There is a whole body of literature and cinema about HIV/AIDS in the West since the 1980s. Why has so little attention been focused on the epidemic by Indian writers and filmmakers, asks Jerry Pinto
Some time in 1992 I was working for the Sunday supplement of a national newspaper. We were always looking for cover story ideas, for the long essay that appeared on the front page of the broadsheet. The literary editor and I were having a quiet drink.
“We need to take someone high-risk, someone anonymous of course, say a male hooker, for an AIDS test. Someone goes with him, a journalist, and keeps him talking.”
He paused for a moment.
“Of course, it only becomes a story if he turns out to be positive.”
It was also in 1992 that the video magazine Newstrack covered the death of Dominic D’Souza, the founder of Positive People, in a segment called ‘A Positive Life, A Moving Death’. The editors saw fit to juxtapose footage of Dr I S Gilada, who was then the major media authority on the new illness, saying that you could get AIDS through homosexual or heterosexual intercourse, with questions to his mother about how Dominic got the disease.
“He had sex with some woman in Germany,” said the white-haired old lady. What made this particularly yellow was that Dominic himself had responded to the question when he was alive by saying that it was not important how you got AIDS, whether through an infected needle, a blood transfusion or sex. But the press, then as now, is not a respecter of privacy and the interest in how continues to reign.
In 1993, the same Sunday supplement, in a semi-frivolous/semi-serious way, chose the condom as Man of the Year. I wrote the acceptance speech and caused a small storm in the Roman Catholic community in my area. It is a measure of how far AIDS has invaded the public consciousness today, and how its status has changed, that the not-known-to-be-liberal Pope Benedict XVI has called for intensified efforts to stop the spread of the HIV virus, saying he felt “spiritually close” to those suffering from AIDS.
“I am asking all people of goodwill to multiply efforts to stop spread of HIV, to oppose scorn that often strikes those affected, and to care for the sick, especially children,” Pope Benedict is reported to have said. “I am spiritually close to those who suffer as a result of this terrible illness as well as to their families, in particular those struck by the loss of a close relative.”
However, back in the ’90s, AIDS was the biggest health story there was. Journalists who went to cover health conferences on tuberculosis or the return of malaria were relegated to page eight and told to find sexy diseases “like stress-related problems and AIDS”.
You could see why AIDS made good copy. To write about AIDS was to invoke sex and a netherworld of exotic sexual practices. Not all journalism treated those who were trying to live with AIDS as a different breed of person. There was compassionate journalism and many who helped give the early AIDS activists a voice. However, there was also the temptation to look at the strange aspects of the disease, its primate origins, and its attack on the newly liberated gay community
AIDS in western literature/films
To write about AIDS, therefore, required extraordinary sensitivity in the way the themes of love and sex and death were handled. At the time, it was a sentence of death. In Colm Toibin’s beautiful novel, The Story of the Night (1996) set in the Argentina of the generals and the Falklands war, the protagonist falls ill on an aeroplane. He goes to a hospital and it is there he has his moment of truth. He realises the truth instinctively: he has AIDS.
I lay back thinking that this would be the end, then, that my body would be covered in a sheet and pushed on a trolley to the morgue, that before then I would spend weeks, maybe months, languishing here or at home, becoming thinner and weaker, waiting for the long ordeal that would result in being alive one minute, alert with a full memory, and the next minute, dead, everything gone. I would fade away. I wondered if there was anything I could do at this stage, if I could begin hoarding sleeping pills, if I could get it all over with easily, now.
AIDS changed the literary value of death. As George Stamboulian writes in his introduction to the anthology Men on Men: Best New Gay Fiction (1986):
…death has had the most troubled history in gay fiction. At one time homosexual characters seemed destined to die violently so that others’ lives could go on. The “coming out” story that emerged after Stonewall reversed this situation – the discovery of one’s homosexuality became an affirmation of one’s life and the revelation of a new future. But death persisted as a theme because gay men and women were now free to address the reality of the violence directed against them. Writers also turned to the sexual underground to study the violence gay men inflicted on each other. No one foresaw that the theme of death would be frighteningly transformed by AIDS.
