C Vanaja’s award-winning film documents the grit and gumption of four HIV-positive widows in Andhra Pradesh
First, the clinical facts. There are over 3 million HIV-positive people in India, and half of them are women. Many of these women have been exposed to the virus by their husbands. Journalist and filmmaker C Vanaja’s +Ve Living is a 30-minute documentary, produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, that looks at the lives of four women in Andhra Pradesh who have tested HIV-positive and yet have fearlessly decided to live normal lives despite the odds stacked up against them.
What are these odds? Ostracism by society and family members, earning a livelihood as widows, tackling the physical pain caused by the virus, and trying to provide a secure future for their children. But what goes beyond that -- and this is what makes the film so inspiring -- is that the women are also willing to devote time and energy to those suffering a similar fate.
Made in 2007, +Ve Living won the Golden Pearl award at the Hyderabad film festival held in March 2007. “This story is about how certain HIV-positive women have persisted on their journey in life with dignity and hope in spite of an uncertain future,” says Vanaja.
The first of the four women is Priya who works as a project coordinator with the Hyderabad-based Prevention of Parent to Child Transmission Centre (PPCTC), and is also secretary of the Hope Network. When her husband died three years after their marriage, and Priya tested HIV-positive, she decided that she would do something better than simply withdrawing and cursing her destiny. “Life as a woman is very difficult, more so if you are positive,” she says.
Priya joined the PPCTC, putting her skills in writing and documentation to good use to connect with other positive women and record their case studies. She is the anchor in Vanaja’s film, making connections with three other women who are bold enough to tell their stories on camera.
There’s Rama, a widow with a small daughter whom she leaves with her mother in the village while she handles her job and stays in a hostel. Rama was a shy, introverted person who knew nothing about the world beyond the confines of her home and neighbourhood. But when her husband died of AIDS and her in-laws left her to fend for herself, Rama found her voice and fought back. She demanded that her in-laws give her a share of the family-owned field or else return the dowry paid to them at the time of her marriage. The argument snowballed and was reported by almost every newspaper in Andhra Pradesh. Rama finally had her way and today she is able to plan for her daughter’s future. “I want her to become a doctor so that she can help people who suffer from AIDS,” she says even as she breaks down in front of the camera.
Parvathi, who stays with her two teenage sons in a village in Guntur district, has such a cheerful countenance that it’s difficult to believe that she is HIV-positive. “My husband was first working as an agent to procure cotton from farmers. He used to earn Rs 3,000 per month as also some additional income. Later, he started his own business. We were gradually settling down and managing comfortably within our resources. But then he suddenly tested HIV-positive. That’s because his one bad habit was that he liked to sleep with as many women as he could. In fact he used to come home and boast about how he always chose women over liquor when the choice was offered to him during his business tours,” Parvathi says.
Not one to give up easily, Parvathi continues to acquire new skills like learning to speak and write English, for example. “I want to gain as much knowledge as I can,” she explains.
Finally, there’s Sovamma who sells fruit for a living. When her husband died of AIDS there was no help available to even take him to hospital, Sovamma’s target for the future is simple: to build a small house for her two children. Living in a hut at present, she has hired a mason to help her build the house. She agrees that life as a widow is tough. “If anyone approaches to take advantage of me because I am staying alone and therefore vulnerable, I tell that person that I have got the virus. He simply scoots. ‘Go and get married and enjoy with your wife; why do you want to have a few minutes of pleasure but suffer your whole life?’ is what I tell him,” she says.
Taken together, these are real-life stories of grit and gumption that go much beyond ordinary living. As the title suggests, this truly is positive living.
What makes the four narratives more interesting is the manner in which Vanaja juxtaposes one with the other. She moves in and out of the lives of the four women with beautiful fluidity, capturing not just their stories on film but also their expressions, which tell much more than what is revealed through words. Rama, particularly, is not only articulate but also extremely sensitive. She admits to missing her husband very much and does not like to look at their earlier house because then the memories flood back and make her cry.
With no unnecessary cut-aways or additional material on AIDS as a disease, Vanaja keeps her focus on the women. It’s as though four windows have been opened out to offer a glimpse of what’s going on in the homes and lives of Priya, Rama, Parvathi and Sovamma. We look at them as voyeurs to begin with, but at the close of the film, our thoughts turn into prayers that they may continue living at least for the sake of their children.
C Vanaja has 12 years of experience both in the print and electronic media. She works as a freelance journalist and filmmaker, covering a wide spectrum from political and development analysis to business reporting and entertainment. She has also won the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism in the category ‘Uncovering India Invisible’ for her story on the parallel government in Dandakaranya, a Telugu feature published as a cover story in the Sunday supplement of Andhra Jyothi on April 10, 2005.
(Huned Contractor is a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in Pune)
InfoChange News & Features, February 2009