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Divya and Imran are two of the primary subjects in the documentary Blood Relative. If you just look at them, you’d assume they were a normal 8-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy living in Mumbai. But Divya is 15 and Imran is 24. Their stunted growth is the result of a deadly genetic disorder called thalassemia, a condition that affects normal blood production.
For treatment, regular blood transfusions are required, but this can lead to excessive iron in a patient’s system, which is fatal. The iron overload needs to be treated through the use of iron chelation drugs. Most people with thalassemia won’t live past 25, and undergoing blood transfusions and iron chelation therapy can be extremely expensive.
That’s where Vinay Shetty comes in, the third subject of Blood Relative. By looking closely at these people, director Nimisha Mukerji crafts a moving glimpse at the larger personal, social, humanitarian, and political dimensions of this health problem.
Director: Nimisha Mukerji
Vinay is the vice president of the Think Foundation, a charity that assists those who have thalassemia. The group is small, and it doesn’t even have a president. Why Vinay doesn’t just assume the role of president is never answered, but it’s just one of the many odd details in the film that couldn’t possibly be made up. Vinay’s a workaholic wholly given to the cause. He spends most of his time visiting patients at hospitals and their homes to make sure they’re getting their medication and other medical treatments. There’s a sense that as long as Vinay’s capable, the Think Foundation will survive, but it will always be a struggle. While Divya and Imran must deal with the disease, Vinay has to deal with limited funding. His main goal is to convince the Indian government to provide iron chelation drugs at no cost.
The government is predictably slow to respond and the process is arduous. The head of the ministry of health seems like a character pulled straight out of a satire. He’s aloof bordering on oblivious, and he has different political ambitions than addressing health care needs. It’s remarkable that that the health minister is so blissfully unaware of the camera to act like an unqualified, shameless politico, but it’s more remarkable that this sort of (inadvertent?) candor could be captured on film. Meanwhile, families in India, particularly those below the poverty line, can barely afford the transfusions. For them, iron chelation is completely out of the question.
An issue-driven doc like Blood Relative works best if it can successfully merge art, information, and advocacy. It’s a unique space. Think of a blend of documentary filmmaking and documentary journalism; an in-depth magazine feature with the flair of good creative non-fiction. Since the focus is on just three people, we’re able to extrapolate each of their experiences and consider the larger scope of the thalassemia problem. What Vinay’s going through is part of what Divya and Imran are going through. There’s no division between between the political and personal. If all politics is local, it’s also the case that each of these personal struggles is universal.
One of the shared problems between Divya and Imran is how to pay for medical treatment. Divya is still in school, but her parents are considering pulling her out of classes. By doing this, Divya would be able to clean up around the house while her mother can get a day job. Divya’s mother has hit a point of both resignation and superstition. She’s vowed never to wear sandals until her daughter is cured, and has also gone to a spiritual medium in hopes of divine intervention. It would be easy to scoff if the desperation wasn’t so heartbreaking, so instead all I could do was sympathize and wonder what, if I were raising a child in similar circumstances, I would do. Also heartbreaking is Divya’s social circle. Since she looks half her age, her peers at school make fun of her. She’s technically a teen, but her only friends are much younger.
Imran’s situation is may be more difficult. His father left the family years ago because of Imran’s thalassemia. With his mother’s flagging health and his sister’s own needs, Imran’s been forced into being the family’s sole breadwinner, paying for rent and utilities as well as his own medical treatment. He still aspires to meet Eminem and learn how to flow like he does, but that’s not in the cards; he still wants to date and get married, but his condition makes it beyond difficult to meet anyone his age. We see him hanging out with a friend who’s a year younger and at least a foot taller. We see the bruising on his stomach from his regular injections.
It’s painful to think about people who are teenagers in children’s bodies or adults in adolescent bodies. The talk about marriage and dating seems especially painful given how short their lives might be and the complications associated with treatment. It’s not just a matter of paying for the iron chelations and transfusions, but dealing with the repercussions of lifelong injections and the potential complications associated with treatment. Life gets more difficult the older you get, but for Divya and Imran it’s more so. They know it, but they carry on. Even when Divya’s mother discusses the possibility of her daughter dying, Divya laughs and smiles because she has no choice but to live despite it all.
That might be why Vinay persists. He’s given his life to prolong the lives of others, even if it’s just for a few more precious years. As the situation for the Think Foundation becomes more difficult, he keeps trying to make things work. He keeps visiting thalassemia wards, and also meets with Divya and Imran when he can. Seeing him and Imran together, even when it’s brief, is especially affecting. There’s a kinship there that’s so genuine, a humanity that cannot be denied. These lives are all inspirational in their own ways — they make us fortunate to be alive (which sounds selfish, I know) and fortunate that people like them are alive.
Blood Relative is a brisk 72 minutes, and yet every minute counts. The film has found its shape comfortably, needing no more and no less to explore the different facets of the issue. More importantly, Blood Relative never tries to force its emotions because everything is laid so bare. None of the subjects are guarded. Whether we’re following Vinay or Divya or Imran, we get a good sense of their inner turmoil but also their aspirations. They still dream, and that’s just as important as being alive. There is hope for some sort of future.
There’s a palpable urgency in Mukerji’s direction, another essential component of good art as advocacy, and it comes through in the film’s final appeal — to learn more more about the condition, to help somehow. Blood Relative is lean, but it lingers long after. It’s hard to ignore the film’s call to action because it’ll be hard to forget these people.