My Brother…Nikhil (Onir, 2005) is a Hindi film about Nikhil, who is handsome, charming, jolly State champion of Goa. His family adores him. His father has pushed him to become a swimming champion since he was a little boy even though he doesn’t wish to be a swimmer. He’d rather be an artist because he loves to paint. He finds himself on a pedestal from which he cannot get down. His sister Anu however, isn’t noticed or adored like him, and can choose what she wants to do, whom she dates [quite atypical for an Indian family] but it is Nikhil’s marriage which is arranged. Nikhil rejects marriage with a girl because he has a relationship with Nigel da Costa.
In typical Bollywood, when a man faces adversity, he comes back strong, a winner at the end, but Nikhil is not just a ‘bad boy’, and he has AIDS. Perhaps that is worse than adversity to Indians. Perhaps it is more like being a widow, cast out, locked up, suddenly untouchable. Nikhil becomes an untouchable. He can die for all they care, and he does in fact.
Nikhil falls from grace because he is socially ostracized by everyone at large except Anu and Nigel. Unable to face social humiliation, his parents take off to Bombay for two years during which Nikhil is dead to them. Nikhil’s mother tells him she wishes he’d never been born when they ask him to leave the house, and just before the police locks him up in a rat infested solitary room, far from home. Anu defies her parents [also atypical of a Hindi film] and stays back in Goa seeing Nikhil through his degenerating disease to the bitter end.
As an audience, we wonder how and why Nikhil got AIDS because he is a good person. But Onir never explains that. Perhaps this omission is deliberate. Onir only shows Nikhil’s pain from ostracism from those who loved him most. But it can easily be the abandonment he feels by his parents which kills him slowly.
In almost all films – eastern and western- when someone is sick they go to the hospital, get better or die and the film ends. And life goes on. But Nikhil’s grief swallows you up because of the longing and sadness he feels. In this film, life ends for Nikhil; it also ends for the parents because their regret won’t get them through life and for us, too, as the audience. Nikhil’s grief made me think about a film I recently saw. 475 Treve de Silence (Hind Bensari, 2014) was made following Amina Filali’s tragic suicide. She was raped at 16, forced to marry her rapist, beaten by her rapist/husband, abandoned by her parents when she sought shelter from beatings and committed suicide. Amina Filali took her life because there was no way out for her.
For Nikhil, there was no way out either, but he had the unconditional love of Anu and Nigel despite his parents’ deep absence. Nikhil’s heart-wrenching story made me think of Amina Filali’s life because Amina’s life could have been saved, unlike Nikhil’s. What enables Nikhil to die feeling more love and acceptance was his parents’ love and support, even though it was too late. Amina does not have that.
In Morocco, Statute 475 protects underage girls from marrying their rapists – but it does not protect from girls from being raped. There has to be such a law because raping underage girls is common practice. A girl has 2 choices to save herself or live from the “self-inflicted dishonor” of rape: marry her rapist or commit suicide. Girls like Amina Filali do both: marry then commit suicide. Unmarried girls, too commit suicide. The reason I thought of Amina and others like her while watching Nikhil is the abandonment they both endure. Not only does the legal system abandon Amina by placing loopholes to acquit men from rape, but the girl is abandoned by parents and siblings, too which could mean the difference between putting her soul to rest and dying miserably broken and alone. Women in Morocco know that if they are raped they don’t go back home for shelter or protection from their parents. But do girls know that?
In Morocco, it is taken for granted that girls marry their rapists or commit suicide because the only thing that matters is saving a girl’s honor. A girl is only worth her virginity. Nikhil is only worth his heterosexuality, not homosexuality. Before Onir, no one spoke about homosexuality. Before Bensari, no one felt obliged to take up a raped girl’s cause before an international audience. Bensari lets raped women speak for themselves and Onir lets Anu speak for Nikhil and in the two films, the pain is unbearable. In My brother… Nikhil his pain is explored and in 475: Treve de Silence the pain remains silent, so the voice could be heard.
Unlike Nikhil, Amina and her sisters-in-rape have NO ONE’S love or support: no one cares, no one stands by them. Bensari puts the penal code on trial for its hypocrisy and neglect of girls and women, and Onir puts the huge void caused by abandonment of loved ones on trial. No one wins in both films. Both Nikhil and Amina die in the end, even if it is from different causes.
For both Nikhil and Amina, it’s a lose-lose situation. Even after Nikhil wins the case, he loses: he does not have freedom; everyone else is free, but him. Also, when Nikhil loses a lot of weight, is very weak, can’t walk anymore and is wheelchair bound his father visits him after 2 years and he fails to get the assurance he needs. He cries, begging his father to make his bad dream go away like he would when he was little and would have bad dreams and would run to his father to make the monsters go away. That’s how he felt as a man when they abandoned him: alone in a roomful of monsters out to get him, and only his parents’ love, arms and support could protect him and offer security. Amina runs to her parents, too after she is beaten, but they sent her back to the monster.
My Brother…Nikhil makes me imagine the Aminas and Nirbhayas/Jyotis of the world [in Morocco, India and everywhere girls and women are abused] who feel utterly abandoned by society. I imagine the Aminas whose parents would not take their bad dreams away for the same reason as Nikhil’s’ parents, and whose lives end in limbo, despair, shame, dishonor, aloneness…where death is more a relief rather than their alone-ness.
It is normal to desire parents’ protection from harm, but Amina and other girls don’t have that, so it will not be something that would easily be explored in their cinema. But if Nikhil were to be Amina and her pain could be explored I cannot imagine what that movie would look like, but it would be unwatchable. If a filmmaker were to concentrate on that aspect of suffering post-rape like Onir does, it would be as devastating a film as My Brother… Nikhil, if not more.
At a time when parents and family are most needed, when a girl is raped, beaten, battered, condemned by society and most alone, these minors, these children are abandoned. They numb their pain by killing themselves because no one is around to wrap them in their arms. No one is around to help them pick up the pieces. The world of these girls and those affected by AIDs need a lot more Onirs and Bensaris to show society its ugly, inhumane reflection in casting out those who need them most.