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Meet Onir, the man behind 'My Brother... Nikhil'
By Subhash K. Jha, IANS
He's shy and withdrawn, and started off by editing Sai Paranjpye, Ram Gopal Varma, Prakash Jha and Kalpana Lajmi's films. All acclaimed filmmakers, but Onir finally charted his own path with his film on alternate sexuality, "My Brother...Nikhil".
The film starring Sanjay Suri and Juhi Chawla goes where few Hindi films have gone before with its theme of AIDS and sexuality, and has received widespread critical praise.
Onir recalls how it all began: "It was during Kalpana Lajmi's 'Daman' that I met Sanjay Suri. He played the male lead in that film. We became very good friends. He pushed me to write scripts. 'My Brother...Nikhil' is my fifth script. I've had problems with all my scripts because all of them deal with a certain unpredictability in human nature, be it impotency or alternate sexuality.
"Every time I write a gay character I'm reminded that over here in Bollywood homosexuals are always projected as caricatures. Why can't alternate sexuality be dealt with more maturely?"
On "My Brother...Nikhil" he says: "I was told by other producers to make Sanjay Suri's character bisexual. I'm so glad Sanjay had the guts to take the plunge."
Onir had been struggling to make his film for four years. "My first film was about a gigolo and a prostitute. Today it sounds like a cheesy film. But back then it made sense to me to make that film...I enjoy making films about characters on the edge."
He describes the struggle to try to make the film. "It was the most beautiful experience and yet so stressful. But I got such invaluable support from the crew and friends. A friend in Germany, Anita Dongre, sent a cheque when I had no money for the second schedule. I started writing the film in April and I started shooting in August."
And now "My Brother...Nikhil" releases at a time when conventional cinema is getting surprisingly successful. "Yes, I'm only looking at recovering our budget of Rs.2.25 crore (Rs.22.5 million). If the film works I can make more films that I believe in. When people tell me to make a more commercial film I don't know what it means. Because to me 'Page 3', with no stars, and 'Black', with the stars cast against their images, are as non-commercial as can be. And yet they're hits! I pray this trend continues. It makes things easier for a filmmaker like me. I hope things would be easier for me next time."
To market a film where the male protagonist is a gay AIDS victim isn't easy. "When I wrote the script I didn't forcibly make my hero gay. It just happened...I've this bad habit of naming all my protagonists in all my scripts Nikhil and Anamika. This particular Nikhil kept growing into a much bigger entity than the issue that the film addresses. When Sanjay and I were told my producers to change the hero's sexual orientation we decided to do it ourselves."
Does this debutant director feel like a misfit in Bollywood? "Everything is tough for a first time director whom no one trusts. And because you're an unconventional filmmaker even critical expectations multiply. So it's like a losing the battle both ways. You can't get big stars to work in your film. Thank god Karan Johar saw the film and recommended us to Yashraj Films. Otherwise my belief as a filmmaker would've been shaken."
Onir wants to make a "kind of Greek tragedy" where characters constantly discover each other. "Again I want to cast Sanjay Suri, not because we're close friends. But because I see him in the next script as well. I won't cast him just because he's my best friend.
"For me it's very important to connect with people I work with. I've decided to do my work exactly the way I want to. Right now, I'm totally broke. I never assisted anyone. Now I need a helping hand to go further. My next move will depend on the way 'Nikhil' takes me."