“My social activism has nothing to do with my cinema. Films that I do have more to do with artistic challenges. I just played a horrible Al-Qaeda villain in a film called Vishwaroopam where I play this mean, horrible, merciless killer called Omar with a beard and the whole shebang with a glass eye — you think that has something to do with my social work? ” chuckles Rahul Bose, one of Bollywood’s most respected actors. “I started social work because my heart wanted to and I’ll stop it when my heart wants me to, which is probably as likely as a volcanic fire in the North Pole.”
His better known films include English, August, Split Wide Open, Mr and Mrs Iyer, Before the Rains, Kaalpurush and The Japanese Wife. The Time magazine called him ‘the superstar of Indian art house cinema’ while Maxim (Italy), ‘the Sean Penn of Oriental cinema’.
Being an advertising professional-cum-rugby player-cum-speaker-writer-director-actor-cum-social activist doesn’t fluster Bose at all who comes across as a focused and candid person and has an intriguing sense of reasoning. But his increasing social concerns now leave him juggling cinema and sport.
“I spend about 300 days of the year with The Foundation (his own NGO), and other NGO work. I keep the remaining days for cinema. Much to the disapproval of people of my organisation, I am forever doing other things in other places for other people. This division of my days means that basically you do just two things a day for most days of your life. We all do two things a day and don’t realise it.”
Just about any day he could be at the Zubin Mehta Music Foundation spending time in slums with young children who are learning to play the violin or flying to Kashmir on his education mission or the Andaman and Nicobar Islands doing post-tsunami relief work, or hobnobbing with the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Annie Lennox, Scarlett Johansson and Gael Garcia Bernal as part of his Oxfam Global ambassadorship where he focuses on communal harmony, gender equality or working extensively with over 80 Muslim, Dalit and Hindu girls as part of an initiative created by Akshara, a Bombay-based NGO.
Bose is on the board of the Citizens for Justice and Peace which was the response of a group of citizens from Mumbai to the Gujarat genocide which back in 2006 had inspired Bose towards social work. “I had never seen this kind of communal violence. So I spoke to a few friends of mine who were doing social work and they suggested that I work with Muslims so I began to work with this beautiful NGO called Akshara.
“They were working with 80 or 90 Muslim women, encouraging them to study and go to college and I would spend time talking to them and challenging social orthodoxies in a very gentle, inclusive way by bringing the men from their families into the picture. We wanted them to understand that it was only to their benefit if their women would evolve, and learn and earn money.”
With Akshara, I’m also working on a plan to reach out to secondary victims of rape and violence. When a woman is assaulted, there is not only the woman who needs all kinds of support; there is also an ashamed father, an angry husband and an embarrassed brother who need support and counselling.”
With Oxfam India, Bose is working in seven states of India on the Dalit issue, women issues and Muslim rights. “When I joined this very august bunch of global ambassadors, it was not for the glamour but because I believe these are the most crucial rights that will free the soul of India in the future. Oxfam India is doing some solid and deeply gratifying work, for instance, the empowerment of women farmers in India.”
In 2007, he started The Foundation, dedicated to the removal of discrimination from all walks of life. “We work closely with child sexual abuse and provide education to children in the farthest corners of the country from Kashmir to the Andaman Islands. We look after 16 kids right now from age six right up to college-gojing students.”
Where do the funds come from? “I actually don’t ask anyone for money. I happen to know some world champions and the best fundraisers and we conducted auctions of their memorabilia like Scarlett Johansson’s earrings from Girl with a Pearl Earring, Colin Firth’s signet ring from The King’s Speech, Roger Federer’s shoes, India’s Olympic gold-medal winning shooter, Abhinav Bhindra’s rifle that he used for six years and Tendulkar’s bat that he used to score 163 runs against New Zealand. More money came from memorabilia donated by Nadal, Schumacher, Viswanathan Anand, Maria Sharapova and Messi.”
Two years ago at their annual fundraiser in Dubai, Oxfam International were still below the target that the organisation had set for itself even after most of the auction for 11 pieces was through. Bose was supposed to raise money for flood razed schools in Pakistan. “So I said that no matter how rich or how poor, from Bill Gates to a poor farmer, every father puts money aside for his children’s education even if it is just a rupee coin going into a mud pot because every parent inherently believes that their purpose of life is to give their child a life better than their own.
“It gives them no greater pleasure than to plait their daughter’s hair and send her off to school and it makes their life worthwhile. Usually the school is the only one in that approachable perimeter. When that school is destroyed then that chance of being educated is gone. After that speech we raised $765,000 in 11 minutes flat and I didn’t care if it was India or Pakistan or Guatemala — that makes no difference to me.”
Bose quit national rugby just before the Commonwealth Games three years ago. “I still play a lot of non-competitive and it is better to leave the team while you are still in it. Earlier I would look at the Indian tournaments and craft my year around them because playing the India tournaments was the most important thing in my life. Now I can prioritise.”
More and more actors are attaching themselves to causes. “Most of them genuinely care, some enjoy the limelight,” says Bose. “None of them are doing it at grassroots level because they don’t have the time and whether it is a trend or coming straight from the heart, it is all fantastic effort. Even if they are doing it for publicity, it illuminates a cause that earlier didn’t have the attention,” said Bose.
Talking about his appearance as the ‘Global Ambassador’ for Oxfam India at the recently held Violence Against Women Conference in Kathmandu, Rahul explains that every little endeavour in this world makes a difference. “Even the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings makes a difference. If you personify the things that beset this world like a wheel that seems to be moving everything in the direction of a disaster, then conferences, or people who write or work for these causes or the next person who puts money into Africa can all be seen as people hurling their bodies under the wheel and they seem to be getting crushed under the wheel, but the law of physics dictates that the wheel gets a tiny bit slower each time a body is hurled underneath it and one day the wheel will stop, and the next body that comes underneath it will turn it the other way.
“That is when the world will stand up and say change is happening. Change could happen earlier because it has to do with the reduction of the speed of bad as much as it has to do with the increase in the speed of good. Ofcourse it looks a lot better and more obvious when good things start accelerating.”
Often criticised for his ‘alternative’ views on homosexuality, the infamous Delhi rape and forgiveness and reformation of criminals, Bose takes it with a pinch of salt and claims to be tremendously self-secure and thick skinned. “If we knew how much people hated us before there was Twitter and Facebook, we wouldn’t even get out of bed. Now people express their hatred like they would never dare to otherwise. Even with choosing films, I am now more concerned with sleeping well at night than being ultra popular.”
As long as I know what I am doing and as long as I have this extraordinary ability to laugh at myself, these things don’t worry me.”