A Bollywood star shines in Project Hope
"Look, that's the man who acts in movies!" one boy exclaims to another, and a small group of goggle-eyed children gathers around Vivek Oberoi in this tsunami-hit fishing hamlet.
Mr. Oberoi, who is walking around the village in bare feet, acknowledges the impromptu fan club with a friendly pat on their heads or cheeks. But here in the Tamil-speaking south of India he is better known as a harbinger of relief than as the rising young Bollywood star who enjoys the adulation of female fans in the Hindi-speaking north.
Oberoi is a long way from the sound sets of Bombay: All the thatched huts along the beach here were flattened by the giant wave that killed 15,000 people in India. The beach is littered with cracked and dented fishing boats; the village bandstand is piled with their broken engines.
The young star is working on Project Hope, which he has helped fund, because the pain he has seen here in Devanampattinam "was like a chain that held me so tight."
So far, Oberoi and his volunteer recruits have built about 100 huts to shelter homeless families, their blue and green plastic roofs setting them apart from the thatched huts that survived the tsunami. They have also set up six communal kitchens, handing out food to the needy.
When Oberoi learned of the destruction that the tsunami had wrought, he assembled a six-truck convoy of relief supplies and drove south. At Devanampattinam, he was told, more than 1,000 families had been struck by the disaster.
He was appalled at the way food packets were being tossed from the backs of trucks into scrambling crowds, he recalls.
"People were saying, 'we've lost our homes, we've lost everything. Now don't take away our dignity.' I decided that, all right, we'll distribute to every individual home."
Initially, he couldn't find people to distribute the supplies in Devanampattinam because everyone was scared of disease. "So I picked up one [relief supply] box, put it on my shoulder, and I went to one house," he says. "I gave them the supplies. I picked up the other box, I walked in farther, and I gave the next box. Then the third box, went in farther...."
It's not typical behavior for a Bollywood heart-throb. But then, Oberoi is not a typical star, says one of his volunteers, Sadhvi Bhagwati, an American woman who normally lives in a Himalayan ashram.
"I grew up in Hollywood," she says. "I know what actors are like. [Oberoi] is the purest, most pious, most selfless person I've ever worked with."
Others are skeptical, and wonder why Oberoi did not simply write a check like most of his peers. "I don't find truth in it," complains Mahesh Radha-krishnan, a businessman in the nearby city of Cuddalore. "But it depends on whether he continues the work. If he doesn't, it's only a publicity stunt."
Oberoi's defense is quick and hard-hitting. "The funny thing is, when I came in, nobody knew I was a film actor because in this belt, people don't watch Hindi movies. So, it wouldn't really have any direct impact on me or my career," he insists.
To the doubters, he throws down a challenge: "For all those who talk about publicity, come here, get your hands dirty. Sleep four hours every night, walk around in the daily sun, run around in this fear of epidemics, come and do it, put your life at risk here. Then we'll talk."