In the 2004 film Phir Milenge, the protagonist Tamanna is fired from her job after she is diagnosed with HIV. Her once-loving boss, TJ, forbids her from working in the company, despite her physical and mental well-being. He later tells his lawyer that although HIV has "nothing to do with the health or ability" of a person, it is still "a reflection of a character." This parochial view harbored by TJ is unfortunately reflective of the general societal outlook regarding HIV-positive individuals. People living with HIV are not seen as merely living with a disease, but their entire character is perceived as morally degenerate. Since the association of HIV with 'sex' is rampantly common (despite the fact that HIV can spread via numerous other means, like blood transfusion and intravenous drugs), people who get the virus are often regarded as promiscuous and immoral, thereby deserving of their fate. This stigma, coupled with other factors, has made India home to the third-largest number of people living with HIV.
While the virus is not 'a gay disease' as was mistakenly believed during the early years of the epidemic, the prevalence of the virus is still high in some marginal communities. Gay men, sex workers, intravenous drug users, and the transgender community are especially susceptible to the virus. Hence, it becomes equally important that various forms of media representations give voice to these vulnerable groups.
Safe to say, Indian cinema has generally maintained a liberal-humanist view when it comes to representing HIV-positive individuals. But this was not always the case. The first film on HIV/AIDS in India was Naya Zaher (New Poison) (1991), whose very title signals the way it sought to depict the disease. Not only was the film scientifically inaccurate (conflating HIV with AIDS), but it also showcased that HIV is a Western disease that is plaguing the sanctimonious morality of India. Further, this exploitative film reinstated that HIV-afflicted individuals have no hope and are only getting back their karma.
A decade later, it would take films like Nidaan (2000) and Phir Milenge (2004) to heal the deep scars left by the egregious representation in Naya Zaher. Mahesh Manjrekar's Nidaan is a far more responsible film that explores the issue with much-needed poignancy. The film sensitively depicts the crisis of an upper-middle-class family as their beloved daughter acquires the virus following an appendicitis operation. Similarly, the multi-starrer Phir Milenge, directed by acclaimed thespian Revathi, examined the workplace ostracism faced by a dedicated employee when everyone finds out that she is HIV positive. Both these sensitive films were pioneering in their own rights, although their focus was limited to upper-class cisgender women. It would be with films like My Brother Nikhil (2005) and 68 Pages (2007) that the taboo-breaking discussion on HIV/AIDS would be carried forward.
Onir's directorial debut, My Brother Nikhil (2005), is a pathbreaking film in many ways. One of the first mainstream films to feature a same-sex relationship between two men, My Brother Nikhil tells the story of the titular character, a state-level swimming champion who is incarcerated by the state machinery when his blood tests come out as positive. Even when his own parents shun him due to the stigma attached, his sister Anamika puts up a tireless fight to ensure her brother's release. The film also explores the status of criminality inferred upon HIV patients and the social untouchability they are subjected to. In one of the film's grimmest scenes, Nikhil is inhumanely treated by the police constables and is forcibly isolated in an unsanitary hospital room. Along the way, Anamika, her fiancé Sam and Nikhil's lover Nigel remain his ultimate support systems, helping him navigate the difficult terrain of his diagnosis.
The genesis for the film came when Onir was working on a documentary about Dominic D'Souza, one of the country's pioneering AIDS activists, who had suffered a similar treatment from the state authorities. Onir recalls that he was haunted by Dominic's face and decided to make a film tackling the subject. However, this has led to a misconception amongst the general masses that the film is Dominic's biopic. Even the Wikipedia page of the film erroneously attributes that the film is "based on the life of Dominic D' Souza." In a telephonic interview I conducted with Onir, he reiterated that although he was inspired by Dominic's story, he did not want to make a biopic about him. "In the film, I wanted to speak about many things, and if I would stick to a biopic, it would have restricted me in many ways," mentions Onir. Moreover, Onir states that much of the film is inspired by his own life, like the brother-sister relationship at the center of the film, which mirrors the relationship with his own sister.
Radical enough to showcase a romantic relationship between two men, the film also thrashed the stereotype that HIV only propagates via gay sex. In fact, we never get to know how Nikhil got the virus in the first place. Since Nigel's test reports come out as negative, the film absolves their relationship of the lingering myth of HIV as a gay disease. As Nigel tells the audience, "Because it's not important to know how he got AIDS, what is important to know how he was treated after he had it." When I asked Onir about this narrative choice, he replied that he deliberately did not intend to reveal the cause of the origin of the virus. "It is a highly judgmental society, and that is why I thought it was important that I decided to keep Nikhil's cause open. It doesn't matter whether you get it from your gay partner or a prostitute- it does not make you a worse person," replied Onir.
