“In order to stop rape, I had to make rape funny,” Firdaus Kharas said. The 57-year-old social entrepreneur was seated across from me in the gaudy dining hall of a cruise ship off the coast of Italy. The bustling tuxedoed waiters and prim musicians formed an incongruous backdrop for Kharas’ stories of human suffering: children dying of AIDS in Africa, battered wives in India, a Cambodian village where the women draw lots nightly to determine who will be raped by the Khmer Rouge. As a philanthropic producer of public service animations for the developing world, Kharas insists that humor is the most effective means to convey his message.
I joined Kharas in his cabin several days later, as the bucolic coastline of Turkey scrolled by, to discuss his humanitarian work.
How did you get into public service?
I grew up in Calcutta, and there were huge disparities between rich and poor. I went to school every day in a rickshaw with a guy pulling me. I grew up being aware of my privileges, but at the same time, because of that, you have social responsibilities. My mother taught me that. She was the head of this NGO, and she would take me along on the various projects she was involved in. In high school, I taught in a slum every Saturday. I went to a very elite school—today a lot of my classmates are billionaires—and we taught in the slum essentially what we were learning in our elite school. Whoever wanted to come would come.
I started Chocolate Moose Media back in 1995 as a social enterprise: a hybrid organization split between doing for-profit work and non-profit work. I use the one to subsidize the other.
How would you describe your non-profit work?
We make animated media that deals with social issues around the world in order to influence individuals to change their behavior.
Why do you use animation?
The main thing is that animation gives you a sense of disbelief. You know what you’re seeing is not real. So, in the case of HIV/AIDS prevention, for example, we have “The Three Amigos,” three animated condoms. They have arms, they have faces, and they talk. You know what you’re seeing is not real, therefore you’re not offended. If I made a campaign with real condoms, it would have been thrown off the air in many countries. But we got condoms on the air in conservative Iran, in conservative Hindu India, in multicultural South Africa, precisely because they are animated.
What has your reach been with that campaign so far?
We’re up to 45 languages now, so we can reach 85 percent of the world’s population in their own language. NGOs play them on laptops when they go out in the field, they’re played on Jumbotrons in soccer stadiums, in cinemas before movies, on mobile trucks that go into villages. It’s hard to get an exact figure, but I’m safe in saying that the campaign’s been seen by more than 1 billion people. Apparently, you can walk into any pharmacy in South Africa, ask for an amigo, and they’ll give you a condom.
So, with your audience as multicultural as it is, how are you able to design one spot that appeals to everyone?
Animation is universal. I can make universal characters. You saw in our domestic violence campaign “No Excuses,” that the characters are blue. Nobody is really blue. Obviously if we had made white characters, or black characters, or brown characters it would have denoted some kind of ethnicity and therefore my audience would have been limited.
But naturally, you’re going to have to make some culturally-specific choices, aren't you? Clothing for instance?
Actually, originally, I wanted no clothing at all. Clothing was very hard to do because it’s so country-specific. We decided to come up with this neutral clothing.
What about head scarves?
That was an issue for us in “Hind and Hamza.” It's the 46-episode series on values we did on the Al Jazeera Children's Channel, beamed via satellite into millions of households across the Middle East. Each episode promotes a different value, things like: eagerness to learn and explore, kindness to animals, moderation… Anyway, the Hijab posed a problem. We talked about it. Are we going to have the girls covered? No, none of the girls are covered. Are we going to have middle-aged women covered? Sometimes. Are we going to have the older generation covered? Yes. We went through this kind of thinking in terms of finding middle ground.
Did you receive any criticism for that?
We thought there was going to be a fatwa against me, but as it turned out, nothing happened. I had a lot more death threats from “The Three Amigos,” with people saying that promoting condom use promotes promiscuity. I remember one guy saying he was going to behead me.
I guess he didn't get the joke, did he? I want to talk about your use of humor. You said back when we first met, that you had made rape funny. How did you do that?
In one of the spots we did, for example, we had a professor explaining why rapists are less intelligent than chimpanzees.
Is it really possible to find humor in any situation?
The answer is yes. I thought about it for a while. I can’t think of a single subject that we can’t tackle using the right approach.
Why is humor the right approach?
Because humor doesn't coerce people. I don’t believe that you can coerce a person into changing their behavior. The best example of that is a typical domestic violence campaign. Most of them will show a battered woman. They’ll show a woman who is bloodied and say, this is what we’re trying to prevent. I have two problems with that. First of all, it further stigmatizes the woman. And secondly, it doesn't address the abuser. You’re showing the image of the abused when you’re trying to affect the behavior of the abuser.
What do you think the intended target feels when he watches your work?
I hope that it gets him thinking. I believe that if we were to coerce people and say, “Thou shalt not do this,” you’re not going to get much behavior change. “Who are you to tell me what to do with my wife?” It’s very difficult to argue with that person because they have a huge sense of empowerment from their history, their culture, their religion. I think if you want to reach that kind of person, you must get them to see the light themself. You can’t impose it externally.
Is everyone capable of that kind of change? How about a member of the Taliban? They’re violently opposed to your values—female education, for example.
For me that’s a perversion of their religion.
Can you argue against it in a way that the Taliban could understand?
Absolutely. I think all my spots, the Taliban can understand.
Understand and accept?
Absolutely. You persuade that Taliban as a parent that their own child should go to school. Not just other children, their own children. Their own girls. Everyone is capable of being communicated with. All seven billion on the planet.
Where does the misunderstanding come from then?
Somehow, over the years we've allowed ethnicities and boundaries and cultures to get in the way. We were, years and years ago, a human family. I've met with many people who say: my first priority is my religion, the second is my tribe, the third my country. Nobody ever says, my first priority is as a human being. It’s a fundamental shift we have to make in people’s thinking. If we did not have political boundaries in the world—if we did not have religions, ethnicities, cultures, histories, backgrounds, we would find that most of the world’s problems would vanish instantly.