AIDS was a four-letter word, ‘Slim’, to the literary world, after one of the most elegant and simple stories written about it in The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis (1988) by Edmund White and Adam Mars-Jones. The collection’s most universally acclaimed story was ‘Slim’, an interior monologue that occurs inside the head of a man who has AIDS, where he catalogues what the disease has done to him physically and how it has reshaped his world.
In the world of fiction, however, it was Edmund White who wrote several books about the way AIDS was affecting the gay community, even if his stories were limited to a certain class of affluent white men. In an interview he said:
I found out I was positive in 1985, though I'm sure I was positive for five years at that point because most of my contemporaries were. My initial response was depression and not working. I just pulled the covers over my head for a year and didn't do anything.
I had a Swiss lover when I was living in Paris and we took the HIV test together. I said to him, "I'm a good enough novelist to know what's going to happen -- you're going to be negative, I'm going to be positive, and you're going to drop me." That's just what happened, although we're still good friends. But he was afraid of me.
Perhaps out of fear, or perhaps because in the beginning AIDS seemed to be a gay plague that the community had brought upon itself by its own promiscuity, the world tried to ignore the crisis. In the United States of America, at least, the gay community had begun to fight centuries of repression and hostility. Its public face was that of the young man who visited the baths or the bars and had multiple sexual encounters every night.
John Rechy’s steamy The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary (1994) presented a very different gay man from those that mainstream readers had encountered in Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy (1972) which re-imagined Alexander the Great’s love for his Persian eunuch Bagoas, or Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner (1974), which documented a love story between a gay running coach and his star track runner. Here was John or Jim or Jerry—his name is uncertain— who seems to spend most of his time cruising. John or Jim or Jerry seemed very different and so the authorities decided that he could be treated differently. A health issue was subverted into a moral issue. In a throwback to an earlier time, various measures were tried, each one more draconian than the last.
As Randy Shilts records in his authoritative work And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic (1987):
People died while Reagan administration officials ignored pleas from government scientists and did not allocate adequate funding for AIDS research until the epidemic had already spread throughout the country.
People died while scientists did not at first devote appropriate attention to the epidemic because they perceived little prestige to be gained in studying a homosexual affliction. Even after this denial faded, people died while some scientists, most notably those in the employ of the United States government, competed rather than collaborated in international research efforts, and so diverted attention and energy away from the central struggle against the disease itself.
People died while public health authorities and the political leaders who guided them refused to take the tough measures necessary to curb the epidemic’s spread, opting for political expediency over the public health.
They were a passionate lot, those early gay activists and writers. Larry Kramer, who wrote The Normal Heart (first performed in 1985), one of the angriest plays about AIDS, was also co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The play calls for, among other things, gay men to come out of the closet. In one of the most-quoted lines from the play, Kramer, speaking in the voice of his protagonist, Weeks, says: “…every gay man who is unable to come forward now and fight to save his own life is truly helping to kill the rest of us. How many of us have to die before you get scared off your ass and into action?”
When he found that he was not going to die as soon as he expected, Kramer wrote the second part of what he hoped would be a trilogy. The Destiny of Me, first performed in 1992, also featuring Ned Weeks, is almost as much a family memory play as it is one about AIDS activism. Kramer raised his voice against a government unwilling to invest in a cure, with an energy and ferocity that made Susan Sontag describe him as “one of America’s most valuable trouble-makers.” Once again, he was in attack mode, although he himself was one of the targets, his character checking into a hospital to take an untested cure.
Sontag’s own contribution to the literature of AIDS was ‘AIDS and Its Metaphors’ first published as an essay in 1988, and which is now appended to her definitive long essay ‘Illness as Metaphor’. This new essay did not offer as much material for thought as its predecessor, although ‘Illness…’, it must be admitted, would be a tough act to follow. Sontag’s own battle with cancer informed her relationship with the earlier book. In the latter essay, she seems a bystander but a concerned bystander who would take note of the ways in which AIDS was entering language.
