Rajpal's Column

19th August 2001

AIDS - back to life, back to reality?

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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None have time for issues such as AIDS and accidents when the issues of the day are constitutions, referenda and motions of no confidence. But, in the peripheries of society, real life seeks to maintain itself.

A boy who contracts AIDS gets married, in a movie titled "My Community Lives.'' The boy may be condemned to a life of condoms but yet, better than being condemned to a life of no-confidence motions, one thinks. AIDS in a movie can almost get romanticized, and even Professor Dianath Samarasinghe, the patron of the NGO Nest which presented "My Community Lives'' was asking where you can find "pristine beaches with no people'' , as depicted in the movie. ( He was also getting worried about three-wheeler drivers who turn back to converse with the passengers while driving, but, he was quickly assured that as far as three-wheeler drivers go, this was all in a day's work.)

Almost nobody dies of AIDS in the movie, and even the three-wheeler driver who supports the boy who contracts AIDS dies of an accident. ( Why didn't Dr Samarasinghe guess?)

The movie is decidedly upbeat; it chooses to leave behind the laments and the heartaches of AIDS, and dwell on the possibilities.

This optimism is almost infectious. The movie was screened on the day Colombo was said to go under a daytime curfew due to a opposition demonstration on the streets. But, no such thing happened, and people had time to tuck into their canapés after the movie, and talk about AIDS. (Just two people died later somewhere in a tear gas attack.)

One thing the movie exemplified, even in a rather ironic way, was that AIDS refuses to become a mainstream problem in Sir Lanka. A minister and his officials lamented at a recent seminar, that a statistical majority of AIDS patients in Sir Lanka are women housemaids who were Middle East returnees.

In one way, the movie was showing that AIDS doesn't move away from the "dark disease out there'' syndrome. AIDS in Sri Lanka is still "out there.'' Almost ten years ago, the anti-AIDS task force had a meeting at the same venue that the movie was screened, the British Council auditorium, at which it was predicted that AIDS will ravage Sri Lankan societies to levels where "factories will become de-populated'' and "towns will be deserted.''

But, AIDS never hit at these "African' levels (we Sri Lankan's are still fond of thinking that we are a wee notch behind the White Anglo Saxon Protestants but superior to the Liberians and the Nigerians ) in Sri Lanka. Instead, it remained a niggling problem that decimates housemaid communities and interests NGOs and these housemaids only.

"My Community Lives,'' was itself in Sinhalese, with English sub-titles. Nimmi Harasgama, a good actress, had a hard time enunciating her mother-tongue, and so did some of the others who you can bet your bottom condom, don't speak Sinhalese at home. Somehow, these problems in the movie seemed more complicated in one sense, than beaches without people and three-wheeler drivers who can't look straight ahead.

Housemaids are people too, even though AIDS fortunately hasn't destroyed the nation, that task being left eminently to the politicians. But, AIDS is invidious, and from housemaids to others, to societies peripheries, AIDS is stealthily on the advance.

But, like accidents, AIDS does not have political sex-appeal, which keeps it forever a "out there ' phenomenon which has to be tackled, even with difficulty, with movies that struggle to sound some upbeat notes, while speaking in a almost strange language.

In one way, the treatment of AIDS in a non-clichetic way is probably the point of departure in the film, and maybe this is what was intended by the director Steve De La Zilwa of Wrap Factory credentials. The cliché is death, dying and suffering, and stigma ignorance and social ostracism. All this was avoided in the movie. But, there is a nagging feeling that the viewer comes out with so is there AIDS without all of that?

Perhaps there are levels of AIDS, and this is at the level where Elton John would want to project it ( ..the movie was funded by the Elton John foundation.) It's very rarely that a person who contracts AIDS in India dies of an accident, for instance.

But then again in India, it's social scourge, and in Sri Lanka it's still housemaids disease. It can still be almost halfway romanticized. That's a good thing, and purely from a societal point of view, that's probably what should be done, so that more people who have AIDS can get on, get married even, and lead normal lives. But, when AIDS does come back and hit, it's whiplash is not going to leave much room for these niceties?

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