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From Bollywood actress to social activist

TeachAIDS classDuring a recent trip to India, I had the great fortune to spend the day with Amala Akkineni, a beloved south Indian actress who is using her celebrity to advance the greater public good.

A trained dancer and once a major Bollywood star, Akkineni has turned her attentions in the last few decades to the nonprofit world, where she works on behalf of women and girls, people with HIV/AIDS and other vulnerable members of society.

She is still a widely recognized movie idol, attracting gawkers and autograph seekers wherever we went in Hyderabad, a south Indian city of some 7 million people. Despite her fame, she is a modest woman, who dressed simply that day in a blue cotton sari, delicate necklace and no make-up as she took us on a tour of some of the many social projects that are dear to her heart.

I met Akkineni through a friend at Stanford, Piya Sorcar, PhD, who founded a remarkably successful project, TeachAIDS, which began as her graduate thesis in the School of Education. The nonprofit disseminates video materials around the globe, using animated figures of well-known celebrities to convey simple messages about transmission, treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS. The videos are now available in 81 countries and in 14 languages, including 7 dialects common in India, where AIDS is still a major public health problem.

Akkineni first took us to her nonprofit, Blue Cross of Hyderabad, an animal shelter that she founded in 1992 after her garage had filled up with disabled and abused creatures she had rescued from streets and homes in Hyderabad. Akkineni works regularly at the shelter and is not afraid to get her hands dirty as she comforts dogs with missing legs or feeds camels rescued from the slaughterhouse.

As she became known in Hyderabad for her work with animals in the 1990s, she was approached by Karl Sequeira, an activist in the world of AIDS and addiction, who wanted her help in starting a hospice for AIDS patients. “I was already known as this notorious ex-actress who was running this hospice for animals. So he thought I was a kindred soul,” she told me in an interview in her small office at the shelter. At the time, HIV/AIDS was such a stigmatized condition that people with full-blown disease were literally being tossed in the trash, she said. “AIDS was everywhere but nobody knew how to deal with it. It was spreading like wildfire,” she told me. She, Sequeira and other activists raised enough in one evening to open an AIDS hospice run by the Freedom Foundation, which offers a wide range of HIV services today (Sequeira died in 2004).

More than a decade later, Akkineni became involved in TeachAIDS through her husband, Nagarjuna, a south Indian mega-star who has won numerous acting awards. Sorcar had approached Nagarjuna in 2009, hoping he would agree to appear in one of the TeachAIDS videos; the meeting could not have come at a more opportune time, as Akkineni had just been involved in a local controversy over the expulsion of HIV-positive children from the local schools. She was looking for some AIDS educational materials that the government would find acceptable for use in the schools; there is no sex education, and talk of sex is taboo in India, so it’s hard communicate information about HIV/AIDS, whose primary mode of transmission in India is through heterosexual sex.

Akkineni saw the TeachAIDS videos as ideal solution, as they use a culturally sensitive approach to conveying basics about the disease. She opened an office in Hyderabad and with a year, the group had released the first versions in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, which has more than 83 million people and a relatively high rate of the disease. TeachAIDS is now going national in India.

During our recent visit, Akkineni took us to a local high school, where more than 100 teen-aged students, mostly girls in checked uniforms and pigtails, crammed into a long, narrow room to watch the 22-minute video. In introducing the film, Akkineni tells the students that the narrator is Nagarjuna, and suddenly the girls are all atwitter, giggling and cheering. I have been in many high school classrooms and typically see students distracted during lessons, but these youngsters sat in rapt attention throughout the talk and video, their eyes not moving from the screen. Afterwards, one of the 13-year-old girls told me in Telugu, with Akkineni translating, that she had never heard of HIV before. Now she is not only aware of the disease but when she gets married, she wants her fiancé to be tested for HIV – a huge leap forward in knowledge and understanding. These girls are likely to marry at a young age – between 18 and 20 – so the information comes to them at an important time in their lives.

As we leave the school, Akkineni is besieged by autograph-seekers, but she graciously declines, handing them information on her animal shelter, hoping they will find a way to help, as she has.

Photo, of high-school students watching an educational video on HIV/AIDS, courtesy of TeachAIDS

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