On December 7, six days after Chennai woke up to one of its worst natural calamities ever, actor Siddharth was zipping across the coastal villages of Cuddalore trying to help people who had been battered by the deluge. In hot pursuit behind him was a senior journalist from a national TV channel, trying to get his interview. Inexplicably, Siddharth was throwing him off his trail, evading the interview. He simply did not want to be on TV, he was there to help, he said. It was only after the journalist tracked him down on his own and forced him did the interview materialise.
This uncharacteristic humility in evading publicity at the national stage was common among many popular personalities, like RJ Balaji and Chinmayi, who got down to helping people. And the combined force of their celebrity status, thousands of volunteers and technology brought out celebrity activism in its truest and most genuine form during Chennai floods.
After the deluge of December 1, RJ Balaji and Siddharth decided that they need to get out and do something. For Balaji, helping people in need was not new as he had held charity campaigns earlier. For Siddharth, it was just the sudden realization that if he was in such a bad state due to floods, the the poor would be worse off. Soon, others like singer Chinmayi too joined in and Chennai Micro became the lifeline to many.
Both Chinmayi and RJ Balaji say that it was because of volunteers that their efforts meant something. But there are two things celebrities bring along which no one else can – reach and credibility.
“We started small, with me and my brother in-law helping people. We helped people with mobile recharge via PayTM. But soon on Twitter, I started getting so much information about who needed help and who was willing to help,” says Chinmayi.
What was a powerful tool in their hands was their mass followership online. “Between the three of us, we have 3 million followers just on Twitter, and that helped,” says Chinmayi. And the simplest reason for that was that the information they had could be passed on instantly to so many people and they would do what they could to help, says Balaji, “But people only respond if it makes sense. We decided that we would genuinely help people.”
Further, it was the credibility that they brought along. They did not have digital PR firms handling their communication, and they were out on the streets getting their hands dirty. “Credibility is very important. That’s why we don’t promote too many commercial things on our social media feed. We talk about stuff which we really care for, so people responded to us,” says Balaji.
And that’s why, they were careful not to be seen as publicity-mongers. “We don’t want people to think we are doing this for publicity, and that’s why there are nearly no images or videos of us helping people,” says Chinmayi. “Even if someone else is doing it, we asked them to stop. And that’s important because our credibility should not be affected, and only then will we be able to help more people,” adds Balaji.
Chinmayi also says that they took extreme care that there were no controversies, everybody just did what they did.
With Balaji, perhaps there is one more reason. He is embarrassed at the attention he gets for helping people. “There are so many people out there who did much more than us, so I don’t want to take credit for anything,” he says.
What also came through for them was the realization about the power of social media. “I used to think what the use of having so many followers was, and now I know,” says Chinmayi.
“I have done social media campaigns before for charity, but nothing like this. I am numb from what we were able to do,” Balaji adds.
What Chennai Micro has accomplished through the strength of its celebrities – and most importantly the volunteers – is no mean achievement. They were able to source and distribute food to several lakh people. They distributed mosquito nets and coils, sanitary pads and clothing. They helped get funds from abroad for NGOs like Bhumika which have FCRA clearance and were willing to help people. They identified several orphanages which needed help, and used the funds for that. Fifty villages each in Kalpakkam and Cuddalore were identified for fumigation. Health, sanitation and malnutrition were their top priorities in the days following the deluge, and they took help from anyone who was offering. And yet, Balaji cautions, “We are not professionals at this. We are just helping, so we don’t want credit for this.”
As much as this was a revelation about the power and responsibility of their celeb status, it was an eye-opener on how spirited Chennai was. “I have always thought Chennai was apathetic. But now I look at the city with different eyes. I didn’t think people had such volunteerism in them.”
“I will never forget a female volunteer who was from a poor family, physically disabled and still travelled 17 kms to come help us, and we are nothing in front of people like her,” says Balaji.
“And Chennai being the no-fuss, no-frill city, this will continue,” says Chinmayi.