ByÂ Anwesha Dhar:
The term ‘star power’ has often confused me. It consists of two words of extreme significance in the language. Star is a metaphor for many absolutions and abstractions, while power with its many connotations can elude one quite easily. Yet, the term stands for a certain kind sorcery wielded by the elite of the society. Sorcery because it shares in the finicky nature of magic-it can work wonders or can go horribly wrong. These stars, the so-called celebrities are the royalty of the new age world-they have lavish mansions, cars, fame and this ‘star power’ which can influence thousands across the globe. More often than not, we see this power being used for wrong reasons, perhaps to get one out of a parole for drug abuse or an accident. However, there have been stellar examples of celebrities using this over-abused power to highlight important causes by actively supporting them, or by partaking in various fundraising activities. No matter what the context, these celebrities have immersed themselves for a cause and have used their status to ameliorate the condition of several thousands who live in the margins of the society.
The very first name that comes to my mind is that of the lead singer of U2, Bono. I have been reading about his close association with Amnesty International and role in many benefit concerts, including the historic Live Aid which catapulted U2 to new heights of stardom, and his activism in Africa to raise awareness surrounds HIV-AIDS since time immemorial. However, Bono has gone a step further and has been instrumental in setting up DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) to fight poverty and further his endeavours to counter AIDS awareness in Africa. Bono has also received international acclaim for his work and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize thrice. He is has collaborated with other musicians, including Alicia Keys and Sting, for philanthropic purposes. His collaboration with American punk-rock band Green Day resulted in the song ‘The Saints are Coming’ to rehabilitate many after the devastating hurricane Katrina. In 2013, Bono gave a TED talk concerning his activism, even calling himself a ‘factivist’.
Not lagging far behind is another musician, Sting. His participation in concerts arranged by Amnesty International, including A Conspiracy of Hope series, is well known. Sting also partook in the Live 8 concert, a follow up to the massive 1985 Live Aid concert which was in close association with Make Poverty History campaign. He also founded Rainforest Foundation Fund with his wife for the preservation of rainforests and to protect the rights of the local communities of that area.
Another prominent celebrity who has attracted much attention for her involvement in humanitarian activities is Hollywood actress, Angelina Jolie. She claims to have first felt the need to be more involved in such activities while shooting in war ravaged country of Cambodia in 2001. Since then, Jolie has been incessantly involved in activities concerning visiting refugee camps, starting schools and centres for children with HIV and tuberculosis. She runs projects under the name of her adopted children in their native-country like the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Project (MJP) in Cambodia and Zahara Children Centre in Ethiopia. In 2006, Jolie with her partner, Brad Pitt established the Jolie-Pitt Foundation.
This ‘star power’ which has been so beautifully used by celebrities like the aforementioned ones has also been used by the once richest and arguably, the most powerful man in the world, Bill Gates. His efforts invested in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fight extreme poverty, promote education, easy access to information technology is well known. It is argued to be one of the most transparent organisations in existence, which allows access to the financial documents of the organisation to the public. Gates is a signee of the Giving Pledge along with Warren Buffet and Mark Zuckerberg which entails donating half of one’s wealth in due course of time.
Closer home, the situation is a bit more complex. These problems range from cases of celebrities associating themselves with activism for gaining coverage to the extremely complicated question of what charity is or how it should be done in India. While many Bollywood celebrities over the years have lend their support and voice to various social causes, the line between doing it just for the cause and not for better publicity has proved to be rather unclear. However, some have walked the extra mile rather quietly, focussing on utilising their stardom to highlight the cause rather than use it as a self-promotion tactic. Names like Nandita Das, Shabana Azmi, Gul Panag, Milind Soman figure in on the list quite often and their activities range from promoting women and children’s rights, raising awareness on HIV-AIDS, education etc. The multi-faceted Nandita Das, in fact, co-founded Leapfrog, an agency that concentrates on making socially conscious films and has been tirelessly touring round the world, giving talks on the same. She also is closely associated with the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign, raising her voice against discrimination in skin colour which still poses as a serious, but much ignored question in India. Rahul Bose has gone a step further and has founded Group of Groups, a parental organisation with 51 charitable organisations under it as well as Foundation, which provides education to children hailing from modest economic backgrounds in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
However, while these actors steer clear of the limelight and mainstream glitz and glamour of Bollywood, there are a few names that use their so-called ‘commercial value’ to promote causes. Vidya Balan is one such name on that list and has created quite a stir when she accepted Jairam Ramesh’s proposal for being the ambassador of sanitation and drinking water campaigns. She has shot for a string of advertisements promoting the same, which are currently being telecast on national television. Another unlikely, but prominent, name is John Abraham who has his own brigade (John’s Brigade) for Habitat For Humanity, a Jimmy Carter Project which strives to provide habitat for the needy.
Star power is indeed one of the most powerful terms to exist in our vocabularies. These people, and many others, have exactly shown why-they are all trying to illuminate an otherwise dark sky, trying to make a difference and change the world in their own little ways, one step at a time.