World AIDS Day

Why the movies went quiet on AIDS

Until cinema finds a new lens to view this now-tamable monster, it is likely to remain silent on the issue.

The World Health Organisation designated December 1 as Global AIDS Day on 1988 in an attempt to spread awareness about the pandemic caused by the HIV infection. Considering that cinema is expected to play a role in raising public awareness, films about AIDS tend to receive an honorable mention on this day. However, since the past two years, lists of AIDS-related films have been regurgitating the same, recognisable titles.

Unfathomable and unconquerable phenomena make for excellent cinematic experiences. This explains why AIDS inspired so many movies around the globe in the first couple of decades since its discovery. And it also explains why few new movies have been made about HIV after significant headway was made in discovering palliative and curative therapy for AIDS.

Until the last five years, HIV was a veritable bogeyman – terrifying, inexplicable and unconquerable. Scientists struggled to understand the progress of the disease so they could mitigate the havoc it wreaked in the lives of millions. The shroud of mystery and hopelessness surrounding the disease led to a plethora of cinematic interventions, ranging from films like Parting Glances (1986), Philadelphia (1993) and Boys on the Side (1995) to Nidaan (2000) and The Pink Mirror (2006). And yet, the allure of AIDS as a cinematic subject is not restricted to its scientific inscrutability.

According the UNAIDS Gap Report released in 2013, HIV is most common among sex workers, homosexuals, transgenders and people who inject drugs. Since the condition is inextricably linked with sexuality and personal lifestyle choices, HIV patients are particularly susceptible to moral judgments and paternalistic assumptions. The tremendous social stigma around the disease makes it lucrative cinematic fodder.

Onir’s My Brother…Nikhil (2005), derives its poignancy from the derision and disgust heaped on a successful and popular man after his sexuality is revealed. The pathos in Revathi’s Phir Milengey (2004) comes from advertising professional Tammanah’s disbelief when she finds out she has no legal recourse after being unceremoniously fired.

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‘Betaab Hai Dil’ from ‘Phir Milenge’.

The fatal nature of the syndrome and the several pernicious social assumptions around its incidence meant that films could paint HIV victims as real-life heros who hold on to hope even as they face certain death. The Indian predilection for tendentious films that package a social message into their narrative also meant that HIV could make for an important cinematic project.

However, in the past few years, the medical world has made decisive strides towards improving the quality of life of HIV affected patients through Anti Retroviral Therapy. According to the UNAIDS Gap Report, the numbers of new HIV infections declined by 19 per cent, and the number of AIDS-related deaths fell by 38 per cent in India between 2005 and 2013. Although access to ART remains a problem, HIV has transformed from an inevitable killer to a conquerable malady.

On October 5, the Union Cabinet passed the HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Control) Bill, which aims to safeguard the rights of HIV patients by preventing HIV-related discrimination. Although this doesn’t completely destimatise AIDS, it is a step in the right direction.

As HIV gradually becomes medically and socially more manageable, its cinematic appeal has weakened. Apart from Priyadarshan’s upcoming Tamil production Sila Samayangalil, there are few Indian films in the recent past or the foreseeable future that portray HIV patients. The more recent Hollywood films such as We Were Here (2011), How to Survive a Plague (2012), Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and The Normal Heart (2014) are not set in contemporary times, but drawn from real-life stories narrated in the early years of the AIDS crisis.

It is, of course, too early to write off AIDS as cinematically irrelevant. The disease still has a large portion of the world in a death-grip – India alone has 2.1 million HIV affected patients. However, a significant shift has been made in the way HIV is being perceived. Until cinema finds a new and differently engaging lens to view this now-tamable monster, it is likely to remain silent on the issue.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.