I didn’t do anything wrong.
Sila Samayangalil opens to the sounds of a train station: chattering footsteps, the clear voice of the announcer, the deep groan of the train as it reaches the platform. Outside, India is a slurry of colors and sound, jam packed and hot with conversations. Inside, the noise of daily life drops into hushed voices, pens clicking in morse code and bodies shuffling, shifting weight. The films music by acclaimed composer Ilaiyaraaja is sometimes eerie and alien, striking a strange chord of similarity with the Duffer Brothers’ hit Netflix show Stranger Things, and sometimes sweet. The ear is disoriented while the eye reorients.
The next two hours unfolds unhurriedly. The first act of the film slowly introduces the characters who will take center stage. The camera moves like turpentine, painstakingly peeling away layers of exposition that appear to be inconsequential only to reveal its true purpose in the second act. It’s agonizing. It’s torturous. I get impatient and antsy. We’re meant to forget for a moment that the film is about something. Get lost in the mundanity of waiting in line for a medical test. I can’t. I’m on edge waiting. So are the patients.
It happens to be that this medical test is anything but mundane. As a result of the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s and the disease’s proliferation in Africa, HIV/AIDS is feared for its rapidity and the mass amounts of graves it has dug (AIDS can be caused by the HIV virus if untreated). Now, even with extremely effective antiretroviral drugs that allow an HIV positive person to live long and happily, the stigma persists. The film navigates this in a peculiar and poignant way.
Director and story creator Priyadarshan wants us to know that the patients are real people. Watch as one works on his music, the other does a crossword puzzle and another hurries to take his medicine on time. Deepa (Sriya Reddy), flinty eyed and impatient, is the nexus of this idea. She works in the clinic as an administrative assistant and becomes pivotal in the film for her selfishness. While the patients are unified in their anxiety, she stands apart. Absorbed by her own struggle to pay rent to a landlord who has demanded more, at odds with her boss who demands perfection, she is the only one who can answer the demands of the patients. She is irascible and too efficient for this job that has become a nuisance to her. What Deepa needs is more money. It is at this point eight desperate patients decide to bribe her to find out their results earlier than the appointed time. The miserable request is an unexpected opportunity for Deepa.
Reddy plays Deepa’s callousness with the perfect amount of disinterest and self-absorption. While the film takes every moment to show us that the patients are complex and vivid characters, Reddy reminds us that they are more bodies shifting, more people waiting. To her, the concept of taking an HIV test and resulting positive is far removed. It’s a unique, heart wrenching moment to feel the fear and apprehension of the patients and see Deepa’s utter disregard for it. Unlike the patients, who gradually reveal why they’re here and inform each other about HIV, she doesn’t ponder the implications of the test or the disease. Even the concept of patient privacy doesn’t occur to her: Deepa loses her patience at a patient who was unclear in their form. “I know it’s HIV!” she snaps loudly. “ELISA or PCR?” Everyone in line hears.
Privacy is all these patients have left to maintain while the possibility of a positive diagnosis exists. Deepa’s unconcern for it forces the patients to confront their shame as they begin reveal to each other why they came to take the test. These moments of revelation are deeply moving and where the film succeeds the most, despite implying that shame may be the only reason why these patients would want privacy.
When it works as an informative piece about HIV and AIDS testing, the film’s tendency to have its distinguishable everyman—and everywoman—characters speak like they’re in a public service announcement renders it ineffective. It’s an education to understand the complexities that shape a society’s perception of a stigma but when the dialogue panders to it, the film suffers. Trapped in the waiting room with the patients who bribed Deepa, it becomes a thought-provoking film about why testing for HIV is important and it breeds acceptance. Sila Samayangalil wants to work on two levels as a suspenseful drama that hinges on HIV test results and an exploration of a cultural issue in India. It stumbles every now and then, but shines in its moments of odd humor and the grudging camaraderie that develops between the patients.
Audiences in New York can see the film next week at Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) and The India Center Foundation’s India Kaleidoscope taking place December 8 through 11. It is an exciting new festival that will present film lovers with a chance to immerse themselves in the unique sights and sounds that make up the Indian regional, independent film landscape. For more information visit here: movingimage.us/india-