Indian Films on HIV by Mukul Avijit Kishore (July 2006)

I don’t even need all the fingers on my hands to count the number Hindi feature films made on the subject of HIV-AIDS. There are only two - Onir’s ‘My Brother Nikhil’ and Revathy’s ‘Phir Milenge’. And it is difficult to talk about these films without going into all the baggage that the illness carries - social, political and economic. Equally important is the baggage that film-making itself carries – it’s construct of an 'industry' and an ‘audience’, as defined by producers and distributors.

Illness has often formed an important plot element for many mainstream films. There were films like ‘Anand’ and the recent ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’ where cancer was used as a romanticised backdrop for tragedy. Before cancer this role was played by tuberculosis in films like ‘Aah’ and ‘Alaap’. But in all these films had little to do with disease itself. If we try to look at films that have dealt with societal attitudes towards disease, we are hard-pressed for titles.

Hollywood on the other hand has had a tradition of film-making that deals head on with illness related matters. There was ‘Philadelphia’ which took up the subject of discrimination against an HIV postive employee who happens to be gay. I came across many websites devoted to listing films on the subject of illness. I don’t know if it was the preparedness of a society to deal with these issues that made the release and  appreciation of these films possible, or the films themselves brought about more open dialogue on the subjects. A bit of both I would say.

The problem with the discourse on HIV-AIDS is that it insists on bringing out things that societies love to keep hidden and locked firmly inside their closets. In India, we have had governments that banned condom advertising on national television and radio, as it acknowledged sex and in some way, they felt, encouraged promiscuity. We have had ministers who refused major grants from international foundations for AIDS research and outreach work, as they found the agencies’ figures of AIDS affected persons ‘grossly exaggerated’, not willing to accept India’s place as the second largest on the HIV-AIDS map of the world. India is just about beginning to talk of things considered embarrassing while dealing with the illness - mainly sexuality and issues of public morality. It is in this background that films like ‘My Brother Nikhil’ and ‘Phir Milenge' have to be seen. The fact that they got made and released commercially itself is creditable.

poster of My Brother NikhilMy Brother Nikhil is a very small budget film and actually the very first to talk openly of homosexuality on Indian screen. (I am not counting Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ as it was a foreign production). It has no big stars except Juhi Chawla, who plays the symapathetic sister of Nikhil, an HIV-infected gay man. The film sets up the main character and his family – an upper class Goa family with it’s contradictions, just like any family – real people, with real concerns and contradictions. A father who wants ‘the best’ for his son, forever in denial of his association with his boy friend. A mother who sympathises but cannot take a stand against her husband. And his sister who whole-heartedly goes out in support of her brother when he is detected positive, facing it’s consequences in her personal life. Alongside are friends who again come across as very real people and Nigel, his boy friend who should have been called Angel, played beautifully by Purab Kohli. Purab and Juhi steal the show for me. The second half of the film is dedicated to talking about homosexuality and its perceptions, AIDS and its stigma and how both are pitted completely against the people who happen to be gay or positive. When I first saw the film I found it to be long and very basic, addressing a very general audience. But now I feel it did it very effectively. Now when the film runs on television, I find it difficult to watch as it is just too real, too disturbing, truly rooted in Indian society and it’s problems accepting that things like homosexuality happen to very real people who might be living next door.

Phir Milenge, in comparison, is a mainstream Bollywood film. It has stars – Salman Khan, Abhishek Bachchan and poster of Phir MilengeShilpa Shetty. And it has lifted the discrimination at work theme straight out of ‘Philadelphia’. I find this film less convincing. While MBN uses stereotypes well – a phobic father, sympathetic mother and sister, this film makes caricatures of them. Shilpa Shetty is a senior, key employee in an advertising firm. She contracts HIV through sexual intercourse with her long time crush Salman Khan. I noticed that while I was talking of MBN I was using the characters names and here it is straightaway the stars’! Now Salman is shown from the first frame with dark circles around his eyes and an ironic sense of humour, setting him up as an ‘AIDS victim who will die at the end of the film’. This remains the same throughout the film, especially in the latter half when he is in hospital. Those scenes are shot with cold blue light coming in through windows with white waving curtains – a complete cliché that does not rise above itself and Salman has this ashen but angelic look as he mouths inanities– sorry, it doesn’t cut ice with me. Shilpa on the other hand is competent and so is Abhishek, as the flirtatious good hearted lawyer who first runs to get himself examined for HIV after shaking Shilpa’s hand. Shilpa Shetty fights the case against her employer who doesn’t want her around when she turns out to be positive. The one scene that worked very well for me was when her boss confides in his lawyer (Mita Vasisht) that he doesn’t have a problem with Shilpa’s competence, he has a problem with her morals.

That is the crux of all talk about HIV-AIDS. It brings out all these moral issues that people and societies find hard to deal with. ‘Phir Milenge’ suffers from playing it too safe, trying to make the subject palatable with it’s ultra-cute characters and ends up as fluff. ‘My Brother Nikhil’ on the other hand is completely honest and tackles the subject of homosexuality and HIV-AIDS much more effectively. But I would give credit to both the films for being the first to talk of the subject in a mainstream forum and not within the confines of NGO offices.