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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As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

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