By Anupam Srivastava
The scene with the silhouette of film star Jackie Shroff against a city exploding in flames as he rescues a woman in 1942 Ek Love Story, one of India’s most memorable films of recent times, was hard to forget. Yet, it was forgotten by the people of Bihar, and for a good reason too. Today, the actress of 1942 was replaced by Chhoti, an HIV-positive girl – who tied a Suraksha Bandhan (protection thread) on Jackie’s wrist. Jackie was in town, at UNICEF’s invitation, to launch a campaign on HIV/AIDS awareness. The campaign is being jointly run by UNICEF and the Bihar AIDS Control Society (BSCAS).
PATNA, July 2005
Chhoti, a rescued sex worker, was detected to be HIV-positive when she was tested along with other girls after being rescued by the police. After hiding herself from others initially, she later realised she should speak up “so that others would learn and gain.” On July 20th, when Jackie tied the suraksha bandhan on her hand, she says she was “touched… beyond belief.” Standing on the stage with Jackie, facing people who chanted his name, looking into cameras that flashed, she says she “came out” so that others would learn from it. “I admire her spirit. Please make sure that I get to speak to her every now and then,” he told Chhoti’s mentor, Suman Lal.
Bunty, an adolescent, knew enough about Jackie’s films before the mobile team arrived. At the end of the day, he also knew about HIV/AIDS and how he could protect himself.On the face of it, HIV/AIDS is a not yet an alarming issue in Bihar, especially when seen in the context of other pressing problems. The state lacks infrastructure, especially in rural areas, and less than 20 per cent of its people have access to electricity. Yet, there is reason for alarm since more than 12 per cent of its 82 million people are migrants. A large proportion of them are men who leave their families behind and return once or more often in a year, sometimes with HIV. Bihar is ranked among the vulnerable states in the country. The first case of HIV/AIDS in the state was reported in 1992, and by March 2004, 4,277 persons were reported to be HIV-positive. Currently, 158 persons are living with AIDS and 38 persons have died of AIDS. At the moment, more than 6,000 persons are reported to be HIV-positive. The state is believed to be extremely vulnerable to the virus.
The awareness campaign, called Jeevan hai Anmol (Life is Precious) has been planned keeping in mind people’s vulnerability. “With literacy rates below 50 per cent and people’s vulnerability due to high migration rates, only a campaign of this nature can take the right messages to the people,” said UNICEF State Representative Bijaya Rajbhandari. The film star who has ruled hearts for nearly two decades came in so that people who say his name also say HIV/AIDS.
The campaign has relied heavily on audio-visual communication, and each van was equipped with a television set and a VCD player. The launch in Patna had set the stage in the entire state. In Nalanda district’s Harawan village, 14 year old Rahul received the mobile awareness team warmly. “Thanks for coming. I know Jackie Shroff launched the campaign…is he still in Patna?” he asked. For others in the unelectrified village, this was a rare occasion when someone came to entertain them with films as well as educate them. Bunty, an adolescent, knew enough about Jackie’s films before the mobile team arrived. At the end of the day, he also knew about HIV/AIDS and how he could protect himself.
Chhoti, a rescued sex worker, was detected to be HIV-positive when she was tested along with other girls after being rescued by the police. After hiding herself from others initially, she later realised she should speak up “so that others would learn and gain.” In another village, Dumaron, the young people inquired about the services offered by the mobile teams. They also asked if Jackie was on his way to the village. “We knew he was here…it is wonderful that he is talking about HIV/AIDS,” said Ashutosh, a graduate from the village.
For Jackie himself, it was a moment of revelation when he was told at a briefing by UNICEF that in certain countries populations had been drastically reduced due to HIV/AIDS. “We can not allow this to happen. HIV can not have a free run here,” he said in a voice laden with emotion. He travelled long hours in aircraft that did not have business class, sat in cramped seats. Before he left, he told a packed media conference, “I am doing it for my children. I want this world to be safe from HIV. You too owe it your children.”