July 4th, 2007 08:08 EST
Bollywood, India HIV/AIDS Prevention
Washington " Indian cinemagoers soon will see short films by India`s top directors about the impact of HIV/AIDS, screened ahead of Hindi (Bollywood) movie blockbusters. This collaboration of filmmakers to raise awareness about the disease is the brainchild of Indian film director Mira Nair and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Nair told USINFO she got the idea when a foundation representative contacted her and presented "the startling statistic that if we don`t control what`s happening in India in terms of the lack of awareness and stigma and other things associated with HIV" the magnitude of India`s HIV/AIDS epidemic could equal that of Africa in a few years.
The director, who now lives in Uganda, knows the problem firsthand. U.N. 2006 figures show 72 percent of the 2.6 million global AIDS deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa, with devastating socio-economic impact.
She wants to use the "immense power" of Indian cinema to "wake people up about AIDS." She calls project AIDS Jaago, or "awake" in Hindi. "I proposed that I would get together the most cutting-edge, commercial, populist film directors from different regions of India who would each use iconic movie stars who are recognized " in our country, who would each make a dramatic tale of 15 minutes in length," she said.
Nair assigned one AIDS topic to each director, "and then they had the freedom to do what they needed to do," she said. Nair herself is a well-known and respected director for such films as Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding and her most recent, The Namesake.
She assembled impressive talent for the four films. "I chose the directors I most admire," she said. Director Vishal Bhardwaj`s film Blood Brothers is about the psychological impact of the infection and "living positively with it," Nair said. Santosh Sivan, a South Indian director who received international acclaim for his 1998 film The Terrorist, focuses on the stigma of HIV/AIDS with the true story of a small boy who was barred from school because his parents were HIV positive. Farhan Akhtar, "a wunderkind of the new Bollywood," currently is shooting a film about the need to be open about the subject of sex education and HIV/AIDS.
Nair herself directed a film called Migration, "about the virus as the great class leveler that links rural, urban, upper class, working class, migrant labor," she said. Noteworthy stars, such as Irfan Khan, Siddharth and South Indian idol Prabhu Deva are cast in the films. Up and coming stars Samira Reddy, Shiney Ahuja and Reema Sen also appear.
Containing HIV/AIDS in India is a challenge. Conservative values inhibit people from discussing sex and related diseases, even with doctors. A profusion of dialects hinders education about AIDS. Although HIV/AIDS is now common in India, there is still a terrible stigma attached.
According to the 2006 Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), approximately 5.7 million people in India were infected with HIV at the end of 2005. India`s National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) estimates the infection rate slightly lower. Recent data indicate slowing of the epidemic in certain hard-hit areas and increases in others.
A 2007 World Bank report on AIDS in South Asia calls the epidemic "severe" but "preventable," and lauds the strides made in prevention: "The AIDS community is gaining experience on how to work through key sectors other than health."
Films such as Nair`s series and the multimedia campaign Is This Justice? by human rights advocacy group Breakthrough, which targets AIDS-related discrimination, are vital to getting the message out.
Humble popular media -- posters by Aids Prevention and Control (APAC) in auto-rickshaws and buses -- reach those at risk: sex workers, their clients, truckers, injection-drug users and men who have sex with men. APAC, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in South India funded by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has worked since 1995 in partnership with other nongovernmental organizations to implement intervention programs, especially with sex workers, who are primary sources of" transmission of HIV/AIDS in India.
Key strategies involve district-level information campaigns, training peer educators, voluntary counseling and testing centers, and treatment programs. USAID-funded Avert Society, founded in 2001, does this sort of work to combat the epidemic in Maharashtra.
The United States, working through the President`s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), USAID and other agencies channel funds to NGOs for surveillance, testing, education and treatment. "Experts from U.S. government agencies sit on the Global HIV Prevention Working Group set up by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation.
Nair says she hopes that by the end of the year, the films will be in cinema halls in India and elsewhere. "[T] hey can really translate anywhere, China, Africa, anywhere," she said, adding, "If these four films succeed, then next year we can get another four directors" to do another series.
For additional information on U.S. and international efforts to combat the disease, see HIV/AIDS.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
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