Shabana Azmi has a new role — that of a teacher at school. In her animated avatar of a trusted doctor, the veteran actor talks about her subject, HIV/AIDS, in a gentle yet authoritative tone, uses graphical illustrations and never forgets to reinforce each chapter. And this tutorial can be downloaded free of cost.


Made available through TeachAIDS, a non-profit founded at Stanford University by Dr Piya Sorcar, the 25-minute animated videos are the result of years of cross-disciplinary research. In 2005, Sorcar, a Stanford student, realised during research for her master’s in India that spreading awareness about HIV/AIDS made most educators uncomfortable. “In many cases, teachers were embarrassed and uneasy about teaching the sensitive subject. Others said they didn’t feel like they knew enough themselves and, therefore, didn’t want to misinform,” she says, pointing out that many students did not feel comfortable learning about the topic from their teachers either.
In 2009, TeachAIDS was spun into a non-profit social venture and since then Sorcar has teamed up with the world’s top medical and education experts to create the HTML and Flash-based web software.
Sorcar’s team has created over 15 versions — available in several languages including English, Hindi, Telugu, Mandarin, Spanish and Swahili — which have been customised to suit different audiences. “Using animated characters was an innovative way to communicate simple biological concepts around virus transfer to people of all ages,” says Azmi who lent her voice to the ‘Indian-English-female’ version of the presentation. The videos are currently being screened in schools and colleges in over 30 countries.
STAR POWER
Like Azmi, many other international cultural icons, including African hip-hop artistes such as Zeus (Game Goabaone Bantsi) and Tref (Thato Maruping), and Indian stars, including Nagarjuna, Shruti Haasan and Anushka Shetty, have lent their likenesses and voices to the different versions of the tutorials. “People listen and learn better when they are interacting with voices from their own culture. The icons selected are those that our target populations respect and respond positively to. They make the tutorials credible, trustworthy and friendly,” Sorcar says.
Each animated likeness was created using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop software after referencing images of the celebrities from films, live appearances, and photos. Facial features, typical hairstyles, and clothes were replicated to pattern cartoon avatars after the real actors.
Tollywood star Anushka Shetty, who plays the role of the doctor in the Telugu version, says, “A sensitive topic like HIV/AIDS is best taught using animations. It makes it easier for conservative people to open up to the theme.”
The 2-D characters were conceived, sketched and developed by the TeachAIDS’ creative team in California and VenSat, an international animation company with operations in India and the US.
LESS SKIN, MORE IMPACT
Research made Sorcar and her team realise that every country has certain images, words, or actions that can’t be discussed directly, or depicted visually. So the team used euphemisms, or indirect illustrations, which were culturally acceptable without being ambiguous. In India, for example, instead of showing real people kiss, the tutorials show an animated couple come close to each other after which the camera pans to two cartoon doves kissing. This imagery, borrowed from Bollywood films of the ’60s and ’70s, was preferred over explicit images. Similarly, the Indian version shows the image of a bride on a flower-decked wedding bed to depict sex, while the version for Rwanda doesn’t hesitate to show a couple snuggling under a blanket.“Our earlier tests, which used pictures from traditionally used AIDS education materials, revealed that the students were highly uncomfortable with the pictures.” Sorcar also noted that a relatively small reduction in the amount of skin exposed in a picture of a woman breastfeeding greatly improved comfort levels. “After implementing the optimised pictures into the software, our India study revealed that 98 per cent of young people tested felt comfortable with the animated tutorials.”
In Botswana, a country where 23 per cent of the population is HIV-infected, it is taboo to talk too explicitly about death. “Most individuals living there know or are related to someone who has passed away with HIV/AIDS. Hence, we used words and animation to more subtly approach this issue,” she says. Though the base curriculum is similar across all the versions, they differ in language, use of metaphors, images and analogies. The videos are also available in male and female optimised versions.
SCREEN SAVER
In India, the animated videos are being used in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, West Bengal, Karnataka. In Andhra Pradesh, the state AIDS Control Society is set to distribute 25,000 copies to schools, junior colleges, ashram schools in tribal areas, residential hostels, youth forums, and Red Ribbon clubs — peer groups that raise HIV/AIDS awareness in schools.
The Karnataka state government has agreed to use the video in all government and government-aided schools across the state. “This is just the beginning. Eventually, we would like to create versions for every major language in India,” says Sorcar.

The videos can be accessed from www.teachingaids.org or the YouTube channel www.youtube.com/teachAIDS

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