Ashley Judd, acclaimed Hollywood actress has just wound up an extensive AIDS awareness campaign that has taken her along a trail less traveled. Clad in a simple cotton sari she walked the streets in Kamathipura in Mumbai interacting with commercial sex workers, 50% of whom are HIV positive. In Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, she talked to children for whom the streets are their home and who have no idea about HIV or their own vulnerabilities. From Mumbai, which is the epicenter of the AIDS virus in India, she has traveled to Delhi and Rajasthan.
With the HIV infection spreading into the general population and no longer being confined to the high risk groups alone, new and innovative ways have to be sought to create awareness and bring about behaviour change. Celebrity endorsements by film stars, television actors and popular youth icons get people to listen and understand implications of risk behaviour, motivating them to make requisite changes in their lifestyles.
Thailand achieved 100% condom success followed by countries like Cambodia. Apart from government spending, it was NGOs and celebrities turned influencers who got messages of safe sex across. Brand Ambassador to Population Services International, an international non-profit organization working in the area of HIV, Ashley Judd has tried to achieve precisely this through her India visit.
PSI and National Geographic Channel (NGC) have come together to film a documentary that will capture images and stories that she has heard along her India sojourn. The film which is being produced by Miditech, Asia’s leading independent production company, will be telecast on all NGC channels worldwide.
Vice-President Programming, NGC India, Joy Bhattacharjya informs, “inspite of being shot in India, the film has relevance to viewers across the world. The HIV epidemic devastates women, children and young people. If one country can learn from the experience of another, surely it needs a wider audience. Also, when celebrities like Ashley take out time to embark on a physically exhausting and emotionally draining experience like this, again, it needs to be seen and admired by the world, so that more people step forward voluntarily and make a difference.”
Ashley’s presence in India got her film offers from Bollywood but more importantly it brought on board actors like Shahrukh Khan, Sushmita Sen and Akshay Kumar who joined her on various phases of her interactions. They also appear on film, adding sufficient star appeal.
While Ashley and Sushmita interact with sex workers in Kamathipura, Akshay connects with truck drivers in Jaipur and gets them to talk of their experiences. Perceived as a promiscuous community which indulges in unsafe sex, it was heart warming to hear the story of a trucker who said that he was finding it difficult to find a match for himself, for no respectable family was willing to give away their daughter in marriage to a trucker!”
The film explores the rapid spread of AIDS in India and tries to deal with complex concerns like stigma, sexuality and behaviour patterns that surround this issue. The filming was done under trying circumstances where identities had to be protected. Director Chandramouli Basu feels, “everyone we met had a heart wrenching story to tell. It is a world that exists and one we are oblivious about. Ashley’s ability to connect to people and get them to talk has been evocatively brought out on film. Powerful women like Sushmita are role models and when they talk to marginalized groups, it strikes a chord and gives hope.”
With an estimated 5.7 million adults living with HIV in India and 83% of the infection being transmitted through the sexual route, it is women who are facing the maximum brunt, whether they are infected or affected. According to Dana Ward, Operations Director, PSI, ‘there is an increasing feminization of the epidemic making it imperative to empower women not just to be educated on safe sex but also to negotiate safe sex.”