Actress and activist Ashley Judd has traveled to brothels in Mumbai, truck stops in Jaipur and affluent communities of Delhi to document the AIDS epidemic in India.
The result: 75 hours of raw footage, compressed into 45 minutes for “India’s Hidden Plague,” a forthcoming National Geographic documentary. The goal: to put a face on the millions of Indians living with HIV-AIDS.
“I don’t have to do a whammy job on anyone once they learn about how well [the filmmakers] empower these precious, at-risk people,” Judd said at the film’s world premiere last Thursday at the National Geographic Society.
An eclectic crowd of activists, National Geographic executives and Hill folk dined on goat cheese, colorful mini frosted cakes and lemon-drop martinis.
Dutch model Frederique van der Wal hopped on a plane from Manhattan for the event.
“It’s an incredibly important cause that will motivate anyone to step on a plane and try to raise awareness,” van der Wal said.
Director Chandramouli Basu said Judd was a pleasure to work with during the three weeks of filming. “I’ve worked with a lot of stars before, but she was actually clued in,” he said. “She has a genuine warmth and empathy for every person we met.”
Moments before the film began, the crowd began to grow anxious. Suddenly, the room parted as Judd walked through, wearing a silk and chiffon dress with a diamond bindi on her forehead.
As YouthAIDS global ambassador, Judd travels to developing countries in the hope of using her star power to fight the growing epidemic.
“We fill a gap between what the public sector and government can do. We’ve had the wonderful privilege to access the highest members of government,” Judd said of the organization.
Basu said Judd brings needed attention to a disease that is still taboo in many countries, including India.
“People listen when Ashley Judd speaks,” he said, noting that she was joined by three Bollywood stars. “These are people that everyone from the government to the common man listen to.”
In India, Judd teamed up with some of Bollywood’s brightest stars — Akshay Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and former Miss Universe Sushmita Sen — to explore how HIV travels from high-risk groups to the general population and why young women are increasingly at risk for infection.
Puja Gupta, Miss India 2007, was also on hand at the premiere to lend her support. “I have this title that I can use for awareness,” she said. “The cause is so beautiful that I’m lucky to be associated with it.”
“We wanted to make them into actual people with real lives and real stories,” explained Basu.
One of the real stories that deeply affected Judd was the story of Natasha, a prostitute whose friend sold her into sexual slavery. Judd describes what happened to Natasha after she was forced to sleep with someone for money for the first time.
“Her family found her at that moment, and she was ostracized. She’s disempowered and beautiful and entirely out of control of her life,” Judd said, choking back tears.
Judd cries several times throughout the movie. “How do you not just die of loneliness — just die of a broken heart?” she says after leaving a prostitute in one of India’s slums.
There are some lighter moments as well, although they are far outnumbered by the heavy ones. At the film screening, Judd laughed heartily at a scene where she does a condom demonstration for a large crowd of Indian truckers, a population that is increasingly spreading the disease across the vast peninsula.
“I was like the Barbara Walters of sex-workers interviews,” Judd quipped during a discussion following the screening.
During the Q-and-A, Judd dodged a question about U.S. government policy on AIDS prevention, but more broadly emphasized the importance of government programs in fighting the disease.
Kate Roberts, founder and director of YouthAIDS, said it’s difficult to reach “the masses.” But she added that “we feel we’ve done it with this film.”
The documentary airs in the U.S. Nov. 30 and worldwide Dec. 1.
Roberts said the goal of her organization is to “put a hopeful face on the pandemic.”
Judd agreed: “I’d probably keep going if there wasn’t hope, but I can probably go with that much more resilience because there is.”