In the fantasy world of Indian film, Shilpa Shetty is a reigning princess, a lissome 29-year-old with a talent for twirling across Alpine meadows with muscle-bound suitors in tow. Serious drama? Well, it's Bollywood, after all.
But Shetty's latest movie is a far cry from the song-and-dance-filled romances that define the Bollywood genre. Trading her filmy saris for sensible office attire, Shetty plays an up-and-coming ad agency executive who becomes infected with HIV, loses her job as a result and then fights to regain her dignity -- and paycheck -- in a conservative society where fear and ignorance of the virus are still pervasive.
If the story line of "Phir Milenge" -- "We'll Meet Again" -- sounds familiar, that is because the film borrows its central plot device from "Philadelphia," the 1993 courtroom drama in which Tom Hanks plays an HIV-infected lawyer who files a wrongful dismissal suit after he is fired by his firm.
The Indian film represents a milestone of sorts. By all accounts, the mostly (but not entirely) songless "Phir Milenge," which opened across the country Friday, is the first mainstream Bollywood offering that deals directly with HIV and the stigma surrounding the virus as major themes. In that regard, the film shows how Indian popular culture is belatedly starting to come to terms with the virus, which has already infected an estimated 4 million to 6 million people.
"It was not like the usual run-of-the-mill commercial film where you have a hundred dancers," said Shetty, who co-stars in the film with Salman Khan and Abhishek Bachchan, two of India's hottest male heartthrobs. "That, in a way, was a welcome change."
Public health specialists welcome the movie. In an interview last year, Richard Feachem, the head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, expressed concern that HIV was "not yet on the national radar screen the way it needs to be" in India, in part because the country had not yet experienced what he termed "the 'Philadelphia' effect."
In that interview, Feachem said he had had "a number of discussions with the Bollywood community about the idea that India is now ready for a blockbuster film where HIV and the tragedy of HIV are worked into the story, and becomes part of an entertaining blockbuster."
Revathy Menon, the veteran actress who directed the film, said she was not part of those discussions and emphasized that she was eager for her movie to succeed as commercial entertainment, rather than as a lengthy public-service ad. "There is a stigma towards my film itself," she said in an interview Thursday. "The press is saying it's an AIDS film. If a main character in a film has cancer, you don't call it a cancer film."
But Menon, who has long been associated with AIDS prevention efforts in her home state of Tamil Nadu, acknowledged that she also approached the project with a social purpose. "Truthfully speaking, I just thought this was a cause that needed to be talked about," she said.
"Phir Milenge" is part of a broader trend in Bollywood, whose traditional, formulaic approach -- "seven fights, ten songs, four kisses," in the words of Taran Adarsh, the editor of the industry publication Trade Guide -- is finding less favor with Indian audiences in the face of growing competition from abroad.
"Normally, Bollywood is known for escapist cinema -- realism has never worked," Adarsh said. But "with cable and satellite coming in, we have access to the best content from across the globe." As a consequence, he said, "I think the Indian audience is slowly opening up to a lot of things which were earlier considered taboo." Adarsh noted that one of the biggest hits in recent months, "Girlfriend," centered on a lesbian relationship.
HIV is a particularly ticklish subject in this conservative and deeply religious country, where arranged marriage is still the norm. Although international experts have praised AIDS prevention efforts in several of India's hardest-hit states, they say the stigma surrounding the disease has greatly complicated efforts to contain the virus, which, in India, is spread primarily through heterosexual intercourse.
Kenneth Wind-Andersen, who coordinates U.N. AIDS programs in India, said in an interview that condom use in parts of northern India had declined slightly over the past several years. He attributed the drop to reluctance by the former government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to promote condom use in national AIDS prevention campaigns.
"When Bollywood, one of the world's largest film industries with massive audiences, produces a film about AIDS, everyone has to sit up and take notice," Peter Piot, the executive director of UNAIDS, said in a statement from Geneva. "It is extremely significant that Bollywood is joining the struggle against this epidemic."
Menon said the subject matter required delicate negotiations with the producers of "Phir Milenge," who initially balked at the idea that Shetty's character, Tamanna, acquire the virus during a one-night stand with Rohit, an old high-school flame played by Khan. But Menon said she rejected a proposal that Tamanna become infected by means of a tainted blood transfusion.
"In India, 80 percent or more is sexually transmitted," she said. "I think we've just had enough of this hiding behind the blanket of one woman, one man, which is not there anymore in society. It's high time we faced the truth."
Menon also had a hard time finding a bankable male star to play the role of Rohit, who acquires HIV from a promiscuous American girlfriend and ultimately succumbs to AIDS. But after being rejected by several prominent actors Menon declined to name, Khan -- known for his action-adventure roles and 17-inch biceps -- "dropped from heaven" and agreed to take the part, Menon said. Khan, Shetty and Bachchan, who plays the lawyer who argues Tamanna's discrimination suit, acted in the film for a fraction of their normal fees, Menon said.
"I felt this was the best opportunity as an entertainer to give back to society," Shetty said. "Sometimes you do films for the money, sometimes for the job satisfaction. I did this for the latter."
Besides, added the veteran of more than 30 Indian films, "It gave me the opportunity to reinvent myself."