Indian movie star Vivek Oberoi is a big hit with charitable causes, from a school for girls in Vrindavan to cancer patients in Mumbai.
Saritha Rai, 2011.09.28 (Forbes Asia Magazine) Like thousands of girls in India, Vrinda was abandoned at birth by her family. But she was lucky–she was brought to the Sandipani Muni School in Vrindavan, an ancient town off the New Delhi-Agra highway. Teachers took in the newborn and found a new mother to breast-feed her. Today she’s a cheerful and cherubic 1-year-old. “If Vrinda’s story was made into a movie, the audience might have dismissed it as yet another fantastical Bollywood yarn,” says Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi.
Helping to raise funds through his network and donating his own money, the 35-year-old Oberoi is a key sponsor of the school and its 1,750 underprivileged students, mostly girls. “This is no make-believe … the children are real, their stories and emotions are real,” he says as he cuddles Vrinda during a visit to the school.
Children swarm around him with lotus and marigold garlands, colorfully painted greetings and cries of “Vivek bhaiyya [brother]!” Away from the paparazzi that follow Bollywood actors’ every move, his aura mesmerizes the kids. “Bollywood is every child’s dream, so Vivek’s visits are a great confidence-booster for the children,” says Rupa Raghunath, who manages the school.
But it’s his star appeal in the wider world that helps Oberoi snare sponsors for the school, which he calls Project Devi, short for the Development and Empowerment of Vrindavan Girls Initiative (devi also means “goddess”). The school provides food, clothing, education and health care to children of single mothers and impoverished families.
Oberoi began supporting the school four years ago and started by sending a message of communal harmony to the Hindu temple town by sponsoring a Muslim girl’s education. Today the school has grown from one campus to three and has a waiting list of 600 children. His ambition is to raise $2.5 million in the next two years to build another campus, provide hostel and training facilities, and increase the school’s intake to 3,000 children.
Oberoi’s involvement in philanthropy has run parallel to his Bollywood career, starting in 2002 when his first movie, Company, became a hit and turned him into a star. He donated his entire 300,000 rupees (then $6,200) in earnings from the film to pay for an operation to mend a hole in the heart of a 6-year-old, the daughter of a poor gatekeeper at one of the studios where the movie was filmed.
Since then his charity, the Yashodhara Oberoi Foundation, named after his mother, has funneled money to a variety of small, individual causes–restoring the vision of an 8-year-old boy, donating a prosthetic limb to a teenager, organizing emergency heart surgery for a victim of the 2004 tsunami that hit southern India. Altogether, Oberoi says, he has given away some $3 million of his own money and leveraged his celebrity to raise a further $25 million for a multitude of larger charities supporting cancer patients, natural-disaster victims, impoverished girls and mentally ill, destitute women.
Now, at the peak of his career, Oberoi still carves out lots of time for charitable causes. Last year his much-hyped film Prince turned into a box-office dud, but Rakht Charitra and its sequel were big successes. He is now busy filming his next two movies, Krish 2 and Zilla Ghaziabad, which are generating much attention ahead of their 2012 releases.
Oberoi says his family background exposed him to a culture of giving. His father, Suresh Oberoi, also a Bollywood actor, worked with slum children and his mother has informally counseled cancer patients for several decades. Last October he married a Bangalore management graduate, Priyanka Alva, who has jumped on board his charity drives with equal gusto.
Bollywood-crazy fans form the backbone of Oberoi’s fundraising initiatives. He boasts 1 million followers on social networks, and he recruits them for his “Save an Angel” network, whose members donate $50 a year to combat child-trafficking. He’s attempting to set up an online volunteer network, and he’s starting an Internet campaign to collect funds for the school in Vrindavan. Of course, it helps that he’s so popular that movie buffs line up for tickets for his live shows, and lucrative brand-endorsement deals and requests for appearances come his way. “If you are a movie star in India, you can get things done,” he says.
Oberoi finds inventive ways to put that star power to work. He signed this year to promote the philanthropic efforts of Videocon, the consumer electronics and home appliance conglomerate, and persuaded the company to sponsor a full-fledged computer lab for the school in Vrindavan. A Panasonic dealer agreed to equip the school with refrigerators and air conditioners in return for a brief appearance by Oberoi at a store opening. “Instead of going around with a begging bowl, I ask them to write a check to one of the charities I support when somebody asks me to endorse or make an appearance,” he says.
Mumbai construction company owner Chirag Shah visited the school at Vrindavan and decided that his company, Seven Indian Heads Infrabuild, would donate $52,550. He and his business friends are considering building a new career-training wing for the school.
When Oberoi began supporting social causes, he was dismissed as a publicity-crazy Bollywood star. It was then that he made it a ground rule to never plug his movies at charity events and never answer questions on any subject other than the cause at hand. “It was years before people started taking me seriously,” he says. These days Bollywood stars are big on social causes.
Oberoi says he does not believe in merely writing checks. After a tsunami devastated the southern coast of India at the end of 2004, he rushed to the area “since it was more meaningful to help rebuild lives rather than just send money.”
Through Project Hope he helped build 650 homes and a playground. His group provided 150 sets of boats and nets so roughly four times that number of fishermen could return to the sea to earn a living.
Oberoi also has been the brand ambassador for Mumbai’s Cancer Patients’ Aid Association. Through art auctions, marathons, fashion shows and publicity films–for which he’s enlisted many fellow celebrities–he’s helped raise more than $1 million a year to cover the cancer care costs of needy patients. “He is sensitive and humane,” says Y.K. Sapru, the association’s chairman. “His work comes straight from the heart and not with an eye on publicity.”
Over the years Oberoi also has helped the Banyan, an organization in Chennai that cares for homeless women with mental illnesses. The organization provides them with shelter, medical attention and a supportive environment. Through the Yashodhara Oberoi Foundation, the actor donated funds for the construction of a building for Banyan. Two years ago, for his parents’ wedding anniversary, he sponsored solar lanterns for an entire village in backward Madhya Pradesh in central India.
Now Oberoi is on to his next cause: ratcheting up support for cancer and AIDS charities that are fighting for cheaper drugs to be made available to poor patients. He has joined with activists who want the government to license local drugmakers to produce generic versions of expensive patented medicines without the patent owner’s consent, which is allowed under a World Trade Organization agreement on intellectual property. The overseas drug companies that spend billions of dollars developing these lifesaving drugs would see the returns on their investment shrink and fiercely oppose this effort. So far India hasn’t granted any such licenses.
Back in Vrindavan, Oberoi gestures around the school: “I feel more real and rooted in this world.” The social causes he supports have added meaning to his life, he says. “You cannot buy this feeling with all the money or fame in the world.”