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    'My...' is essentially a family story: Sanjay Suri

    [Interview by Subhash K. Jha]
    Tuesday, March 29, 2005
    His vulnerable face has made an impression with memorable roles in "Pinjar" and "Jhankar Beats", but Sanjay Suri believes "My Brother...Nikhil" is his breakthrough film.

    "It''s my baby. It took me nine months to put together," the highly-talented, yet grossly underutilized actor, who has also produced "My...", told IANS in an interview.

    After Madhur Bhandarkar''s "Page 3" and Sanjay Leela Bhansali''s "Black", Onirban''s path-breaking "My..." set 15 years ago when AIDS was dreadfully stigmatized, is the next unconventional film to hit theatres.

    The film follows the HIV-positive gay man Nikhil in his struggles to fight, first for the right to dignity, and then, for his life.

    "We haven''t preached about any issue. The story is essentially of how a middleclass family comes together during a crisis about acceptance of taboo relationships," said Sanjay, who claims he had to shave his head and practise regular swimming to resemble Nikhil''s character.

    "I thought I deserved a little better as an actor. ''My...'' has given me that opportunity."

    Excerpts from the interview:

    Is "My..." fact-based?

    It is inspired by some incidents in the late 1980s when AIDS became rampant. Some people had been arrested in Goa after testing positive.

    We've set the film back by 15 years when mindsets about AIDS was different - though, not very different. We still exist in a world riddled with gender, sexual, political and religious biases.

    Do you play a bisexual character?

    Not bisexual. Nikhil is homosexual, though that isn't why he gets AIDS. We didn't want to create another level of bias by linking HIV with homosexuality.

    Surprising you agreed to play a gay when top leading men still shy away from doing so?

    I wasn't the least apprehensive. But we had to be careful. My director Onirban has handled the issue so sensitively, it doesn't remain an issue.

    The issue is no more how Nikhil got AIDS, but what happens thereafter. We'd gone beyond the disease to examine the layers of ostracising a person. I simply had to produce the film and act in it.

    My character is a closeted gay, while his partner (Purab Kohli) is not. I hope my film at least finds more social acceptance than such people do in real life.

    We haven't preached about any issue. The story is essentially of how a middleclass family comes together during a crisis, about acceptance of taboo relationships.

    My character Nikhil has to fight for the right to dignity, before he can begin to fight to live.

    Were you apprehensive about taking the plunge as a producer?

    If I was, the film could never have been made. The big producers either wanted to follow the market trend or to dictate which stars to sign. We were on a different wavelength.

    If I ever go on stage to win awards for this film, I want to say thanks to all those who said no to us and forced us to produce this film.

    The cast was wonderful. Whoever we went to immediately said yes because of the powerful script. Purab Kohli who plays my character's gay partner cried when he saw the film.

    Fortunately for us, people like Karan Johar saw and loved the film. A word from the right quarters always helps. It is said - the letter 'I' doesn't exist in the word 'team'. It didn't, during "My...".

    As an actor, is "My..." your first major break?

    I guess it's my 'breakthrough' film. Just like my character Nikhil, I never got a support system in Bollywood, no big hit. I was an outsider without any connections.

    After my roles in "Jhankar Beats" and "Pinjar", they knew I could act. But I was never launched in a big way.

    I didn't have too many great options as an actor. But I haven't produced "My..." to create an opportunity for myself. I won't necessarily be producing films in future too. But, "My..." had to be made. Since no one else would do it I had to take the plunge.

    The film has changed the way I look at my social responsibilities as an entertainer. I was always a socially aware person. But after playing Nikhil, I'm even more so.

    Has this been a life-changing experience?

    It has been a humbling experience. From playing such an unorthodox character, to managing the moods of my cast and crew, the budget - my director and I had to keep the spirits up throughout.

    I was lucky to have a supportive unit. They saw how active I was on the sets - arranging vehicles, meals, ensuring everything was in place and giving wake-up calls - I learnt about people management.

    Did you prepare yourself to play this hugely unconventional character?

    Since Nikhil is a swimmer I caught up with my swimming. I used to swim back home in Srinagar. But I had to do some brushing up.

    Swimming in Goa during monsoons was dicey. But, once I had taken the plunge to make this risky film, the choppy waters seemed relatively easy.

    I also shaved off my head to play the HIV victim.

    Is the film market open to new ideas?

    Very much so. A few powerful producers who think they know audiences' tastes insist on the status quo. Frankly, they have no clue.

    They keep playing safe even when recent biggies have been duds. On the other hand, two non-conformist films "Page 3" and "Black" have been huge successes. That's very encouraging for "My...", though ours is much smaller in budget than "Black".

    If it clicks we'll have a hat trick of unconventional hits in 2005. I'm waiting for the film's release. My complete focus is on "My...". It's my baby. It took nine months to put together.

    I thought I deserved a little better as an actor. "My..." has given me that opportunity. I took the decision in a day. It will live with me for life.

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