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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Causes celebres and celeb endorsers

Celebrity is a double-edged sword. One becomes a household name because of fame and then your every word and action is up for public scrutiny. Well, there is a saying that, if you can’t take the heat, then you should step out of the kitchen. So, it must be assumed that celebrities can put up with the heat and the glare of the spotlight.

But what celebs say and do are two different things – as is with every one of us. We rarely follow up on our convictions if they prove to be too inconvenient, and celebs are no different. In fact, they have the advantage of using their celebrity factor to spread a good word, or endorse a product or even tout a social cause. Some of them do it with a genuineness of purpose, while others do it for the publicity. And this thin line is blurring fast. People like Angelina Jolie and Madonna even adopt babies from poor countries, and put their feelings and money, where their mouth is.

In India though, not all celebrities are like actress Asha Parekh who built a hospital for everyone’s benefit, or like Salman Khan who built an old age home. And except for Sushmita Sen and Raveena Tandon, no one has adopted kids. But a number of celebs in India and abroad have gone into the business of feeding us, by starting restaurants. Some of their ventures have gone bankrupt as well – like enterprises started by Amisha Patel and recently Eva Longoria. These endeavours are for-profit but what about the non-profit causes which need donations of money and time?

This is where celebs usually donate time. So we have Pamela Andersen, Aditi Gowitrikar, Celina Jaitley etc taking up a stance for PETA. We have Gwyneth Paltrow talking about veganism. A whole lot of them will sport red ribbons for World AIDS Day and pink ribbons to raise breast cancer awareness. This trend is only just beaten by all those LIVESTRONG rubber bracelets that all of us – mere public – get to buy, to feel we have done our bit for cancer. The only difference is, we put down cash for it, while most celebrities are looking for freebies in lieu of their time.

The irony is that whether Aamir Khan promotes tourism in India for the Tourism Board or Amitabh Bachchan does it for Gujarat, the fact is that they are urging and cajoling us to spend our hard-earned money. So, when causes are being espoused by celebs, I think it is fair to ask them how much of their money is invested in this charity/NGO? I see film stars who promote causes that closely gell with the plots of their films. Someone who does this really well is actor Aamir Khan. He talked on behalf of Kashmiri Pandits only around the release of ‘Fanaa’. A fact that didn’t go unnoticed by a Kashmiri Pandit activist and filmmaker Ashok Pandit, who actually asked the very valid question that where had Aamir Khan been all the while, when they were being displaced by militants.

He has been the more visible face of campaigns like Earth India, Teach India, Lead India and Incredible India, and more power to him for this, but staying out of politically and emotionally charged issues that you may have had personal opinions about but don’t really know much about, may be in his best interest. The reasons are simple – as a celebrity, his word may be taken as the gospel truth by many and then twisted out of context by others. This happens to Salman Khan a lot.

Salman Khan has started a ‘Being Human’ social cause, which seems to be a smart move for an actor always caught on the other end of the spectrum from the boringly proper Aamir Khan and the even more media savvy Shahrukh Khan.

While some actors do their bit, what have been our actresses up to? Well they seem to be lagging behind their male peers. A whole bunch of them – Sushmita Sen, Bipasha Basu, Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor, Preity Zinta, Rani Mukherjee and Karisma Kapoor – walked the ramp to raise funds for the ‘Being Human’ cause. But on their own, they seem to do precious little. May be, they have written that anonymous donation cheque or two – as do the rest of us.

But except for Shilpa Shetty, who did an AIDS awareness campaign with Richard Gere and helped raise £63,000 for a London charity – the Silver Star Appeal – which runs mobile diabetes assessment units, there is a surprising lack of news on what causes and initiatives our Bollywood beauties stand up for.

The two exceptions are actress and model Gul Panag, and model and tennis ace Mahesh Bhupathi’s ex-wife, Shwetha Jaishankar. Gul Panag, a former Miss India and an actress who is carving a niche for herself in off-beat films like Nandita Das, is the public face of a family foundation, which has been set up in honour of her grandfather Colonel Shamsher Singh. This foundation gives out micro-loans to people in rural India, to give them an economically sustainable livelihood. It also has programmes in the areas of gender equality, the environment, education and disaster management. Go here to learn more – http://www.colshamshersingh.org/

Shwetha Jaishankar has started an initiative called – A lot of Dreams- where anyone can go and bid for celebrity collectibles across categories like sports, literature and lifestyle and the proceeds go to NGOs like Deepam and the Association for India’s Development. Go here for more details – http://alotofdreams.com/

The above examples feel like fulfilling ways of giving back to society, rather than just walking the ramp for this or that designer, who just happen to have a tie-up with an NGO, like CRY, Shiksha, World Vision etc. This is what most of our actresses associate with – merging fashion with a needy cause. How enduring such a match is, is anyone’s guess. After all, I do remember getting Greenpeace videos in my e-mail starring Mini Mathur, Kunal Kapoor and Cyrus Broacha – all of them advising me to do my bit for global warming. I got their message but I want to know how they contribute beyond mouthing pithy warnings to the rest of us?

What is well known is the number of brands most of the celebs endorse. Now when the two merge conveniently – brands and causes – more of India’s heroines may rush to be noticed for their social work, even if it is just for publicity.

Written for The Viewspaper


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