But AIDS, while the pretext for expressing dark intimations about the body politic, has yet to seem credible as a political metaphor for internal enemies, even in France, where AIDS—in French le sida—was quickly added to the store of political invective. Le Pen has dismissed some of his opponents as “AIDS-ish” (sidatique), and the anti-liberal polemicist Louis Pauwels said that lycée students on strike last year were suffering from “mental AIDS” (sont atteint d’un sida mental).
In Beyond Love (1991), Dominique Lapierre of City of Joy fame, working with Kathryn Spink, turned the global battle against AIDS into a poor and under-funded France versus rich and over-hyped America.
But then culture will always play a role. In Abbas Kiarostami’s highly personalised but moving documentary film ABC Africa (2001), one of his local informants tells him that the Muslims are opposed to the use of the condom. In this the two religions that have suddenly started sparring again through their proxies, may find common cause. On a calendar with the face of Pope John Paul II, we are told: ‘Virginity is the only defence against HIV-AIDS.’ And also, ‘Virginity is for boys and girls’.
At last year’s Films of Desire festival in Neemrana Palace, Alwar, delegates watched two entirely different takes on AIDS. In The Sea in My Blood (1990) Richard Fung seeks to connect his heritage as a person of Chinese origin living in the Caribbean and then Canada, with the blood disease his sister had inherited and his own diagnosis as a positive person. In Summer in my Veins (1999) Nish Saran takes a road journey with his mother. Since he is awaiting the results of his AIDS test—he has had sex with a man who is HIV positive—he wants to break the news to his mother that he is gay. (He eventually does this from behind a camera.)
AIDS in Indian literature/films
Though an estimated 2.5 million Indians are infected with HIV, there has been very little attention paid to it in Indian writing or cinema. Perhaps this is because it is still perceived in India as happening to other people. We haven’t had our Rock Hudson yet. There has been no figure to bring the reality and immediacy of the problem home to the middle class. It is as if India’s AIDS crisis has managed to go from being a crisis among the high risk, meaning ‘promiscuous’ (and therefore not ‘us’), to being a crisis for the poor who are not visible anyway. If many middle-class people died of AIDS in India, a conspiracy of silence shrouded their deaths. Other names such as ‘blood diseases’ and ‘galloping cancer’ were invoked instead. On the other hand, in Middle America, AIDS was nothing short of apocalyptic.
“Apocalypse is now played out on a personal scale,” wrote Mark Doty in Heaven’s Coast (1996), the beautiful memoir of a man who survives his lover’s death from AIDS but finds his own faith in the future ruptured, “it is not in the sky above us, but in our bed.”
The Indian middle-class never went through something as terrifying as what the gay activist and organiser Cleve Jones, who formulated the idea of creating a memorial quilt for those who had died of AIDS, records:
People died fast then. One day you would see somebody who looked fine. A month later he looked bad. Two weeks later you’d see his name in the obituaries. The pace became so rapid and the numbers so overwhelming that the gay papers had to work out a formula to handle the flood of notices: one picture, preferably a head shot and two paragraphs, two hundred words to sum up a life. Sometimes there was no obit, just a tape recording saying the line had been disconnected or a returned envelope stamped “Deceased”.
(From Stitching a Revolution: The Making of an Activist by Cleve Jones with Jeff Dawson, 2000).
Thus we have had only two feature films on the subject. The first is Revathy’s film Phir Milenge (2004), which seemed to share some resemblance to Philadelphia, the 1993 Tom Hanks movie in which Denzel Washington plays Joe Miller, the only lawyer who will take Andrew Beckett’s (Hanks) suit against his employers who dismiss him when he is discovered to be HIV-positive. In Revathy’s film, it is Tamanna Sahni (Shilpa Shetty) who is dismissed from her job and Tarun Anand (Abhishek Bachchan) who fights her case.
