The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The best man in the tale with a twist
Juhi Chawla and Sanjay Suri on the sets of My Brother... Nikhil

My Brother' Nikhil might not be an example of cinematic excellence, but it stands out. Not because it deals with taboo subjects of AIDS and homosexuality, which an audience brought up on a Hollywood diet is, by now, familiar with. But because it dares to treat a gay relationship like it would any other.

Purab's Nigel de Costa is a breath of fresh air. He is comfortable with his sexuality, at peace with himself and honest with the world. He makes no excuses for the fact that he prefers men to women, nor does he really approve of the fact that his lover, Nikhil, chooses life in the closet. But he does understand the compulsions.

Till, that is, Nikhil's girlfriend from school, played by Dipannita Sharma, comes back and everyone expects an engagement. But when she plants a kiss on the unwilling Nikhil, Nigel's discomfort turns to jealousy.

Nigel, threatened, makes his anger known. Compounding his insecurity is the worry that Nikhil's family, in the dark about his sexuality, might actually convince him to tie the knot.

It is the utter lack of affectation that makes the relationship work so well on screen. It may be a bond between two men, but the dynamics are just the same, and director Onir has the sensitivity to capture that.

For once, a film in which homosexuality is a theme, does not make it front and centre, keeping attention on the real crisis, which is the brutal treatment handed out to Nikhil once he tests HIV positive. Nigel doesn't even ask his boyfriend how he has contracted the disease, as it doesn't really matter. He is upset Nikhil hides his positive status from him briefly, but once his own tests come back clean, this is no longer an issue.

Nigel stands by Nikhil even when it seems all of Goa, where the film is set, is against him. He comes back home one day to find the place trashed and the word 'faggot' painted in red on his wall. But still, Nigel takes Nikhil in, when even his own parents (played by Victor Banerjee and Lilette Dubey) have thrown him out.

All said, however, the relationship would have fallen flat (thanks to fairly poor scriptwriting) had it not been for Purab's complete ease before the camera. And also because Onir was not interested in capturing an uncomfortable liplock to prove a point.

Purab with Sanjay and with co-VJs Anushka and Sarah Jane at a Calcutta road show for
Channel [V]

Where are the directors' The only people calling me up have been reporters,' laughs Purab Kohli from Mumbai. 'But it's been just one week since the release,' adds the man, well aware of his arrival as an actor with his touching portrayal of Nigel de Costa in My Brother' Nikhil.

'I did start out as an actor with the television serial Hip Hip Hurray but that and even the VJ-ing stint initially was mainly for pocket money,' recalls Purab. 'It was after the first schedule of my first film, Padam Kumar's Supari, that I realised acting's something I would like to do seriously. Then, I did roles in Bas Yun Hi and Vastu Shastra before Nikhil happened.'

The early overs in filmdom have taught Purab the uneven pitch Bollywood is. 'Just being good is not good enough. What matters is the number of people watching the film. I was good in Supari and even appreciated in Bas Yun Hi, but audiences didn't go to see the films. I have realised that a large number of people need to see the film and that's what has happened with Nikhil.'

But it wasn't that easy to say yes to a gay character. 'My first reaction was 'Oh, oh'. You know how Indian cinema has been making a mockery of homosexuals. Sanjay (Suri) and (director) Onir told me that if you are feeling dicey and think it's a bad career move you may refuse. Sanjay added, 'I'm also taking the risk'. Then I read the script and ended up crying all night and I decided that I am going to do the film, no matter what.'

After that it has been all about merging method with madness for Purab. 'I have a few friends who are gay, and I started watching their gestures and hand movements very closely and incorporated them in my character. A lot of controlling was done by Onir on the sets. I tried to be as natural as I can be. For some scenes, I felt I wasn't 100 per cent but when I saw the final film, they came out just fine. Like in the hospital scene with Sanjay, I felt the rehearsal was much better than the actual shot.'

With Purab's friends still complaining that his hand movements in real life haven't quite returned to what they used to be, the actor is looking forward to his new films. 'First up will be my father's (producer Harsh Kohli) murder mystery Kaun Ho Sakta Hai, which is an out-and-out commercial film with me in the lead. I am sure that the success of My Brother' Nikhil will be able to give a better grounding to that film, which should release by August. Then there's Luke Kenny's directorial debut 13th Floor about two characters, Sandhya Mridul and me, stuck in an elevator and in conversation for one hour.'

Does that mean bye-bye to the small screen' 'Not really. I have always been very open and honest with Channel [V]. I had left them for six months last year for my shooting schedules. When I told them I'm available, they had me back. I am still hosting the Channel [V] Top 40.'

But do the telly stints help the big screen blitzkrieg' 'It does help to be more at ease with the camera. You learn to shed all your inhibitions. But you also get into a typecast. Everyone expects you to be happy and bubbly. People ask me to 'do the stuff that VJs do'. Photographers ask me to climb trees and pose. I hope with My Brother' Nikhil, they would be able to see the other side of me,' Purab's voice trails off.

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