Published: 26th March 2018
How Aruvi's Aditi Balan has inspired students to open up about having HIV is just inspiring
Aditi Balan blew everyone's minds with her debut- no one knew who she was or where she came from or why and how she decided to take such a controversial role in her first film. Well, here's how.
Thirty years after the first HIV case was recorded in India, we still find ourselves in a place where students rarely disclose their 'R+' status (That's how they refer to it medically if you've got the HIV retrovirus) to their classmates and friends. Cases, where schools and colleges have outright refused admission to children who are battling the disease with much-improved drugs, have been reported so often that they don't quite make a splash anymore. At a stage when people affected with AIDS were almost pushed out of 'popular' memory, Aruvi and Aditi Balan happened. And the impact has been strangely satisfying.
Sample this. "An incident that moved me to tears was when I was interacting with students in a college in Cumbum. One student came up on the stage and declared that she had HIV and said the film had given her the courage to say this out loud. She said teachers and friends who had been previously been hostile to her had also become kinder after watching the film and realising her plight," Aditi explained. Beyond how Aruvi drew attention to the plight of HIV patients in the country and the stigma they face every single day, this one thing was worth more than the plethora of messages she received from people who chose to tell her their own stories or those of their HIV affected friends and family. "It was so nice to know that the film had touched so many people," she added modestly.
While this could be put down as something a social worker would see on a daily basis, it's oddly reassuring that a lawyer-turned-actor is capable of this kind of depth. Genuine depth and concern.
Accidental actor: A trained lawyer, acting happened completely by accident for Aditi Balan
From a black robe to a 'dark' script
Let's face it. India's obsession with its male heroes is not news. If you don't hear applause after the end of a speech by a popular hero (whether he's 25 or 65) then you're probably not sitting with an Indian film audience. So, when the four-minute speech by the lead character in the film Aruvi received roaring applause, it shouldn't have surprised anyone. But it did. Why? Because the lead was a woman, and not just that, it was her debut film. And she was no veteran actor's daughter or relative — she came out of nowhere, with a film that dealt with an issue no one dared talk about and left the audience completely stunned. And just like that, Aditi Balan became an overnight sensation in Tamil Nadu.
But who is Aditi Balan? For one, she's not an actor with any airs whatsoever — it's easy to see this because this interview was done sitting comfortably on her bed at her house in Chennai. And it was more of a conversation than an interview.
So yes, who is Aditi? Born and bred in Chennai, she went on to study law at Christ College, Bangalore. She came back, enrolled in the bar, did a play or two in her free time and then walked into the Aruvi audition casually. She got the role and the rest, as they say, is history. Funnily enough, the role was turned down by many top actresses because of the subject of the film — playing a woman with HIV. "When I went into the audition I had no idea about (what was in) the script. But when I read the script I was pleased with the fact that it discussed HIV, probably for the first time ever. I didn't understand why the other actresses had turned it down, I did Aruvi BECAUSE it was about HIV and I thought that was challenging to do as an actress" she said.
Right groundwork: Aditi put in a lot of time into researching for her role before she started shooting for the film
'Camping' out with the HIV-affected
So did she have to do a lot of research for the role? "Yes, I did. In fact, I have it all written down," she says and gets up to remove a diary from her cupboard. "From day one, I wrote down all my experiences — who I met, what I learnt. It's all in here. I met doctors who told me that HIV is nothing but an immunity problem and if you maintained a healthy diet and take your medicines, you can live a long and healthy life. We also discussed government aid and about the sort of counselling patients go through, especially pregnant women," she explained.
But it was not the doctors, it was the HIV-affected children and adults who inspired her the most. And this happened during the time she spent in the HIV camps — places that are forever imprinted in our minds after watching the movie. She says. "I spent a lot of time in children's camps. The children have such hard lives but they take care of themselves so nicely. I met a lot of transgenders too but the person I was completely taken over by was Noori amma. When she was diagnosed with the disease in 1987, she was told she had only four years to live and she told me 'Who is he to say I had only four years. I would be the one to decide how long I lived.'. Now, Noori is 68 and she's one of the strongest people I know."
Aruvi drew attention to the plight of HIV patients in the country and the stigma they face every single day, so after the film released Aditi received a lot of messages from people who chose to tell her their own stories or those of their HIV affected friends and family. "It was so nice to know that the film had touched so many people.
Ready to go: Aditi says that despite praises for her first performance, she hasn't yet found a good script for her second film
Why families need to talk about HIV NOW!
In the film, she shares a close relationship with her father, which is mirrored in real life, as Aditi says she's a daddy's girl. So when I ask her if she thinks the film will change the way families accept an HIV-infected member she says it will, "I asked my own father what he would do in a situation like this and he gave me a really nice answer. Actually, you should hear it from him," she says and goes to bring her father. And his answer is sure nice to hear, "I think if it were to happen, I would trust my daughter. Not that I don't already (trust her) but I would trust her word more. And I would urge other parents to also listen to their children more," he said.
In the film, Aruvi gets affected by the disease after she hurts her mouth in an accident and then ends up drinking coconut water from an HIV-infected vendor. Does she think that if Aruvi had got the disease through sexual intercourse, the audience might not have accepted the film? "The way in which Aruvi got the disease is very rare but it happens. Yes, I do think that the audience might have found it harder to accept her had she gotten it through sex, but the point of the film is to show that no matter how you get the disease, no one deserves to be ostracised by society. So I think either way the audience would have sympathised with her," she said sedately.
Awareness through government initiatives is regular, but how do we get society to be more accepting? Pat came the reply. "We have to start having conversations within our homes. I also realise that speaking up about what we face will help others from going through the same experiences," she said and added, "This applies to child abuse that often happens within one's own house."
An inspiration: Aditi is an example of how people can achieve any dream with just the right amount of effort and talent
'They'll call you stubborn, but speak up anyway'
So as a young woman who has made it, what is her advice to other young women, "Grab all the opportunities that come your way. Take risks, but ensure that you are fully prepared to do a good job. Do all that needs to be done sincerely before you embark on your dream," she says and quickly adds, "Don't be afraid to speak up, they might call you stubborn but prove it to them, prove it to yourself. Don't be scared to achieve your dreams," she said.
At the end of the interview, we realise that Aditi is, in fact, a lot like Aruvi but she is so much more. And God knows we can't wait to see more of her.