The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Brothers in arms for AIDS
Purab Kohli, Sanjay Suri and Onirban at an army rest house in Dum Dum en route to Mumbai on Monday. Picture by Amit Datta

It's been more than four weeks since the film released. Yet, the key members of My Brother' Nikhil are still sticking together.

The trio of Nikhil (Sanjay Suri), Nigel (Purab Kohli) and film-maker Onirban was in town for three-and-a-half hours on Monday before catching a connecting flight to Mumbai. The three were on their way back from Shillong where they took centrestage at a film festival organised by the Assam Rifles Wives Welfare Association. The Assam Rifles has a high incidence of HIV/AIDS in its ranks.

'Our film is based in the 80s but during the festival, we heard identical accounts of abandonment by society,' said Purab, a disturbed look clouding his intense eyes.

'There was this 30-something girl from Guwahati. She is living with HIV for 10 years now. She said a dentist had refused to take out her teeth because she was carrying the disease.'

Nikhil, the AIDS victim, had faced similar problems in the film, with nurses sniggering at his supposedly 'immoral' character.

The festival had multiple free screenings of My Brother' Nikhil, Phir Milenge and a number of other HIV/AIDS-related films. 'It was also the premiere for the film in the Northeast, though some people had seen it on pirated CD,' producer-actor Sanjay pointed out.

'On the first day, people said on the way back that they had left their children behind as they were apprehensive of the content of an AIDS film. They promised to come back with them the next day,' smiled Onir (earlier known as Onirban).

An interactive session was organised in the evening on Day I with politician Farooq Abdullah, Shilpa Shetty, Revathy (star and director, respectively, of Phir Milenge), Deepti Naval (who made Anant years ago), Sanjay and the director-general of Assam Rifles on the panel, among others. On the floor were army jawans, school students and residents, including former drug traffickers who had contracted the disease by sharing syringes.

'Our society is in denial. It was great to see the army being so open about the issue,' said Sanjay, bleary-eyed after the long day. 'Lots of homosexuals came out at the session,' Onir added.

Students also had a lot to ask of the star-studded panel. 'It was an open forum, with the discussion encompassing taboo subjects like the use of condoms. There was even a doctor there for spot tests,' Purab recalled.

'Our greatest compliment was when AIDS patients came up to thank us. It made us confident that we had made the film in the right spirit, not as outsiders with an imperfect view,' Onir said.

On the second evening, the media were quizzed on their commitment to social issues. 'We did the questioning this time,' Purab laughed.

There was an effort to reach out, even outside the auditorium. 'We went to the marketplace accompanied by the army band for a roadshow. Individuals were called from the audience to come up and sing their favourite numbers. Information about AIDS was passed on in between such merry-making. A girl from the crowd volunteered to translate our words in Khasi which helped us connect even better,' Sanjay said in one breath, lounging at an army rest house near Dum Dum airport.

The team, including his wife Ambika, also sang the soulful Le chale in chorus for the cheering Shillong crowd.

Isn't it unusual for the cast and crew to promote a film so late after its release' 'All I am doing is promoting a cause. The film is just my medium of expression,' says Sanjay.

His crop of hair is back in place, after months of shaving it to get Nikhil's AIDS-afflicted look. 'I have got a little extra grey hair too as producer of the film,' he rued with a wry smile.

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