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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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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