Next to the arms industry, global pharmaceutical corporations function as the most important political force in the confrontation between rich Western nations and emerging non-Western ones. The obstacle in this game of intimidation and exploitation for Western corporate profit is always India; its ability to make high quality generic drugs and sell them at a fraction of the West’s price to poor people all over the world is seen as an impediment to that profit.
Just recently, the Indian Supreme Court judgment rejecting Novartis’ plea to protect its cancer drug Glivec and allowing Indian drug companies to sell generic copies at low prices was hailed by Cipla Chairman Yusuf Hamied, one of the heroes of the documentary Fire in the Blood.
The documentary goes back decades to the AIDS epidemic to trace the process by which patents held by Western drug companies kept expensive anti-retroviral drugs out of reach of sufferers in Africa and the rest of the poor world. People died like flies—simply horrible deaths, their immune systems shutting down completely—even though all the while, in Mumbai, Cipla was ready to supply generic copies that could have saved most of them.
The film argues that intellectual property rights are not applicable if they interfere with a nation’s fundamental rights, in this case the right to life-saving medicine; that it is neo-colonial and anti-democratic to insist otherwise; that patent laws become morally invalid when the health of a country is at stake. In the most effective moment in the documentary, Hamied refers to Mahatma Gandhi’s views on ethics, nationality and profit.
Fire in the Blood uses the time tested documentary technique of a voice-over, archival footage and interviews. So, aesthetically, it is not unusual. But there are two breakthroughs: one, it charges global corporations with criminality outright, and two, it gets to reach out to people via movie theatres, an opportunity rarely accorded to documentary films.