No one had heard of Panchu Bhol. Not that anyone would have taken the trouble to travel to a village called Badurabar in Puri district, looking for an HIV positive victim. But that was till Doordarshan's health programme, Kalyani, decided to look him up.
Prasar Bharti senior director Usha Bhasin said they sent their anchors in Cuttack, Mama Mishra and Swarup Nayak, to Badurabar. Mishra played the role of 'Sahri didi' and Nayak was 'Chakulia panda'.
When the team met Panchu, he was in no mood to talk. When he did, he only talked of death and the little daughter he had been blessed with but was too scared to pick up, fearing he might pass on the infection. His family had been excommunicated and Panchu had been declared a curse to the village.
But Kalyani's team decided he would suffer no more. ‘Sheri didi’ offered to tie him a rakhi and become his sister. She also ate a sweet Panchu offered. All this while, the villagers watched in awe.
"The Kalyani anchors were able to convince the villagers that HIV does not spread through touch or by eating together. The villagers were easily convinced. Panchu held his daughter for the first time and we telecast the entire episode," Bhasin said.
That was in December 2005. The Kalyani anchors did a follow-up after three months. They almost did not recognise Panchu. Gone was the man with the drooping eyes and furrowed brow. Here was a bright, clean-shaven young man championing the cause of HIV victims.
"Sometime back, our team visited him for the third time. By then, Panchu had started a tailoring unit and was teaching some girls in the village. His doctors said he had even begun responding to the anti-retroviral drugs," Bhasin said.
Kalyani, with more than 3,600 episodes, is the longest running health communication initiative in India. It reaches out to more than 550 million people and, to quote a BBC trainer, is "truly reality television". So what if urban India spends its time watching saas-bahu serials?