There is an interesting moment in the film. Abhishek Bachchan is a lawyer, which means he is an educated man. When he discovers he has shaken hands with someone who is infected, he goes to a doctor. The doctor assures him that he cannot get AIDS from shaking someone’s hand but suggests he take the test anyway. Why, the lawyer wants to know. “Have you never had unprotected sex?” the doctor asks. The lawyer takes the test. Once again, it seems as if awareness does not really reflect in behaviour. Tarun comes from the educated elite; he would know that it would not take a handshake to give him AIDS but an irrational fear takes him to the doctor. He is reassured that Tamanna could not possibly have passed on the infection, but his knowledge that a condom is probably the surest way to avoid getting HIV-AIDS has not resulted in his practising safe sex.
Tamanna gets AIDS from an affair but she is not blamed for this; she is portrayed as a feisty fighter who takes on the system. However, this is also probably one of the reasons why the film failed. Hindi film heroines must be seen as virtuous and moral; this virtue and morality is always located in the body. Revathy’s well-meaning but clunky direction did not help; nor did the UNDP’s support.
That the film did not succeed at the box office was odd because Rahul da Cunha’s production of Are There Tigers in the Congo (1990), a play about two writers struggling to create a comedy about AIDS, ran for a while. There was even a Marathi translation, Chandrapurcha Junglat (In Chandrapur’s Jungles) by Vikram Watve, directed by Chetan Datar.
“The audience responded fabulously. They would come backstage and ask for the names of NGOs working in the area of AIDS,” said Datar. “We did about 50 shows, which must make it one of my best productions. I even did it in Hindi. Aslam Parvez translated it and the Hindi name was Dastak.”
The other film, Onir’s My Brother Nikhil (2005) got a running start when movie mogul Karan Johar agreed to release it and even went on to star in a series of promos, saying, “I care about what happens to my brother Nikhil. Do you?”
My Brother Nikhil was a startling movie. The gay characters Nikhil (Sanjay Suri) and Nigel Da Costa (Purab Kohli) were no limp-wristed and poncing caricatures but ordinary athletic young men in love with each other. Although it was loosely based on the life of Dominic D’Souza, My Brother Nikhil avoids the political and locates itself squarely within the lives of the protagonists.
The film records with clarity the savagery with which D’Souza was treated. The government, unsure of how to deal with an AIDS patient, actually locked him away in an abandoned home for the mentally ill. AIDS was then, as now, a disease with the power to frighten governments into measures that were completely inhuman. Phir Milenge ends with Tamanna in the period before the first symptoms showed up, although we do see the man who gave her the infection, Rohit Manchanda (Salman Khan) in a wheelchair. The actor, whose physique has been his USP in cinema, probably thought that was risk enough. There is nothing else to indicate that he is ill. Sanjay Suri as Nikhil allows for much more drastic measures. As his illness proceeds, we see the physical deterioration that accompanies the breaking down of the body’s immune system.
No other mainstream films seem to have dealt with the issue. Perhaps this is because AIDS comes with its own moral baggage. While there is some awareness of it being transmitted through blood transfusions -- and wherever anyone has admitted to being HIV-positive they have generally made it clear that this was how it was contracted -- the disease is associated with sexual promiscuity, homosexual activity and drug addiction.
Hindi cinema has always enjoyed a good disease. In Anand and Safar, both huge hits, Rajesh Khanna had cancer. In Mili, Jaya Bhaduri had blood cancer. In Sargam, Rishi Kapoor coughs blood since cinematic tuberculosis is always pulmonary. In Ankhiyon Ke Jharokhon Se, Ranjita had blood cancer; and in Khwaaish, Mallika Sherawat had it too, although with less splendid success at the box office. In Parwana, Amitabh Bachchan was supposed to have a brain tumour and 25 years later Abhishek Bachchan was supposed to have one too in Bluffmaster. In Desh Premee, Sharmila Tagore played a leprosy patient. But these are diseases in which one is expected to see the workings of an implacable and incomprehensible fate. This is tragic because the person who contracts such a disease might well ask, “Why me?” All popular culture tends to be moralistic, middle-class and bourgeois. In such a world-view, a person who gets AIDS “had it coming”.
