Star power can make a difference to causes that benefit the public. Some of the agendas stars of the tinsel world are taking up show a side of themselves which many are unaware of as Shoma A. Chatterji reveals
The word 'agenda' is linked to actors in Bollywood has an invisible tag or two attached. One 'tag' is the tax exemption and the other is the 'tag' of a different kind of 'branding' that vests the stars with a positive public image. The stars are invited to add to the mass appeal of a given social cause by a governmental body or an NGO to benefit from their charisma. This is true to some extent but does not necessarily apply to all stars. Some get involved in causes close to their heart on their own commitment. Many among them do not even want to talk about it.
Take Rahul Bose for example. He set up The Foundation, an NGO, in 2007 to help young Tsunami victims of the Andamans. It handpicked five bright students to sponsor their education. "When Tsunami struck in 2004, I found everyone running to the aid of Nagapatnam and Pondicherry victims of Tsunami. The Andamans went unnoticed. I visited The Andamans two days after tsunami struck and was horrified by what I saw, " Bose remembers. Forests and five-storey structures were flattened to the ground . "We extended relief and tried to rebuild the victims' lives. The people's love and loyalty to the islands kept drawing me here and I started The Foundation," he explains.
The first project is called the Andaman Nicobar Scholarships Initiative. Under this initiative, the five children were admitted to the Rishi Valley School in Bangalore. The selection was based purely on academic and extra-curricular proficiency. "Our aim is to bridge the divide between the people of Andaman and Nicobar and people like us in the rest of India," Bose says.
Actress Nandana Sen, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's younger daughter, works with UNICEF as an ambassador for child protection. "Even when I was in college in the US, I worked as a survivor advocate i.e. support person for victims of physical and sexual abuse," she informs. Before joining RAHI (Recovering and Healing from Incest) as its Cause Ambassador, she played the traumatised protagonist in the play 30 Days of September at Prithvi theatre, Mumbai, produced by RAHI. She was also associated with Chuppee, a short feature sponsored by Unifem for raising awareness of child sexual abuse.
"Did you know that more than half of children in India are sexually abused? What's equally tragic is that most of these children never speak of their trauma and suffer its terrible pain all their lives," Sen says. She recently spoke at the 'Call to Action Summit for Child Survival in Chennai. "I can't remember a time when I was not working with children, whether with street kids in Kolkata when I was a child myself, with victims of abuse as a student at Harvard or UNICEF's adolescent empowerment programmes in Mumbai," she says.
Hardly anyone knows that Akshay Kumar has his own private agenda of social work which he does not row about in public. It became public knowledge quite inadvertently when he received an award for Excellence In Entertainment at a seminar organized by the Indian Merchants Chamber. He lives a disciplined life shuns cigarettes and alcohol and is willing to lend a hand to encourage sports in fields other than cricket. In his acceptance speech, instead of dwelling on his career in films, he talked about how he was looking after three families taking complete financial responsibility so that their talented children who were outstanding in sports could concentrate on building a career in sports.
There is another side of Anupam Kher not many of his fans are aware of. He established the Anupam Kher Foundation as "a tribute to countless destitute, nameless children who are all around us yet never too close for us to feel their pain." His School of Life Programme is meant for children from low-income families from the age group between eight and 16 to provide good quality education.
Another programme under its aegis is Apaar offering medical care to persons who are seriously ill. This initiative involves networking with the medical fraternity and institutions and is directed at giving a better quality of life to children and adults deprived of the joys of life due to life-limiting diseases. "I think I feel more enriched than the children I try to help," Kher feels.
Vivek Oberoi stepped in to support and rehabilitate victims of Tsunami not by writing a cheque or announcing his intentions at a press conference but actually visiting the affected areas and helping to speed up relief supplies when they got delayed somewhere along the way. He personally visited from door to door and handed out the supplies. But his intentions were misinterpreted specially by Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha who officially said that he was out to gain mileage in terms of publicity because his career as an actor was on the downswing.
Undeterred, Oberoi took up another agenda - giving up chain-smoking for good to spread the message about the ill effects of smoking. The fact remains, however, that his celebrity status did help his fans and the masses notice the impact of both issues - Tsunami and smoking.
Juhi Chawla's all-out campaign against cell phone towers that violate permissible radiation limits was triggered by a personal tragedy. Her brother, Bobby Chawla, CEO of Red Chillies collapsed from brain haemmorrage in 2010. When he was in hospital in a state of coma, she discovered that not less than 14 mobile phone tower antennae had sprung up right opposite her house. She appointed an agency to check the radiation; the radiation measuring machine showed that the needle had shot beyond the maximum danger level. "When I probed deeper, I discovered that the watchmen in the building had been taking headache tablets every day after the antennae came up," says Chawla.
Prakash Munshi, a neighbour, helped put up banners saying 'Cell tower radiation causes headaches, sleep disturbances, memory loss, fatigue, miscarriage, hear problems, cancer and leukaemia' to draw the attention of the chief minister of Maharashtra who lived close by. But nothing happened until the media intervened. "The story went live and within a month the towers were gone and booster antennae were put up instead that are considered to be less dangerous than the vertical ones," informs Chawla.
This involvement has been an amazing learning experience for Chawla. "We put up these cellphone towers in the air. It's a great technology - it allows us to Skype and get connected. But when I see people, especially children with cell phones stuck to their ears talking for several hours. I am so afraid for them. What have we done to them in the name of connectivity?" she asks.
These stars are not into public service campaigns to get a cut on their massive tax returns. Nor are they out to draw extra mileage for being involved in 'social causes.' Their agendas are genuine and making a difference to people at large.
(Shoma A. Chatterji is an award winning film critic)