At some point, as a last resort, Sanjay [Suri] 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.

Purab Kohli and Sanjay Suri in My Brother Nikhil (2005). Courtesy Four Front Films.

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. Nigel was the lover I was seeking . . . am still seeking. In my life, lovers have walked in and out, but my sister has always been there. Yes, there have been instances of distance, but she has never left me. Just like Anu stood by Nikhil when he needed her the most, my sister Irene stood by me when I was falsely accused of molesting someone in 2011.

Sometimes it feels uncanny how my films have shown things that I have experienced later. I shot Omar’s story as a part of I Am in 2009. The story is about how the gay character Jai, played by Rahul Bose, was humiliated by a cop because of his sexual identity. I experienced something similar when I visited the police station to file a case against the guy who falsely accused me. It was only because my associate Amar Kaushik was there by my side, giving me strength and support, that I did not crumble.

The police understood that the allegations were fake and joked about the fact that someone so much physically stronger than me had made these allegations, but that didn’t stop them from humiliating me verbally for being gay. I realized then that if I faced this in spite of belonging to the privileged class, gay men and women from less privileged backgrounds and the trans community must be dealing with unspeakable horrors.

There must be so many untold stories of violence and humiliation. That is why I write this now, even though it is extremely painful to relive those days. Of how a publication made front-page headlines of an allegation that was not proven and drove me to the verge of ending my life. I did not, as death would have meant accepting defeat and perhaps even guilt. I could not let my family and friends down. I had to stand up for the truth.

Once My Brother Nikhil was ready, it suddenly struck us that the film had to be certified by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Those were the days when Section 377 was still a part of the Indian Penal Code, and the film was dealing with gay characters. I was nervous – what if we got an ‘A’ certificate? That would mean not being able to sell satellite rights of the film. What if the film did not get cleared?

The day of the censor board screening was another smoke-filled afternoon. I had no idea who the five people watching our film were, the people who would judge if the film was to be allowed for public consumption. Sanjay and I were waiting anxiously at the door when we were told that one person had to go in and face the members. My knees were shaking and I was feeling queasy as I stood in the centre of the room looking at those five faces. They were cold and silent, and when one of them said, ‘We liked your film, but there’s a problem’, I was ready to collapse.

They then proceeded to explain that all of them loved everything and would give us a ‘U’ certificate, provided I added a disclaimer in the beginning that everything was fictitious and not based on any real story. They were worried that the government of Goa might not like that Goa was shown as the home of patient zero.

This was one of the reasons why we didn’t put a card saying that the film was inspired by Dominic’s life story, but we acknowledged it in every press talk we had. One of the things I kept stressing is that the docu-feature structure of the film was to help reinforce that this was not a fictitious story but a real one. I wonder if My Brother Nikhil would still get a U certificate with the current guidelines. And with I Am, an FIR would probably be filed against me today!

For our marketing campaign, we shot with Rahul Dravid, Sania Mirza, Mahesh Bhupati, Karan Johar, Saif Ali Khan and Abhishek Bachchan. On 24 March 2005, we had the premiere of our film at Fun Republic in the Bombay suburb of Andheri. It was a magical night and truly overwhelming. The YRF marketing team had organized the media coverage in the best possible way that I could have imagined, and we had a great turnout in terms of people.

All the screens at the venue were packed. I do regret that I couldn’t be inside the theatre when the screenings started, as Juhi, Sanjay, Purab and I were outside giving interviews till nearly two-thirds of the film was over. Post that, I slipped in once but felt too nervous to stay. Sanjay slipped in once too and came back smiling. ‘People are sobbing,’ he told me.

Excerpted with permission from I Am Onir & I Am Gay, Onir With Irene Dhar Malik, Penguin Random House.