However, Mira Nair’s Jaago Project which brings together film directors such as Santosh Sivan, Farhan Akhtar, and Vishal Bhardwaj may start another series of dialogues. Recently, Salman Rushdie was in Mumbai as was Nalini Jones, both of whom had been asked to write on AIDS by the Bill Gates Foundation.
One has also heard good reports of Sridhar Rangayan’s film 68 Pages (2007) but then with his earlier films such as Gulabi Aina (2003) which dealt with the life of a transsexual, having been refused censor certificates, it is unlikely that 68 Pages, which is said to weave together several Mumbai stories relating to HIV, will be released commercially in India.
Rangayan told Piyush Roy of the Indian Express, “Though we have been making proposals to various bodies for the last two years for an advocacy film on the issue of AIDS amongst MSMs (men having sex with men/ homosexuals) and transgenders, it didn’t progress beyond the concept note till the UK’s Department for International Development chipped in early this year to produce 68 Pages in association with the Humsafar Trust.”
Vishal Bhandari’s Kaalchakra (2007), a Marathi film, deals with three positive people: a man, a woman and a child. However, it does not seem to have achieved commercial release and seems to be making the rounds of film festivals.
What AIDS has done for India, many journalists and observers maintain, is that it has forced the discourse on sex out into the open. Until then, sex was taboo but now it is a health issue and can be discussed without worrying about the old moralities.
Has the message of safe sex really penetrated? Happy Hookers (2006) by Ashish Sawhney gets really close to the lives of three male prostitutes working in Mumbai. Apparently, they allowed Sawhney’s cameras to enter their lives on condition that the film is not shown in India. In an effectively edited sequence, the interviewer asks the three young men if they use protection when they have sex. All three say that they don’t. All three have heard of AIDS.
Sambhavana, an NGO working in Maharashtra with male sex workers, reports that while awareness of transmission is as high as 95%, use of condoms is just 9%. Kalpana Jain reports the same finding in Positive Lives: The Story of Ashok and Others with HIV (2002):
My question whether they used condoms with all their clients gets the expected response. They all nod in the affirmative. What if the client insists on sex without condoms? ‘We refuse,’ is the parroted reply. During my travels in the last three months, I have heard this several times. Only very few have said that they don’t give a damn for their lives anyway, so why should they insist on a condom? Some sex workers are using it as a means of earning more money. Sex without condoms is more expensive. And, NGO intervention of the last few years has taught them to say that condoms are always used during the sexual act.
Shabana, in Unzipped: Women and Men in Prostitution Speak Out (2002) edited by Priya Jhaveri and Bishakha Datta, presents a slightly more believable response, if only because it seems as if she does care what happens to her and has found a way of expressing her own self-worth in her work as an organiser of sex workers:
Right from the beginning, I don’t trust men. ‘If you use Nirodh, then only sleep with me, otherwise forget it!’ I tell them. Now, wherever I go, first Nirodh then anything else. Tera pyaar baaju pe rakh; yeh Nirodh baju mein rakh. I use two-two Nirodhs. I put it on the customer myself. I don’t let them put it on with their own hands. They tear it with their nails.
Poetry in the time of AIDS
By Tory Dent
For this, this stainless steel, this sanitary lack of love,
this medicine-vacuum, we were not born.
Yet every twelve hours I take my drugs and refuse to capitulate
to the desire, acquiesce to that most base, pre-conscious motivation
that's common to humans and dogs, from scavengers
whose howling in the distance we detect as equidistant to the canine
within us, the jubilee of inconsequential behaviour.
We enjoy acoustically the disowning.
From ‘Black Milk’, 2005
(Tory Dent discovered she was positive when she was 30. She died at the age of 47. Her books include AIDS, Mon Amour.)
By Thom Gunn
I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat
Wake to their residue,
Sweat, and a clinging sheet.
My flesh was its own shield
Where it was gashed, it healed.
From ‘The Man With Night Sweats’, 1992
By Allen Ginsberg
Said the Old Christ skeleton
Care for the poor
Said the Son of God skeleton
AIDS needs cure.
From ‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’, 1992