Pulli Raja – Raising hackles in the South

BY jayashree| IN Media Practice | 02/12/2003


Pulli Raja - Raising hackles in the South

While the campaign is targeting the male, the underlying message is that AIDS emanates from the woman.

B Jayashree

 He is the latest icon to take the South by storm. In the land of the exploits of the Rajnikants and Kamal Haasans, an invisible character has managed to become the talking point of movies, talk shows, and get-togethers. Meet Pulli Raja, the playboy through whom the message of condom promotion and AIDS prevention is being disseminated, a character who never actually makes an appearance.

The advertisement series is  a joint attempt by PSI (US-based Population Services International and the Tamil Nadu Aids Control Society). With lots of people talking about it, it’s so far so good for the campaign. But all’s not well with the manner in which this has happened and now the hackles are rising with protests, mainly feminist and puritanical hackles.

The campaign started with a series of teasers in the media, with a varied cross-section of people asking "Will Pulli Raja get AIDS?"  The maximum impact even after over two months of campaign still remains from the teaser ads.

 The ads that followed consisted of a series of people trying to answer the question.

 Spot 1: Man: Will Pulli Raja get AIDS?

(his friend) If he forgets to wear a condom because he is drunk, and goes to a woman he will get AIDS


Spot 2: Woman: Will Pulli Raja get AIDS?

Man, customer: If he goes to a healthy woman like you … why should he??

(The woman) No, even if a woman looks healthy she could have AIDS, so if he does not wear a condom he will get AIDS


Spot 3: man: Will Pulli Raja get AIDS?

Man: If he goes to a regular, why would he?

(male friend) No, as if this is a woman with whom he is running a family…! What does he know about who she is having a relationship with when he is not around, and if they have AIDS??


The messages of liquor, prostitution, multiple partners - all in the conservative South? Ayyo Amma! However, strangely, this campaign has survived several weeks right here, and has only now begun to come under fire. However, it has had a dubious history in other cities.

 This is in fact the Balbir Basha campaign that PSI did in Maharashtra. While Basha fell flat on his face due to protests from women’s groups in the state, Pulli Raja in Tamil Nadu is getting increasing publicity by being joked about everywhere. So WHAT are women’s groups here doing and saying?

 It is only over the past few days that the actual protests have been lodged. Women’s groups say that they wanted to wait and watch as it was a series, and see if the campaign was doing a balancing act later on. But when things just got worse, they have now lodged their protests and are waiting to see the response. The main issue is of course, that while the campaign is targeting the male, (which is something women’s groups have been asking for) the underlying message  is that AIDS emanates from the woman.

 One hoarding in fact showed a woman with a handbag, with the same message: that you could get AIDS from her. This comes under intense criticism from the All India Democratic Women’s Association which fears that this reinforces the regressive idea that a working woman is a loose woman. Similarly other groups like the Progressive Writers Forum have objected to the "immoral" messages being propogated by the ads. Where stress should be on one partner alone, the concept of multiple partners, and social indiscipline are being freely discussed.

 Of course there was the print ad, in the similar series that appeared just once that talked about how innocent family members were exposed  to danger, which was seen as being more acceptable, but that has not been flashed as many times as the Pulli Raja series. The timing of the ads and its frequency on popular programmes and prime-time family entertainment slots has increased the nervousness now among people about messages being transmitted to young people.

 In all, the absent Pulli Raja continues to enthral drawing rooms with his exploits. And while a debate is only now ongoing, and some protests are being voiced, the fact is that PSI has got away with its campaign in the form that it appears in now.

 Too late perhaps, the AIDWA and the Progressive Writers’ Forum have both now threatened to go to court, if the ads do not make some positive changes soon. The TANSACS and PSI representatives have so far defended their ads, though unofficially, the campaign has been pulled up for its "loose" messages by the state government. Of course AIDS campaigns world-over have faced this hurdle of being accosted by protests and pseudo-moralists. But here the question is not just about so-called morals or about getting the message across, but about giving a balanced and sensitive picture. And more than the heat generated by  Pulli Raja, it is this missing chunk in the campaign that makes it a sad disappointment.
























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