When Farhan Akhtar, Vishal Bhardwaj, Santosh Sivan and Mira Nair make films on HIV-related themes you don’t get standard fare about struggling prostitutes or helpless drug abusers. You get films about hunger – sexual and emotional – and the sex we have but cannot always voice, says Indira Maya Ganesh
Years ago, before advertising agencies got into the game, when the backs of lorries didn’t have ‘use a condom’ painted on them, back in the days when we were excited about how risqué Santa Barbara was, there was Shabana Azmi on Doordarshan telling us that HIV-positive people need our attention and love. In Farhan Akhtar’s Positive (2007) Azmi plays the tired but supportive wife of a philandering husband dying of an AIDS-related illness, again saying very much the same thing: “If I had left him then, it’d be right, but not now, not in this state. He needs us now.”
Positive is one in a quartet of short films called AIDS Jaago. The other three are made by some of India’s most popular and accomplished filmmakers – Vishal Bhardwaj, Santosh Sivan, and Mira Nair. AIDS Jaago (AIDS Awake), the brainchild of Nair, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was released on World AIDS Day 2007 and aired on NDTV and other television channels, but has since then disappeared. Nair had said in an interview in January 2008 that there was some interest in screening the films in urban multiplexes, but that plan seems to have come to naught. This is a shame since AIDS Jaago is a set of four well-shot and tightly scripted shorts, featuring some of Indian cinema’s best actors, including Boman Irani and Shabana Azmi, Prabhu Deva, Shiney Ahuja, Raima Sen, and Pankaj Kapur.
Each film examines a different aspect of HIV and AIDS, the two strongest themes being men’s unsafe sexual behaviour and the hopelessness and fear that the social stigma associated with HIV breeds.
Nair’s Migration shows how this sly virus moves unfettered across class lines, binding together a closeted husband, his frustrated wife, a migrant labourer, and his first-born child. While the reality of HIV infection is exactly this – random, unexpected, unprotected casual sex transmitting the virus – the key situation in which it actually migrates is somewhat unbelievable, but this is what cinematic licence is about, I suppose.
The other three films deal with the rippling repercussions of HIV on the affected person and his or her family. Bhardwaj’s surreal Blood Brothers tells a riveting story, almost thriller-like, doing away with all the sob stories about being HIV-positive as two different men live out the same diagnosis in entirely different ways.
Akhtar’s Positive is the touching story of a father-son relationship portraying the difficult journey of courage it takes to accept and care for someone who has hurt you deeply. However, the same journey that the wife/mother character also takes remains a quiet sub-text, deserving of a film of its own.
My favourite is the Santosh Sivan film, Prarambh (The Beginning), a story of a little boy’s search for his mother aided by an (initially) unwilling truck driver, played by Prabhu Deva. What makes Prarambh -- the only film set in a southern state and not made in Hindi – interesting, is that it embodies all the elements of a standard Indian film in 12 minutes: villains, a lout who suddenly morphs into the Good Samaritan, the prostitute-with-a-heart-of gold, bumbling policemen, lively music, the dying mother, the adorable child, the angel at the end who makes everything all right. I am not sure if Sivan intended it to be a cheeky self-reflexive piece, but it works nonetheless, packing in kitschy-filmy moments and ‘action’ even as it delivers an important message.
One of the most striking things about the distance between that early Azmi-starring public service advertisement (PSA) and AIDS Jaago is that sex is in the picture now. With the exception of Prarambh (and even here the prostitute had to make an appearance mouthing a line about ‘protection’), the three other films all foreground casual sexual intimacies as one of the primary vehicles of HIV. It is unusual to see these definite – and in some cases explicit -- references to sex, particularly illicit sex, which can only be a good thing in the context of HIV/AIDS, since the Phir Milenges of Bollywood are still reticent.
The films locate their audience as squarely middle class and are set against the context of the feminisation of HIV/AIDS, and of the stigma and discrimination faced by the middle classes. These are not films about the struggling prostitute or the helpless drug abuser. These are films about hunger – sexual and emotional; about the sex we have but cannot always voice – secret gay love affairs, one-night-stands after drunken nights out, the passion of young couples, extra-marital philandering, the drying up of long-term relationship sex. As in life so in art, AIDS Jaago treats sex as if it were actually a regular, everyday human process and not something to be sublimated through song and dance.
AIDS Jaago walks the line somewhere between PSA and film; while all the films have their PSA moments, they also embody the filmmakers’ individual visions. In the recent past we’ve seen only two mainstream Indian films and one television show on the theme of HIV; much of everything else on HIV is an advertisement campaign. Perhaps this shapes, to some extent, how we get used to seeing and hearing about HIV/AIDS – in informational, literal, educational and directive terms. To watch films that zero in on human fears and foibles, inconsistencies, weaknesses, and deviations in dealing with HIV/AIDS is refreshing to say the least. Neither the denials of Bolly/Tolly/Mollywood, nor the stentorian address of hoardings depict how HIV actually travels through the landscape of human lives. These films have the pivotal plot twists that we come to accept in a film – the bizarre mix-up of blood-test results, a couple hacking into a doctor’s computer, the dying AIDS patient who suddenly erupts and then lapses back into semi-catatonic silence, the poetry of a piece of orange fabric caught in the Bombay breeze landing exactly in the spot where it will change the course of lives. These dramatic intersections are where the story really plays out, where things fall into place, this is what sticks in memory. These moments are what linger in memory perhaps for longer than something you read on a pamphlet.
There is a sense, currently, of the power and omniscience of ‘the media’ and its capacity to effect far-reaching positive – or negative –outcomes. AIDS Jaago raises questions for filmmakers and HIV/AIDS prevention agencies alike. The most contentious of these is: can movies change our minds? The likely answer to that question is that a film can possibly envision the need for changed attitudes, or help point the way to a more fulfilling existence, but it is not going to provide roadmaps or specific destinations. The AIDS Jaago films left me wistful for the possibility of popular fare that is visually and cinematically pleasurable while at the same time engaging with complex issues. This does not always have to result in a dreary piece of cinema. While Hollywood has a considerable handle on the marketing of social issues through film (think Hotel Rwanda, Philadelphia, Erin Brockovich, Brokeback Mountain, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Beautiful Mind….), Indian cinema has still to do some work in this direction (with a few notable exceptions). AIDS Jaago gives you a sense that it takes a Mira Nair and a Gates Foundation to make it happen. A well-made and compelling Yash Raj tale with HIV/AIDS in the background doesn’t seem likely in the near future. HIV/AIDS – or any other social issue – continues to remain ‘special’, needing a global director and activist like Nair, and financial backing from a global corporation-foundation.
The thing is that HIV/AIDS is hardly special any more; it visits the most common and ordinary amongst us. And AIDS Jaago uses these four small stories to show how uncommon levels of courage can exist in the most ordinary of situations.
Migration -- (18 minutes)
Blood Brothers -- (18 minutes)
Positive -- (19 minutes)
Prarambha (The Beginning) -- (12 minutes)
View the four free AIDS Jaago shorts at: www.jaman.com/aidsjaago
(Indira Maya Ganesh is an independent writer and researcher who works with NGOs and development agencies on media and communications-related projects on gender, sexuality, reproductive health and rights and HIV/AIDS)
InfoChange News & Features, September 2008