The 2005 film My Brother... Nikhil raises two immediate questions: would the Hindi cinema of 2022 be capable of making this? And even if it were, would it feel inclined to make it? This version now seems a little clunky in places, possibly as much as the previous decade's Philadelphia now seems within the context of the American cinema: it's a first, occasionally fumbling gesture towards some greater tolerance. But more often than not - and, crucially, in every scene where it really counts - it plays as heartfelt, serious, even (that dread word) brave in broaching the inspired-by-true-events story of a promising young swimmer made a pariah at the turn of the 1990s after his HIV+ diagnosis becomes public knowledge. (Rather than ushered gently towards medical care, the film's real-life inspiration Dominic D'Souza found himself met by the police, who detained him on suspicion of deviancy and threw him into solitary confinement.) The focus is on the Kapoor family, a household that doesn't know how to address the issues their son raises, standing in for a country that appears at an equal loss. While this Nikhil (Sanjay Suri, excellent at every stage) is getting concerned faces from the docs, his clueless mum and dad (Victor Banerjee and Lillete Dubey) are making plans to marry him off to a (female) childhood sweetheart.
One of the few openly gay Indian filmmakers, writer-director Onir is limited in what he can show in terms of man-on-man passion, but even choices that initially seem questionable turn out to be the right ones: smart, sensitive, affecting. Early on, I wondered whether we were going to get less of Nikhil than we do of his sister Anu, played by Juhi Chawla, the one major Bollywood star in the cast. Yet it's clear that, as well as being the project's offscreen guardian angel, Chawla was as good a pick as any to draw in hesitant or awkward viewers, even before she breaks into lilting song. (The actress would recur in 2019's Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, the film that brought lesbianism to the mainstream: in terms of allyship, she may just be the Dolly of Bollywood.) The structure, too, feels somewhat broken-backed at first, cutting between Nikhil's final years and reflections from bereaved family members, but gradually fills in the enormous burden of regret these characters share, not only at the fact Nikhil's no longer there, but also at how they responded to him while he was alive. It's a negotiation - between past and present, and between different sectors of the swimmer's friend group, those Nikhil could be himself around and those from which he felt compelled to withhold. The film's doing something similar with its audience: positioning itself within the realms of Bollywood trad (hence the emphasis on family) before attempting a radical redirection of empathy, finding ways into Nikhil's world that a single-screen crowd might engage with, aiming to prompt a conversation among others that these characters couldn't have at the time, to their eternal shame. If it can be seen making a few concessions and trade-offs here and there, it does finally succeed in those aims. As Nikhil's main squeeze Nigel (Purab Kohli, in the Antonio Banderas role) tells him: "My friend, it's important to take a stand in life." Its feet may now look a touch wobbly from time to time, but it is a film that very definitely takes a stand.
My Brother... Nikhil is available to rent via Prime Video.