WITH reel-life violence turning uncomfortably real, Bollywood might have to rethink its potboiler formula. And the new-age scourge—AIDS—might well provide that fresh theme. Well-known producer R.V. Pandit, who set the nation alight with Maachis, teams up with Marathi director Mahesh Manjrekar to make Nidaan; documentary-makers Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar, who won much acclaim for Doghi, plan to repeat their success with Zindagi Zindabad; Mira Nair bases her film on Dr Abraham Verghese's bestseller My Own Country; and filmmaker Raman Kumar gathers an impressive cast of Seema Biswas, Kanwaljeet, Mohan Agashe and Deepti Naval for his film.
Sanjay Dutt's guest appearance provides the glamour in an otherwise serious Nidaan, which is neither a documentary nor a commercial film. Says Pandit: "It's sad to see the Indians' ignorance about the disease. I hope this film helps in clearing some of the misunderstandings. It was only when we started on the film that we realised how little is known about it."
Nidaan is the story of a teenager, portrayed by the ebullient Nisha Bains, who gets AIDS through transfusion during a surgery. The heartache of her parents, played admirably by Mohan Joshi and Reema Lagoo, and of her fiance, who prop up her fragile confidence as she slides towards death, underscore the devastating hopelessness that overcomes all concerned, especially the kin left holding the hands of the dying. "I wasn't trying to teach or preach, just send a message about the patients' plight. That the dying need to be granted dignity in life and in death," says Manjrekar, currently trying to speed up things to keep it ready for screening at the Penang festival.
Mira Nair's film has The English Patient actor Naveen Andrews playing the doctor protagonist of My Own Country. The story recounts the experiences of an immigrant doctor in the US at a time when the country is facing up to the AIDS epidemic. Determined to work against the tide of fear that's gripped even medical practitioners, he resolves to battle the plague. Andrews reportedly spent time with El Paso-based Dr Verghese to understand the psyche and appreciate the doctor's concern for the AIDS-afflicted. Nair's project, pegged at $8 million, also includes Oscar-winner Marissa Tomei.
On a more humble note, filmmaker Raman Kumar has started work on a film on AIDS for the Smita Patil Foundation. "It will be made as a full-fledged feature film though it's being made for an NGO like the Voluntary Health Association of India," he reveals. Jagjit Singh scores three poignant ghazals for the film. Says Kumar, who sat through several research sessions to learn all he could about AIDS: "The point being made is—anyone can die of it. But till the patient dies, he or she has to live. And live with dignity." Like Manjrekar, he too plans to wind up the project by September-end to present it at the Manila AIDS Congress.
About their film Zindagi Zindabad, veteran filmmaker Bhave says: "It's based on an inspiring real-life story, of how a teenager takes care of another who is thrown out of his home for having contracted AIDS. Though it's not a commercial film in that there's no sex or violence, there are four songs, with lyrics by Gulzar and music by Anand Modak." One of them is a fast-paced tapori song, set to Mumbaiite's staple Vada Pav. "We had a few screenings with slum children, to whom we hope to reach the anti-AIDS message," says Bhave. Though the film is complete, the duo are still waiting for a distributor to market it. Starring Om Puri, Mita Vashisht, Milind Gunaji, Uttara Baokar, Abhiram Bhadkamkar, Nisar Khan, Abhay Kulkarni and Siddhartha Daftardar, the film is dedicated to the memory of Rahul Kamble who risked his own life to care for another stigmatised by AIDS. This compassion, says Bhave, is latent in all. And these films hope to light that spark in their viewers.