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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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