathi ' they are all appearing on television voicing their concern for Nikhil Kapoor.

Who is Nikhil Kapoor' An ace swimmer from Goa, he is afflicted with AIDS and his fate will be decided this Friday. Not in an operation theatre but in the theatres.

My Brother Nikhil, city boy Onirban's directorial debut, tells the story of Nikhil, played by Sanjay Suri. 'The film is set in a period when there was so much misconception in India about AIDS that it was possible to segregate a person forcefully if he was found to be HIV-positive. In course of my research I read about a swimmer who was arrested in 1989 for being an AIDS patient and even after being released, he had to take permission to leave the house. The movement to change the law started in Goa, which is where the film is set,' says Onir, the name he is now known by.

The former student of comparative literature in Jadavpur University, though, insists that My Brother Nikhil is not an AIDS film. 'The story revolves around how relationships get redefined when such a disease strikes.' Nikhil starts out as a jovial, happy-go-lucky swimmer ' a state champion in fact ' loved and liked by all. His family comprises his father Navin (Victor Banerjee) who brings him up as a sportsperson, his mother Lilette Dubey and sister Juhi Chawla. But when he is detected with AIDS and visited by the cops, the family disintegrates and only his sister and a friend stand by him. The story is narrated by the sister.

'Karan Johar had come for a screening of the rough cut. He said he had cried for half-an-hour, he was so moved,' Onir said, adding that the star director-producer had commented that he had every right to be proud of such a debut. 'That really gave me confidence,' the 35-year-old smiles.

It was Karan who spoke to Aditya Chopra about the film. 'Adi too was impressed.' Yashraj Pictures then picked up the film for marketing and distribution. 'Aditya felt that it is important we start supporting good, meaningful cinema,' explains Tarun Tripathi, head of marketing, Yashraj Films.

Support for My Brother Nikhil has come from diverse quarters. 'Even before Yashraj came into the picture we were looking for champions for the cause. I spoke to Abhishek and Saif. Mandira (her husband Raj Kaushal is one of the producers) was only too happy to help,' recalls Sanjay Suri.

Among the sports stars, Bhupathi saw the film first. Not only did he agree to help with the publicity, he roped in Sania Mirza as well. 'The shooting with Bhupathi was done in Hyderabad while we had to travel to Bangalore to get Sania.'

If Mandira is among the cheerleaders, can cricket be far away' 'A contact with Rahul Dravid was made through the Bill Gates Foundation, which is working big time with AIDS. The India-Pakistan series was about to begin and a tight security net had been thrown over the Indian team's hotel in Chandigarh. Our crew was stopped at the hotel gate. I SMSed Rahul for help, and he himself made sure that they could get in and the shooting could happen smoothly,' Onir says, full of gratitude for Indian cricket's Mr Dependable.

The publicity has been on in full swing. With just a couple of days to go for D-Day, Suri, both lead actor and producer for the film, feels he has been 'fighting so long in the frontline and is about to gain the summit'. 'People ask me if I am feeling nervous. The truth is my hands are so full and the mind so keyed up to ensure the perfect release that I do not have the time to think beyond the immediate moment,' he says, stifling a tired yawn.

If this is the fatigued producer speaking, the character too demanded a lot from the actor, especially losing hair and weight (some 6-7 kg) and gaining both back for the pre and post-AIDS look. 'We did not shoot at a linear stretch.'

Suri is thankful to his cast for being 'so supportive'. Speaking of the other Bengali connection in the film, Victor Banerjee, he points out that he was perfect for the role 'being such a good actor and not completely overexposed'. 'You have seen just a bit of him in Bhoot.'

Victor himself is eagerly awaiting the release. 'My Brother Nikhil is the muted expression of a very sensitive director, and I would love to see it succeed in the hearts and minds of those who go to see it.'

The success of Black and Page 3 has been reassuring. 'It seems people are ready for new-age Indian cinema,' is what both Onir and Suri say.

New age My Brother Nikhil is, with just one song. As the swimmer takes to the high seas, whether the fickle movie-going public takes the plunge into meaningful cinema again, is what we have to watch out for.

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