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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.