16 December 2015 08:16:29 IST

Did celebrities trump citizens?

Chennai residents talk about disproportionate attention film personalities have been getting for flood relief work

Amid all the havoc the floods wreaked, in the wake of thousands of Chennai residents stepping up to offer food and shelter to their fellow men, social media was abuzz with news that a few actors were helping with relief work. This led to plenty of media coverage of these celebrities. And while you hoped this would motivate commoners to follow suit, the cynic in you couldn’t help but wonder if this was celebrity obsession rearing its ugly head again; even at this time of great peril.

Press releases poured in about monetary contributions too. Shankar donated ₹10 lakh. Anirudh promised to donate the proceeds from his Toronto concert. Sri Divya donated ₹10 lakh. Hansika Motwani donated ₹15 lakh... You get the idea. So, we asked a few Chennai residents who got their hands dirty during the last week, if they were annoyed by the disproportionate attention celebrities were getting.

VJ Adams of Sun TV is quite miffed about it. “There are people out there doing work without advertising it. Even some celebrities like Priya Anand are helping quietly. People don’t know about them, but they are not bothered or demotivated by the lack of public attention.” And in any case, he believes what is being done is a glorified form of courier service. “All people, including me, are simply collecting materials and handing them to the needy. There are plenty of anonymous faces who are part of this; not just one or two actors.”

And often, it is the anonymous man who steps up in a moment of true need. Like when Adams, on a trip to North Madras on a tempo traveller with a group of volunteers, found to his dismay that the only way to give away food supplies was by getting out and wading into sewage water. “I’m not ashamed to say that I refused. But some others — names nobody will ever know, names nobody will ever remember — got down without hesitation into the foul-smelling water and helped.”

How they say

Ashwanth Shankar, a research analyst from Mahalingapuram, believes that it is inevitable that actors get publicity. “But if that helped more people to follow suit, what’s wrong? Their tweets have more reach, more visibility.” Ashwanth distributed food, blankets and water to affected people in areas like Adyar, Ekkaduthangal, Chromepet and Velachery. “I went out because I was watching television and saw that the situation was dire.”

Rohan Felix, a freelance copywriter and a student of KM Conservatory, isn’t one to be motivated by actors either. He has an interesting way of deciding if he wants to act on a celebrity plea on Twitter. “The tone of a celebrity’s post is important. Are they being humble about it, or are they advertising their work? A few of Vijay's fan clubs were doing good work, but I could see it was politically motivated. So, I decided I wouldn’t be part of it.” Rohan is also cynical about monetary contributions to the CM’s relief fund. “I saw no government van in many areas I went to. So, when I read news that Rajinikanth donated 10 lakh to the relief fund, it made me feel disappointed.”

Isn’t true service that which seeks no validation? Neelakantan Jayaramakrishnan, a marketing manager at an internet marketing service provider, certainly thinks so. This Mylapore resident got together with anonymous people through social networking sites and organised medical camps in areas like Kotturpuram and Perungudi. “We don’t care that we didn’t receive praise. We didn’t do any of this to be famous. Actors make tidy sums of money, and what inspires me is everyday people like auto drivers, vegetable vendors and tea shop owners helping out. That is what volunteering is all about.”

Perhaps being a celebrity is a double-edged sword — damned if you do, damned if you don’t. “I don’t think they (actors and other film personalities) did what they did for publicity,” says Kiran T Balan, a textile designer who distributed food and water in West Mambalam and Ashok Nagar. “They are familiar faces with the common people, and it’s only natural they’re being promoted.” Kiran, like the others, isn’t one to follow celebrities. “If my neighbour needs help, I can provide it without waiting to see if my favourite actor does the same.”

Adams, however, doesn’t credit celebrities with noble intentions. “Some of them are craftily using this disaster to build their image. Perhaps, some will build a trust to collect donations, or eventually step into politics.” But for the moment, while the trauma is still fresh, all help, no matter the intention, is welcome. As Neelakantan says, “If there was something all of us have realised, it is that being a hero on screen isn’t a big deal; being a hero in the real world is. Some of our onscreen heroes crossed that bridge last week. So, let them get the credit. It doesn’t matter as long as it inspires goodness.”