NEW DELHI — “Request for beds 570, I could arrange just 112. Requests for Remdesivir: 1,477; I could arrange just 18. Yes, we have failed. So is our health care system (sic).”
The Twitter feed of Bollywood’s reel villain Sonu Sood, who emerged as a real-life hero in India’s prolonged fight against the Covid-19 crisis, is replete with pleas and posts about helping others as the nation battles the second wave of the pandemic.
In 2020, Sood helped stranded migrant workers reach home, provided aid to frontline workers, helped skilled and unskilled workers find jobs, and more.
Cut to 2021. The actor has been actively using his network to arrange oxygen cylinders, concentrators, plasma, hospital beds, and other essential medical supplies for those in need, apart from arranging oxygen plants from foreign countries and setting them up in India.
By his own admission on social media, the actor gets over 41,000 requests in a day, and he cannot help everyone.
“I can understand that the country is going through a terrible crisis in this second wave of Covid-19,” Sood, who has a network of 400 people working alongside him, told Zenger News.
“It’s tough for even the medical staff, doctors, and hospitals to manage the entire situation. I’m trying to do whatever I can help them out with, in my limited capacity.”
He says the government was undoubtedly not well-prepared for the deluge in the number of cases. But said: “They are also trying to do their best. If we all are together, we will come out of this much stronger as a nation.”
In the Bollywood universe, some big stars have been criticized for maintaining stoic silence around their contribution or the government’s mishandling of the crisis or merely fronting fundraisers when they could have done much more.
Some of their fancy Instagram diaries of Maldives getaways reflected a situation far removed from the reality of a nation struggling to save lives.
But amidst these, some industry folks turned into polestars, using different strokes to help the country’s ‘aam aadmi’, the common man.
The Twitter or Instagram pages of actors such as Bhumi Pednekar, Tisca Chopra, Dia Mirza, Sonam Kapoor, Taapsee Pannu, Richa Chadha, Katrina Kaif, Sidharth Malhotra, Vicky Kaushal, and several others turned into platforms for Covid-related help.
But the work is not happening on social media alone.
In mid-April, social media influencer Janice Sequeira came together with Pednekar, Tisca Chopra, and a bunch of volunteers to form a group that has been mobilizing leads to save as many lives as possible.
“As much as 90 percent of cases that come to us don’t even make it to our social media,” Sequeira told Zenger News, explaining that the work goes beyond tweets and re-tweets.
She believes it is incumbent on celebrities, influencers, and bloggers to use their reach and presence to amplify requests of those who need help. Ultimately, “that is the power of influence”.
“None of us knew this is how the second wave would be handled. Everyone thought this would be taken care of by the larger infrastructure that manages and runs our country.”
“But when so many of us realized that people weren’t getting help, even a lot of unknown people without social media clout came forward and have managed to do good work,” Sequeira said.
“This entire pandemic will eventually be cured by kindness and help from strangers.”
Actor Saqib Saleem can vouch for that.
Recently, a direct message on Instagram caught his eyes in an instant. It was a request for a bed for a woman who was eight months pregnant and needed oxygen support in Bengaluru, a city he had no connections in.
Eventually, with help from others, he found a bed for her. When the woman gave birth to a little boy, for Saleem, it was the first instance in a long time when he felt “I could make a difference”.
Otherwise, he was feeling “powerless”, he told Zenger News.
Social media, the actor has realized, is a “great place”, which humans are mostly using to “spread hate and discord”. Besides that, he says he did not have to use his “actor card” to ask for help because people genuinely want to save people.
But there’s something that pains him.
“It feels like we are fighting this alone. It has felt like a lot of people who needed to take care of us have had some other priorities getting into the second wave, which breaks my heart,” said Saleem.
His sister actor Huma Qureshi, who will be seen in Zack Snyder’s “Army Of The Dead”, is trying to help build a temporary 100-bed hospital facility equipped with an oxygen plant in India’s capital city.
Actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas and her husband Nick Jonas raised over $1 million and are now targeting $3 million via a global fundraiser, amplified by Hollywood biggies such as Hugh Jackman, Reese Witherspoon, and Richard Madden.
Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Ellen DeGeneres, Katy Perry, and James McAvoy also sent out aid or messages of support to the country.
Actor Taapsee Pannu, who has contributed to multiple foundations for critical medical supplies, often sends tweets with fans’ requests for medicines and oxygen.
She says she finds these “a basic responsibility of a celebrity who the audience believes is their hero”.
Some actors who received flak for vacationing while the country was in a mess, meanwhile, did some damage control.
Soon after returning from a quick Maldives getaway with Ranbir Kapoor, actor Alia Bhatt launched Circle Of Hope with an Indian journalist to amplify relevant information.
Disha Patani and Tiger Shroff, who visited the picturesque archipelagic state, which became the go-to destination for Bollywood stars and India’s rich amid the pandemic, urged people to get vaccinated once they returned.
Days before starting a fund-raiser with his actor-producer wife Anushka Sharma, India’s cricket captain Virat Kohli was trolled for promoting a brand he endorses via his Twitter feed which has a reach of over 42 million.
The couple contributed INR 2 crore ($2,74,309) to a fundraiser aimed at raising INR 7 crore (9,60,081) — an effort that earned bouquets and brickbats as they are both among top earners in their respective industries.
Kohli was counted among the world’s highest-paid athletes with estimated earnings of $26 million in 2020, according to Forbes.
Actor Kangana Ranaut, Bollywood’s most vocal critic of nepotism and groupism, was among those who took a dig at celebrity-led fundraisers.
In an Instagram Story titled ‘Lessons from the Pandemic’, she wrote: “Don’t beg from poor people for funds if you are rich.”
Actor Amitabh Bachchan, one of India’s biggest film stars whom Americans will remember from “The Great Gatsby” (2013), where he played gambler Meyer Wolfsheim, says he does not subscribe to the idea of asking for funds.
“I give wherever I can. My means are extremely limited. It may not seem so, but they are. I have not made any effort to collect them through campaigns or donations to a cause that I may have instituted. I feel asking someone for funds is embarrassing for me,” blogged the actor.
After facing people’s ire for his silence, Bachchan said his personal contribution stands around INR 15 crore ($2 million).
Sood says celebrities are always on a double-edged sword.
“If they do something good, they get the praise, but then some people say they’re doing it for publicity. And if they stay silent, some people say they’re not doing their bit,” he said.
“I’m trying to be available almost 24X7 to help people who reach out to me via phone or messages or social media or even many who walk up to my building. That’s what I can do. Who is doing and not doing doesn’t bother me,” he told Zenger News.
Some other big stars have also stepped up efforts.
Akshay Kumar, the only Bollywood star to feature in the top 10 of Forbes magazine’s world’s highest-paid male actors list, with estimated earnings of $48.5 million, and his author wife, Twinkle Khanna, donated 100 oxygen concentrators. He also directed INR 10 million ($1,37,154) to cricketer-turned-politician Gautam Gambhir’s foundation.
“Silver Linings Playbook” actor Anupam Kher is making critical medical equipment available to hospitals in need.
Salman Khan initiated a food truck facility to distribute and provide ration to the needy and committed to providing financial aid to 25,000 cine workers.
Bollywood’s other famous Khans — Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, and Saif Ali Khan — have remained tight-lipped on any initiatives taken during the second wave, even though they contributed to PM Cares fund and other initiatives in 2020.
But for some, the justification lies in the fact that charity must be done in silence.
For every drop in the ocean of need, Pannu has a pertinent reminder to share: “Amount doesn’t matter as much as intention does.”
(Edited by Amrita Das and Gaurab Dasgupta)