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Since 1st March, 1999
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A woman who has no time for Gere
- Superstar cut short by questioning Indian at AIDS conference

Bangkok, July 13: Richard Gere was at the mike, but a woman’s voice boomed out. She wanted to put a question, and not to him.

“All right, I’ll end my speech now and leave,” said the Hollywood superstar before leaving in a huff with his security in tow.

Barely a few minutes ago, Gere had taken the podium, the last speaker in a 90-minute special session, India Leads the Way, at the 15th International Conference on AIDS.

“I am terrified… Indians are the most unruly people, it is an outrage,” he began softly with a smile that could kill.

He had seen the impatience of about 500 delegates, mostly Indians and some forced to sit on the floor, building up. Andhra Pradesh endowments minister Satyanarayana Rao was booed off the stage as he meandered on.

The session, chaired by Rajya Sabha member J.D. Seelam, a core committee member of the Parliamentary Forum on HIV/AIDS, also witnessed protests from the audience against policy implementation.

The last 20 minutes of the session, organised by UNAIDS on the third day of the conference, were meant for questions from the audience. Queues had already formed at the three mikes placed in the aisle.

At this point, Gere came to speak. He had just mentioned his recent visit to south India and his partnership with Sun TV when a voice at the first mike in the aisle roared: “We need time for questions.”

The interruption came from an activist of Rainbow Planet, a coalition of organisations working for the rights of sexual minorities.

Flummoxed, Gere perhaps thought the lady wanted to ask him a question. Even as he waited by the mike, she said: “This question is for the panel…”

Seelam at the chair allowed the woman to continue. As she threw her question, Shabana Azmi, who arrived today, got up from the front row and went up to Gere. She gave him a hug — in greeting and by way of apology — as he was leaving the hall through a back door.

Perhaps it was the balm that was needed. At a different session later in the day, Gere said that “my love for India and my hate for AIDS” are too powerful. “I shall continue undaunted.”

Gere’s interaction with Indians here has been anything but pleasant. On Sunday, health secretary J.V.R. Prasada Rao contradicted Gere’s dire warning about the pandemic in India and — in a cheeky reference to the actor’s adopted religion, Buddhism — advised him to follow a “middle path” on the perception.

Gere was included in the session because of his recent initiatives in India in the fight against the pandemic which has infected over 5.1 million people in the country and, of course, to add some glamour.

The founder of the Gere Foundation India Trust has been dwelling on issues like the need to intensify utilisation of the media, his partnership with STAR TV “which has a good reach in India” and the hopes he had for the new government and the Prime Minister “who spoke openly about AIDS”.

After cutting short Gere, activist Meera Sreeram questioned: “How can India lead the way when the police have forcefully evicted sex workers in Baina, Goa, on June 14, in total disregard of their rights'”

Yet, sections of the audience later faulted her for barging into someone’s speech.

National AIDS Control Organisation director Meenakshi Dutta Ghosh replied that the police would have to be sensitised so that such instances were not repeated.

Among the other speakers were the chief ministers of Delhi and Maharashtra and parliamentarians from different parties.

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