Fire in the Blood review: Good intentions, not-so-good execution

Deepanjana Pal

Oct 10, 2013 12:49:36 IST

There are moments in Fire in the Blood that can make an Indian intensely proud. In a country that seems to lack leaders and role models, Fire in the Blood presents a figure who is classically heroic, in the mould of David who took on and beat Goliath. His name is Yusuf Hamied, scientist and chairperson of Cipla, who wasn’t cowed by the massively powerful American pharmaceutical industry.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the life saving drugs that could treat AIDS were only being produced by a few Western companies and they had priced the medicine prohibitively high. Hamied started producing the same drugs at a fraction of the price and even distributed them for free. Along with crusaders like Dr Peter Mugyenyi and activists James Love and Zackie Achmat, he helped saved millions from suffering and hastened death.

Fire in the Blood review: Good intentions, not-so-good execution

A poster of the film, Fire in the Blood.

The story begins in the 1990s, when AIDS was taking the proportions of an epidemic in Africa because there was no affordable treatment. There is still no cure for AIDS, but a cocktail of three anti-retro virals (ARVs) can help suppress the symptoms so that someone infected with HIV can live a normal life. The companies that were manufacturing these ARVs priced them at about $40 a tablet, which meant the annual cost of the treatment ran into thousands of dollars and was out of reach to all but the rich.

Into this terrible situation came Cipla with its generic drugs. (Generic drugs are identical copies of patented drugs and cost a fraction of patented drugs.) Cipla wasn't the only making generic drugs, but Hamied made history when he decided to not keep a profit margin for his company. He offered doctors like Mugyenyi a fantastic deal: two ARVs at 65 and 35 cents per tablet, and the third one — which prevents transmission of AIDS from mother to foetus — thrown in for free. Suddenly, the cost of treating an AIDS patient went down to $350 a day.

Dylan Mohan Gray’s documentary punctures some of the propaganda that American pharmaceutical companies project to malign generic drug manufacturers. For instance, companies like Cipla don’t produce substandard medicine and in fact, often supply to American companies. More importantly, producers of patented drugs spend most of their profits on advertising and lining the pockets of shareholders, not research and development. (The bulk of medical research is actually funded by the American government.) The pricing has more to do with greed than the cost of research and producing new medicines.

However, as admirable as the people who campaigned for affordable HIV treatment might be, Fire in the Blood struggles to hold your attention and it doesn't help that it's shot unimaginatively. The documentary feels dated, both in terms of technique as well as subject. Constantly looking back to the 1990s and early 2000s, it feels like a lecture that lacks insight. After all, that big American corporations are greedy liars is no revelation.

It’s also disconcerting to see Fire in the Blood ignore details like the stigma attached to AIDS in an effort to show India as the land of the brave as far as AIDS treatment is concerned. It's as though fear and misinformation about AIDS are a thing of the past in India. The focus of the documentary may not be society's response to AIDS, but Gray does choose to include stray moments like bodybuilder Pradip Kumar Singh saying he disclosed his HIV status the day after winning a state bodybuilding title. Fire in the Blood’s silence on the effects of this disclosure makes it seem as though there is easy acceptance for the HIV-afflicted in India, which is entirely untrue. Fudging reality like this doesn’t help the credibility of a documentary.

But it's not just in the details that Fire in the Blood stumbles. Despite spending its entire running time talking about ARVs and AIDS treatment, the film ends by shaking its fist in the air about life preserving drugs in general. If that was Dylan's intended focus, then other illnesses, like the current debate concerning cancer treatment, deserved some mention. (See here, here and here.) Also, in the last few minutes, we’re told ARVs are not a complete treatment for AIDS and the follow-up medical requirements are likely to be in the clutches of patented drug producers. Inexplicably, Fire in the Blood doesn't delve into this looming crisis. It's satisfied with re-treading familiar territory, which is a shame.

If good intentions made a documentary, then Fire in the Blood would be brilliant. Unfortunately, that’s not enough. Real-life stories like the ones in this documentary demand, and deserve, more.

Updated Date: Oct 10, 2013 12:49:36 IST