NEW DELHI, Nov 3 (IPS) - Indian social activists have used
documentary films quite effectively and powerfully to put forth
their ideological stand. But they have less often used
mainstream cinema to make a political statement.
Activist-cum-documentary film-maker K.P. Sasi is set to break
many records. He is directing India's first feature film on
HIV/AIDS -- a love story of two HIV positive people, which is
scheduled for release next March.
It is not an easy film to make in an Indian context. Here myths
are not only used to create history but also to shape the
present, and those infected with HIV have to not only deal with
the disease but also the various myths around it.
The subject is a political mine-field as it relates to
sexuality, observes scriptwriter Mahesh Dattani. The voices of
those infected offer a minority point of view, he explains.
Sasi's protagonists or the hero and the heroine, as they are
called in Hindi cinema, are both HIV positive and aware of it.
Despite this the two, played by sensitive actors Nandita Das
and Rajit Kapoor, decide to get married.
Even that is politically-loaded in the Indian situation. Last
year the country's Supreme Court took away the right of an HIV
positive person to get married. Dattani said Sasi and he were
aware of the ruling, but decided to go ahead with the story.
"It is a human rights issue and the courts have no right to
interfere in the decisions that individuals make -- if they are
aware that the person they are going to marry is HIV positive,"
The man in the film is infected by a truck driver, who had
contracted the virus through blood transfusion. This, as Das
says, is contrary to the popular view that truck drivers are a
high risk category like sex workers who they frequent. While in
the film, Das contracts HIV from her husband who succumbs to
Das whose most recent film, Deepa Mehta's 'Earth - 1947', an
account of India's bloody Partition in 1947 through the eyes of
a child which is India's official entry to the Oscars, is
euphoric about her new film -- after being initially sceptical,
She changed her mind, she says, on visiting the Bangalore-
based 'Freedom Foundation', a counselling centre-cum-shelter
for HIV/AIDS survivors. There she met a 28-year-old engineer
who discovered he was infected in a routine medical test two
years ago, and now works as a volunteer at the Foundation, run
with funds from Action Aid which is also bankrolling the film.
She says his commitment convinced her about the film, which she
calls a "love story" and about relationships. "It would not be
fair to call the film an AIDS film," says the young woman, who
before she went into films was a left-leaning street theatre
The film was Action Aid's idea. Ashish Sen of Action Aid says
his organisation decided to become "partners", because it is a
feature film and will take the message of HIV/AIDS to a much
Shot at locations in Idukki, in the highlands of southern
Kerala state, the film is only one quarter done. The lyrics for
the film will be written by the frail Kaifi Azmi, one of
India's best-loved living poets in Urdu.
Dattani and Sasi have previously worked together on a film on
violence against women, which was also funded by Action Aid.
One of Sasi's earliest documentaries was on the plight of
people ousted by the controversial Narmada Dam projects in
Dattani say when the funding organisation approached them with
the HIV/AIDS theme, they thought it should be a short film. But
the moment they began the research two years ago, they knew it
could end up being a normal two and a half hour feature film as
films go in India.
Dattani talks passionately about the need for mainstream cinema
to switch to HIV/AIDS themes, because the virus knows no
barriers. The virus could infect people who are not even
sexually active, he says. The fact that you are born into this
world puts you at the risk of getting HIV, he points out.
Considering the level of literacy in India, the government and
foreign funding organisations like the World Bank recognise
that the AIDS virus can take the proportion of an epidemic in
As a result, there is a lot of money being pumped in to tackle
the problem. To raise awareness on the subject, the government
and independent film-makers have made many documentary films,
but their reach is limited.
Even though the shooting of Sasi's film has hardly begun, it
has already become a major news at least in film circles and
among those working on AIDS, specially those groups and
individuals who are desperately trying to generate awareness
among the people on how to control the spread of the HIV virus.
When asked if Indian audiences are ready for such a film,
Dattani says, "I think Indian audiences will look forward to
such a film, because its been nearly 20 years since the virus
first appeared in India, and people want to know the truth."