Fifteen years after its release, the film has enjoyed a cult following amidst both the LGBTQIA as well as the HIV community. Alliance India, an organization working for the health and rights of the HIV community, often uses the film to help people understand the virus. Deepika Thakur, a transwoman, who serves as the Program officer in Delhi for Alliance India, mentioned that she has often used the film as a reference point for support group meetings held with HIV-positive individuals. Onir also related how many queer folks had used the film as a means to come out to their parents. When I asked him if he could recall any moving account about the reception of the film, Onir informed me that he is so used to getting heart-touching emails all the time from people. "One incident I remember where a woman from Hyderabad sent me an email saying that her son had died from HIV and she had never really accepted him or his sexuality. After watching this film, she said she could now accept her son and felt bad about what had happened," narrated Onir.
Two years after Nikhil, a more intersectional account of the epidemic came in the form of 68 Pages (2007). Produced by the Humsafar Trust and directed by Sridhar Rangayan (who also wrote the screenplay, based on the story and dialogue by Vivek Anand), the film was "inspired by reflections of true-life incidents." Instead of being centered on one particular person, 68 Pages revolve around five individuals from all walks of life—Kiran (an unapologetic gay man), Umrao (a transwoman), Payal (a sex worker), Nishit (a former drug user) and Nathu (a street-worker). Their story is related from the point of view of Mansi, a counselor who is privy to the individual struggle of each of the aforementioned people. In an interview conducted with him, Vivek Anand (who is also the CEO of Humsafar Trust) revealed that much of the film is colored by his own encounters with HIV positive individuals, along with the daily experiences of the Counselling Head of Humsafar Trust, who had worked there from 1998 to 2004.
A very inclusive film, 68 Pages voices the stories of those characters who either remain invisible in a Bollywood film or are villainized due to their differences. For instance, the film never offers any moral judgment of Payal, a sex worker who is trying her best to give her young daughter proper access to education. Similarly, the film is respectful of trans identity, with the character of Umrao played by an actual transwoman. This is quite unlike the Bollywood narratives, where the stock character of a prostitute with a heart of gold is often doomed to be a tragic figure, and trans people (the rare time they are represented on screen) are either laughing stocks or plain villains. When I asked Sridhar Rangayan about breaking these clichéd stereotypes, he replied that he always wishes to subvert stereotypes in his films. "Also, if you give respect to the characters in your narrative, the audience will start giving respect to these characters in real life," Rangayan related his mantra.
Another feature that distinguishes 68 Pages from other HIV-based films is its relentless optimism. Rather than showcasing HIV as a death sentence, 68 Pages depicts that people living with the virus can, in fact, lead healthy and fulfilling lives. "The very raison d'etre for making 68 Pages was to instill hope among HIV+ persons that being positive is not the end of the world, and also to bust myths among audiences that HIV was a dangerous disease and your life can never be the same once you are infected," told Rangayan. Similarly, Anand mentioned that he has lived on hope throughout his life, and thereby it was necessary to show that HIV-positive people can be hopeful enough and live normal lives.
A decade after its release, 68 Pages continue to be screened by various NGOs and health organizations. The National AIDS Control Organization has made the film mandatory viewing for all its counselors. Vivek Anand also recounted how the film inspired one doctor so much that he left his previous job to come work for HIV/AIDS individuals at the Humsafar Trust.
Apart from the monumental representations in My Brother Nikhil and 68 Pages, the theme of the intersection of HIV with LGBT identities also recurs in a variety of short films. Nishit Saran's underrated documentary Summer in My Veins (1999) revolves around Saran's own fear of having contracted HIV after a risky sexual encounter with a man. Mira Nair's Migration (2008) works as a cautionary tale of having unprotected sex—and how a covert relationship between two men creates a domino chain of HIV. Recently, Tushar Tyagi's Saving Chintu (2020) marked a break from the recurring trope of representing gay men as victims of the disease. Instead, the film showcased the attempts of a gay couple as they try to adopt an HIV-positive child and the complex process it entails. From being victims to saviors, it seems as if Indian cinema has come a long way in representing queer characters and their interactions with HIV.
While the country has made notable progress in spreading awareness and making HIV/AIDS treatment accessible, the stigma still haunts the individuals living with the disease. Moreover, a few studies have demonstrated that the number of HIV tests increased during the COVID-19 lockdown. As the world prepares to tackle more of such cases, artists and filmmakers should bear the responsibility to create many such nuanced stories that will ultimately aid in tackling the prejudices regarding this much-maligned disease.
The writer of this piece wishes to thank Onir, Sridhar Rangayan, and Vivek Anand for answering his questions. Their time and knowledge about their films, as well as HIV/AIDS, greatly influenced this article. He also wishes to extend a thank you to Deepika Thakur at Alliance India, who was kind enough to relate her own groundwork experiences in working with positive individuals. Shibu Thomas really helped mould the ideas around this piece and was constantly giving feedback regarding the framing of the article. Miguel D'Souza was extremely kind in helping with the archival research, which helped the writer access some precious resources. Lastly, he wishes to thank Sudhanshu and Tinesh at Likho for patiently answering all of his messages and queries. It could not have been done without their help.