Indian cinema has so far, tried to avoid dealing with AIDS directly. A few exceptions in Bollywood are – My Brother Nikhil (2004) and Phir Milenge, (2005), said to be ‘inspired’ by the Hollywood film Philadelphia (1993). There have been a few others that sank before the audience even heard of them. In this ambience where AIDS has been treated gingerly and that too, as an individual issue that plays havoc with the life of a man/woman with alternative sexual orientation traced as the main cause for AIDS, comes the Tamil film Sila Samayangalil (Sometimes) (2016) directed by Priyadarshan.

The film places AIDS against a broader socio-political canvas aimed at making the audience identify with the scare that AIDS instils in ordinary men and women more than the presence/absence of HIV itself.

The film underscores the pertinent fact that AIDS can happen to anyone and everyone and may not necessarily result from sexual promiscuity as we commonly believe. Priyadarshan has directed more than 80 films in Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu and was bestowed the Padma Shri in 2012 for his contribution towards the arts. Priyadarshan was one of the first directors in India to introduce rich color grading, clear sound and quality dubbing through his early Malayalam films. Among his Hindi films, one may recall Viraasat (1997) which was a mainstream film that showed actors Anil Kapoor,Tabu and Amrish Puri in a different light.

The entire film is set within the interiors of the waiting lounge of what appears to be a well-appointed pathological clinic in a posh hospital in Bengaluru where eight men and women of different ages, from different backgrounds and professions are thrown together to get the Elisa Test done to find out whether they are HIV+ or not. The ELISA and Western blot tests are recommended if you have been exposed to HIV or are at risk for contracting HIV.

The camera ambles across different areas and spaces of the waiting lounge, pausing for a moment or some more, perhaps, to catch a young man using his laptop to escape from the suspense of waiting for the results or the young lady across the counter who is stressed for personal reasons and does not know how to deal with this anxious group. None of them know whether they are HIV+ or not and the agony quotient among them escalates every minute.

They have come because they are afraid either of some symptoms they have been observing, or, because of some secret in their past they have not shared with their families. The entire film is a microcosm of the world out there, captured for one entire day from morning till evening seen from the perspectives not only of the men and women waiting with bated breath for the results to come, but also from the perspective of a lady laboratory clerk who is to hand out the test results to the waiting candidates. The director is in control, letting the audience look at these distressed lives through his eyes.

The opening frames are captured in overhead shots of a crowded railway station where a local train has just arrived and the commuters have detrained. We see a young woman talking to her mother on her cell. The mother asks her to bring back Rs.5000 urgently to clear the back rent due to the landlord. Soon after she steps in her cabin and is seated behind the counter, she discovers the patients waiting for the results. Each patient has a back story cinematographed in Black-and-White.

There is not much recreation of the past through these flashbacks but are like confessions they make and they begin to bond smoothing away the rough and tough edges of their individualities. One of them, ACP Karuna, is a pot-bellied corrupt ACP who is ill-mannered and arrogant to begin with but sobers down as the skeletons from his cupboard begin tumbling out. This slow but steady metamorphosis affects all of them one by one, pointing out how the fear of death can level out differences between and among people.

One is a lawyer who was given nine bottles of blood after he was shot back at by a prisoner trying to escape from jail and he had shot at him to stop his escape. Since then, he had begun to lose weight and his doctor advised him to go in for the Elisa test. One is a truck driver who suspects that he has contacted AIDS because he had to drive at night and often visits prostitutes. Sheela, an only child, was raped and suspects that she contacted the virus from this rape and could not share this with her parents. Another young man is a drug addict and thinks he got it from the polluted syringe his drug-user friend had given him. An old man has come to get tested because he was suffering from blurred vision and memory loss from an accident. A contractor has come to get tested too and he recognizes the corrupt policeman who refuses to recognize him.

The film points out how an Elisa test should normally take not more than 20 minutes but in this film, the results begin to come out only at five in the evening by which time, the eight men and women are at the end of their tether. How a basically honest worker can be forced into corrupt ways to find an immediate solution to financial problems through easy bribes is also brought into focus.

Sila Samayangalil holds a many-sided mirror to contemporary society that reflects how the people living in it change when death stares them in the face and when they are further victimised by the lethargic ways of bureaucracy on the one hand and corruption on the other. The film has some very good actors like Prakash Raj, Ashok Selvan and Shriya Saran. Reports say that Prakash Raj did not take a single paisa for his role in this film. The other actors perform with marvellous conviction, as if they are drawn from real life and are not actors.

The waiting patients are reduced to mere token numbers, as each one is called out by the token number he/she has been given and not his/her name. The tragedy of suddenly becoming anonymous comes across with biting sarcasm, a feature that is gently and generously scattered right through the film adding one more dimension to this celluloid statement on AIDS which will go down well with audiences across the map.

Sameer Thahir’s camera is low-key vacillating at times between grays and light blues within the waiting lounge and Black-and-White for the narrated flashbacks while Bina Paul’s editing maintains a seamless pace within a slow rhythm to match the sombre mood of the film. Sabu Cyril’s set design is no-nonsense and plain that strips any hint of glamour from a film that glamour and colour would have ruined beyond repair. Ilaiyaraaja’s musical score is entirely in pace with the film’s temperament, dotted often by the ingenuous sound design by M. R. Rajakrishnan. Objects and instruments of everyday use, such as an umbrella the old man carries, or the laptop the young man sticks to, or, the cell-phone the young girl is talking into, the small blood samples the lab technician is toying around with, adds another dimension to the story not to forget the large clock on the wall that reminds all of us that we all live on borrowed time.

As the story, written by Priyadarshan who has also done the screenplay, moves along, it touches, in a very understated way on causes, misconceptions, mistakes and accidents surrounding AIDS that suddenly thrusts an ordinary man into a deep well of despair. The sociological, medical, emotional impact the mere suspicion of being HIV+ has on people makes Sila Samayangalil a powerful, political statement on AIDS and its ramifications without raising slogans or submitting to syrupy melodrama soaked in tears.

(Sila Samayangalil is produced jointly by Amala Paul’s Think Big Studios and Prabhu Deva studios and has made it to the final round of selection for the coveted Golden Globe Awards, which will be held on January 8, 2017 in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles.)