What prompted you to go?
Collective guilt of mainland India. We've really ignored the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. I watched the devastation for two nights on television. Then I decided I had to go. Initially, I was thinking of going to Tamil Nadu. Then I decided the Andamans needed a certain kind of attention before it fell off the map.
I was willing to do anything in my means to prevent that from happening. I contacted my author-friend Amitav Ghosh and asked him if he'd like to come along. He jumped at the offer.
What were your first impressions on reaching there?
The first thing that hits you from the air is that all the islands have creamy beaches. But they're all inundated in water. It's then that it hit me... 'My God what will I see on the grounds?!' I spoke to the army personnel and the local administration in Port Blair, to the tribal villagers in Malaka (in Car-Nicobar). The locals all came forward to speak to me about what was to be done. They all felt that the mainland needed to give them more attention.
Why do you think the mainland has ignored the Andamans all these years?
Physical inaccessibility. Even now that's a problem. Ships are ready to take relief to the islands. But most of the jetties are destroyed. The nature of tsunami is such that it devastates the first 500 feet from the shoreline. Hence accessibility has to be immediately created.
The scale of destruction is terrible. People have been dispossessed of their entire livelihood. The settlers from Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Bengal have no emotional connectivity with the land. They want to leave immediately. But the locals who belong to the area want to return immediately.
Then there're the short-term problems. For instance they've lots of rice on the islands. Now they need lentils, water purification tablets, toilets, bulldozers and earthmovers to clear the debris. The defence personnel have been terrific with the dead bodies. There're so many of them. While driving through Car-Nicobar I could smell the stench though you can't see the bodies. The epidemics must be prevented.
We're looking into it. What we need now is money. I'm making a call every day in the Andamans to talk to the authorities. The stories of loss are heartrending. People have lost families and friends. Houses have been flattened. Trees have been blown through the homes. The rubble has to be cleared. The reason why one goes at a point of crisis is to alleviate distress. In this country there's an invisible India, which we choose not to look at through our air-conditioned car windows.
What do you think of Bollywood's efforts to participate in the tsunami rehabilitation?
I'm glad that people like Karan Johar, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol have been so generous. Nagma is also doing a lot in the south. Vivek Oberoi's efforts are outstanding. A lot of others are contributing quietly. I'm hoping to raise two million rupees personally by the end of this week without going to the large corporate houses.
Maybe I'm doing a negligible amount. But I'm spreading a generous awareness about what needs to be done. A solidarity network needs to be built, and it's being done. Anyone who can do anything to help must do so. Right now they need basic things like shelter and food. There're bundles of clothes lying on the streets of Chennai. There are too many clothes and too little utensils, kerosene, etc.
It's said Vivek Oberoi is doing what he is for publicity?
I say, judge a person by his actions rather than search for ulterior motives. We're living in an age of quick judgement. Cynicism is way un-cool; Love is cool.
Do you get more satisfaction as a social worker than an actor?
The sense of joy I feel when I go to the Andaman is not very dissimilar from what I feel when I play rugby or face the camera. Whether it's my role in a film or providing relief on the island, I'd hate people to say I'm sleepwalking through it. I've always thought of myself as more than an actor.
In Andaman and Nicobar hardly anyone knew me. Let's face it. I'm not the kind of celebrity Vivek Oberoi is. But if I can use whatever celebrity status I have to help people, I'll continue to do so shamelessly.
Is it worth it finally?
I understand if I don't deliver the healing touch, people will stamp on me. But it's a chance I'm willing to take. The next step is to send off more relief on a ship that leaves for Port Blair from Chennai next week.