Resource Logo
Inter Press Service



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," he declares.

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 AIDS.

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 says.

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 activist.

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 larger audience.

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 central India.

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 the country.

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." (END/IPS/jk/an/99)


Copyright © 1999 -Inter Press Service, Publisher. All rights reserved to Inter Press Service. Reproduced with permission.Reproduction of this article (other than one copy for personal reference) must be cleared through the Inter Press Service, IPS-ONLINE, World Desk via Panisperna 207 00184 Rome, Italy. Email IPS visit Inter Press Service.

Information in this article was accurate in November 3, 1999. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.