Indian cinema had virtually ignored HIV/AIDS as a theme owing to the difficulty in adapting the stigmatised AIDS and sympathetically tackling it to fit the needs of commercial movie-goers. Although mainstream Bollywood response to the epidemic was tardy, the present decade has seen filmmakers integrating HIV/AIDS into commercial movies. The response began with Mahesh Manjrekar's “Nidaan” (2000) followed by Revathy's “Phir Milenge” (2004), Onir's “My Brother Nikhil” (2005) and Father Dominic Emmanuel's “Aisa Kyon Hota Hai” (2006). 68 Pages (2007) directed by Sridhar Rangayan is perhaps one of the earliest films to tackle the issue of HIV/AIDS among Men who have Sex with Men (MSM). Parallel to Bollywood's representation of HIV/AIDS, the regional cinematic response started with the Marathi film “Zindagi Zindabad” (1998) produced by the Humsafar Trust. Sasidharan Pillai's Malayalam film “Kaatu Vannu Vilichappol” (2001) and Vishal Bhandari's Marathi film “Kaalchakra” (2007) which was nominated for the UNICEF award, are the other significant HIV/AIDS movies.
While both Bollywood and HIV/AIDS themed films in regional languages created awareness about the epidemic, various short/telefilms deserve special mention as they brought the syndrome “out of the closet”. Some of the major short/telefilms discussed here are “AIDS Jaago” (2007), “Life, Love, Hope” (2009), “Jo Jo Laali: A Heart Rendering Lullaby” (2010) and “Pesu Maname Pesu” (Speak, My Heart, Speak).
“AIDS Jaago” is a collection of four short films namely “Blood Brothers”, “Positive”, “Prarambha” (in Kannada) and “Migration”, produced by Mirabhai Films (a company owned by filmmaker Mira Nair) and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Featuring well-known actors, each film examines the various social and cultural aspects of the syndrome such as stigma and ostracism, illicit sexual relationships and homophobia, among others.
Vishal Bharadwaj's “Blood Brothers” presents the life of Arjun Dutt (Siddhartha Suryanarayan), a young advertising executive who is diagnosed HIV positive. His guilt of putting his pregnant wife and the unborn child at risk through his extra-marital relationship (which he believes could have caused the affliction) compels him to leave his wife and lead a secluded life. Later, the AIDS retest Arjun undertakes following the advice of Dr. Bhootnath (Pankaj Kapoor) reveals that Arjun is HIV negative. Besides bringing to the fore illicit marital affairs which is a reality of urban India and the psychological impact of AIDS diagnosis, the film also raises issues about medical ethics.
Farhan Akthar's “Positive” focuses on the fashion photographer husband's (Boman Irani) flirtatious relationship with his models which becomes a source of conflict with his wife (Shabana Azmi) and son Abijith. Abijith, who moves to South Africa, is compelled to return to India knowing his father has AIDS. The later part of the film presents the bonding of the dysfunctional family and their attempts to cope with HIV/AIDS. Among the other major issues, the film addresses the practical concerns of PLWAs who are refused insurance coverage to meet their medical expenses.
Santhosh Sivan's “Prarambha” is the story of an HIV-positive child Kittu who goes in search of his mother, aided by a truck driver (Prabhu Deva). By presenting the social isolation Kittu faces and the discriminatory attitude of the school authorities who refuse admission to Kittu, the film unflinchingly portrays the concerns of children with HIV/AIDS.
Mira Nair's “Migration” revolves around the closet-gay husband (Irfan Khan), his wife (Sameera Reddy), the migrant labourer Birju (Shiney Ahuja) and his wife Yamuna (Raima Sen). Birju who contracts HIV through extra-marital relationships returns to his village and impregnates Yamuna, thereby infecting both his wife and his newborn son with HIV. By focusing on illicit sexual relationships the film focuses on the major cause for the spread of AIDS in India i.e., unprotected casual sex.
“Life”, “Love”, “Hope” is a short film trilogy in Tamil scripted by Kiruthiga Udhayanidhi and produced by ‘People AIDS Initiative', a forum formed by Tamil cinema artisans and technicians. Funded by Alaihal MIDEA (Media Initiative for Development, Empowerment and Awareness) in association with Red Giant Movies, the initiative was supported by Tamil Nadu State AIDS control Society. The Trilogy, set in ‘ Hope-Home for HIV/AIDS Children' depicts the life of its inmates. Kiruthiga's “Life” opens with Ammu's hands sticking out of the closed gates while a bearded man regularly takes a detour to avoid physical contact with Ammu. While the iron gate symbolises segregation, Ammu's hands signify the much-needed affection, care and touch for AIDS patients. Sasi Kumar's “Love” presents the selfless act of Ammu sharing the chocolate bar, given to her by the bearded man as a token of gratitude for saving his life, with the inmates. Mysskin's “Hope”, the last film in the series, depicts the longing of Ammu and her friend for their mother's love. The film ends with the hope of joining their mothers who had died of AIDS.
Sundeep Malani's “Jo Jo Laali: A Heart Rendering Lullaby”, is a 40-minute short film in Kannada (partly in Hindi and English) produced by ‘House of Pandit', a home production of Kalpana Pandit. The film narrates the story of an AIDS mother (a classical dancer) who discovers that her four-year-old son has AIDS. The film, besides addressing the issue of unmarried pregnancy and vertical transmission (from mother to child) also focuses on the love between the mother and child and ends on a note of hope.
“Pesu Maname Pesu” is a one-hour Tamil Tele film by ‘Nalamdana', a non-profit organisation based in Chennai. Produced on a low budget, the telefilm in two parts narrates the story of a young girl, Karpagam, who is forced to enter into a marriage with Kumaresan without her family insisting on an HIV test. A year later, when Karpagam undergoes clinical tests, the doctor finds that she is pregnant and also discloses that Kumaresan is HIV-positive. The film through its realistic portrayal of rural India emphasises the need for mandatory HIV/AIDS test before marriage to avert the possible spread of HIV/AIDS.
The success of such short/tele films again reinforces the need for such initiatives. With no permanent cure yet in sight and stigma still attached to the syndrome, such ventures will help to dispel discrimination against the PLWAs. As such, lLiterature and mass media, especially cinema and short/tele films, is an effective tool as Paul Reed argues “to alert people”, “to explore multi-facets of the epidemic” and “to educate” the general ‘unaffected' population about HIV/AIDS.