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How My Brother Nikhil found an audience

Onir fought to get My Brother Nikhil made. But, as he recalls in his memoir, getting the film released was another uphill task

A still from ‘My Brother Nikhil’
A still from ‘My Brother Nikhil’

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It was so exciting to watch the prints getting dispatched just before the release. Those aluminium cans contained our hard work. Each jumbo reel was usually 16–20 minutes, so a two-hour film like My Brother Nikhil had seven jumbo reels. I have travelled to so many countries with those seven cans, struggling with the weight across continents. It felt like something precious. I know this will sound old-fashioned, but I don’t get that feeling with a hard drive.

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Once we were ready with the film, we started hunting for distributors or a studio to partner with us. That is when the nightmare began. I think one of the first screenings we had was for Shyam ji and his brother. They were embarrassed and bored by the film and found the two hours way too long and the film too non-commercial for them to get attached for distribution. The screening I had at the then UTV boardroom with their marketing and distribution team was a humiliating experience. I understood the difference between a Krishna ji and a Jolly ji, who loved cinema, and these marketing people from the corporate world, who saw cinema merely as a product to sell. They were doing a job with no special love for cinema, so why would they break their heads in trying to position and market a ‘gay’ film without any ‘big’ star? In our sexist industry/society, women are not considered as big ‘stars’ as men, and women after a certain age are not considered ‘stars’ or ‘commercial’ enough. The UTV screening was in a boardroom with about twelve people.

The room wasn’t dark enough, and people were walking in and out of the room, talking on their phone. One of the guys gently asked me if I was showing them the rushes or a documentary. I was appalled at how cinema-illiterate these people were and arrogant on top of that. Even now, I realize that much hasn’t changed. I’m discussing the script of a docuseries with the creative team from a leading OTT platform. All the examples they are giving me are from fiction shows! But I no longer get dejected now, nor am I surprised—I just feel more cinema literate.

The months of ‘trials’ were heartbreaking. The word ‘trial’ sounds terrible. It’s almost as if the film-maker is on trial to be judged by a court. ‘Special screening’ or ‘preview’ sounds so much better. With the coming of studios and platforms, cinema has become more of a commodity than the creation of an artist.

‘I Am Onir & I Am Gay’, by Onir with Irene Dhar Malik, published by Penguin Random House India, 270 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599
‘I Am Onir & I Am Gay’, by Onir with Irene Dhar Malik, published by Penguin Random House India, 270 pages, 599

More often than not, depending on who has the power (it’s a myth that platforms and studios are democratic), the platform or studio will have trial screenings and the film-maker will be told to make changes according to how the ‘test group’ has reacted or what the marketing and distribution teams have suggested. So you are trying to please a maximum number of invisible people. Imagine any film-maker whose films you’ve loved being told how to reedit their films or rework the script from the beginning once a platform is attached, acting on the advice of a group of people who have never made a film. Imagine Tagore being told by a publicist what poems to pen and Van Gogh what to paint. The so-called digital revolution is actually murdering the artist film-maker and transforming them into content creators responsible for grabbing the most eyeballs. Pyaasa may have never gotten made today.

At some point, as a last resort, Sanjay reached out to Karan Johar and asked him to watch the film. Karan came to the Spectral Harmony studio, and I remember playing him the Hi-band edit. We stayed outside as we did not want to embarrass him if he didn’t like the film. I think I must have smoked twenty cigarettes in my nervousness. After the screening was over, Sanjay went and chatted with Karan for ten minutes, and when they came out, Karan’s eyes were swollen from crying. ‘You made me cry so much, I have a headache now.’ This was said with kindness and for the first time, I felt some hope. Once he left, Sanjay told me that Karan had spoken to Aditya Chopra as Dharma didn’t have the infrastructure to release a film in 2005, and he thought that Yash Raj Films (YRF) might be able to help. Adi was supposed to be travelling in two days, so we quickly made a VHS of the edit and sent it to him. The next two days were filled with anxiety.

I will be forever grateful to Karan for making that call. Adi liked the film and offered to distribute it. When we met him, I was really nervous, wondering what I would do if he wanted to change everything. But he did not. He had two suggestions, but it was up to me to implement them. I liked one idea and made that change. Next, he asked me to cut five music promos and five dialogue promos for marketing. At this point, we interacted a lot with Tarun Tripati from YRF’s marketing team, discussing how to position the film. Sanjay, Tarun and I would spend hours having discussions, and the great thing was that Tarun loved our film and there was so much positivity in his approach. I cut ten dialogue promos and ten music promos and showed them to Adi. He liked all the edits and told us to choose what we considered the five best ones.

Sanjay and Tarun came up with the campaign idea of having various celebrities say, ‘I care for my brother Nikhil. Do you?’ We had decided that while the campaign wouldn’t focus on the gay or AIDS aspects directly, it wouldn’t pretend to be about something else. When we were discussing the film’s title, someone suggested that we should have named it ‘My Lover Nikhil’, but I had never wanted to tell the story from a lover’s perspective—I wanted it to be the story of a brother who happens to be gay, told by his sister. Maybe I didn’t want it to be a lover’s story because at that time I hadn’t really experienced what a lover could mean.

Excerpted with permission from ‘I Am Onir & I Am Gay’, by Onir with Irene Dhar Malik, published by Penguin Random House India.

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