Not often praised for their effort in helping ordinary citizens, Bollywood has hit the bull’s eye this time, and deservingly receiving kudos for their recent pandemic relief initiatives. The film fraternity has been working relentlessly with citizen groups, NGOs and other good Samaritans to connect fellow citizens with the elusive oxygen cylinders, concentrators, ventilators, life-saving drugs like Remdesivir or even hospital beds. In the first wave of the pandemic last year, Sonu Sood had emerged as the saviour of thousands of migrant workers stranded due to a nationwide lockdown announced overnight. The second wave of the Covid crisis--that has hit us much harder-- has seen others from the film industry come forward with their valuable time to join relief efforts in a more organised manner. Using the reach of their stardom on social media, mainly Twitter, they have touched lives of hundreds from Kolkata to Kashi, Lucknow to Ludhiana.
Among the many known and unknown people who lost their lives due to Covid, one is shooting dadi, Chandro Tomar. Coincidentally, Bhumi Pednekar who played Tomar in the 2019’s blockbuster 'Saand Ki Aankh' has been marshalling her troop of 350-plus volunteers 24X7 as a Covid warrior. Taapsee Pannu, who played the other dadi, Prakashi Tomar, too has been at the forefront of Covid relief, working as a one-person army. Both Pednekar and Pannu had won Filmfare awards for their portrayal of the two dadis on screen and have now turned heroes in real life. This is what they have to share on the epic journey undertaken by them to serve humanity amidst a raging pandemic, the worst we have seen so far in independent India. Excerpts from an interview by Mitrajit Bhattacharya;
Q) Strangers were in trouble. What propelled you to jump in to use your powers to help?
Taapsee Pannu: Honestly, I never thought of them as strangers. As someone who really never had any support system in the industry, it’s the ordinary cinema audience who made me who I am today. So, when these people were suffering, so many people crying out for help just because they didn’t have access, I wanted to lend my support.
Bhumi Pednekar: Before the second wave hit us, we went through our own Covid experience. My mother was hospitalised for 12 days. With all the support and help I had in Mumbai I still felt it was very tough. I had to organise plasma for her, and my journey of being a Covid Warrior actually started from this plasma drive for my mother. I realized there was a gap between the donor and the patient, there was so much confusion and misinformation on how to get help. Even I got a bad attack of the disease myself. Once things settled a bit at home, I started scrolling through my DMs on Instagram and realised a lot of people had reached out for help. It was then that I shared one post, the person in need got a potential donor and since then I didn’t stop.
Q) Did you adopt a help relief strategy or did you fire fight case to case?
Pannu: I started working individually, as I had jumped in spontaneously without any plan actually. When I started receiving so many messages on social media asking for help, I didn’t want to waste any time making a team, telling myself that I would figure out a way as I went along. People were having trouble with every single breath and I didn’t have time. I started using my public image to amplify the requests for help. I knew a couple of NGOs who do ground work and some friends who were working on providing oxygen concentrators and cylinders to the patients. I started connecting people with them, and as I trusted them, I helped them monetarily as well.
Pednekar: I don’t know how the universe works, but I was fortunate to connect with like-minded people who were doing similar work. I realised it was the right time to use my immense reach on social media to make the difference that I had always wanted to. I am amazed how things have worked out in the past 45 days. We created a war room of sort, where we were not just sharing verified leads with people, we were very much a part of the entire process. We started with three people on a WhatsApp group, literally in 48 hours got 170 volunteers from 10 different states. We are currently 350 people strong globally that include medicos, frontline workers, students etc. There is no system, but we know we have to use everything in our power to help the person in need.
Q) Emotionally speaking, how did you deal with the trauma that was unfolding every day? What was your self-shield to stay centred to the work you were doing without letting pain and hurt overcome you?
Pannu: As I jumped into it spontaneously, I didn’t have any mind space to even think how I would deal with it personally. But it’s draining me a lot more than I had expected. I am glued to my phone more than I ever have been. It started taking a toll on me as the kind of messages and pleas for help were so heartbreaking at times, particularly when I couldn’t help people in time to save their lives. It almost felt like I had failed them. It was so consuming that I actually stopped my regular work like reading a script or seeing recommended movies, that I used to do during the lockdown last year. I tried diverting my mind by doing some house chores but it was futile. My family was with me, but the messages of losing someone were haunting as if I had lost someone personally. It’s only recently when the requests for help came down a bit, I started reading some scripts, though could never finish reading in one or two sittings as my mind was always preoccupied.
Pednekar: Honestly, there was no time to register what was happening. The sheer number of people who reached out to us was so huge that we didn’t have time to think. We were handling 20-25 cases on some days. The demand and supply were so skewed that we were just trying to buy time for patients to provide the help they needed. There was no formula, some cases we could resolve within an hour while some went on for five to six days. I must add, this community of beautiful volunteers who have come forward to help me, has been amazing to support each other in these times of crisis. I can’t thank them enough.
Q) Can you share two or three covid relief cases where you could make a difference?
Pannu: I hate to talk about it, but one case was that of my editor in the upcoming film Rashmi Rocket, Ajay Sharma. One day I received a call from the director that Ajay needed a hospital bed in Delhi. That was the time Delhi was witnessing the peak of the pandemic. Though I had never met him, I knew he was working on the film. I reached out to everyone I knew to help him get a bed, which eventually he got. He was recovering, every day and I was checking on him. I was relieved when I heard he was recovering well and was to be released in a few days, the very next day we lost him. I was in shock, almost in disbelief. It was like losing a family member, I was also engulfed with a feeling that my help wasn’t adequate to save his life.
Pednekar: I was working on a case just yesterday where we were looking for two ECMO machines for a mother and son duo from Delhi, who had reached us on twitter. The number of ECMO machines and specialists are very limited in India-in hundreds only- and not all are devoted to Covid patients. They were both by then on ventilator support. We lost the mother. It was emotionally so challenging to discuss with the family on how to save the son. The problems with ECMO are many, the exorbitant price, the logistics of moving a patient on a ventilator. I must have personally made close to 800 calls to practically anyone in power, hospital owners, activists just to source a machine. Finally, yesterday at 4.30am, after five days of frantic search, we could provide a ECMO machine to the patient.
Q) Are things improving? What’s your sense? Is health care support reaching the hinterland?
Pannu: Honestly, I don’t know about the ground reality, but going by requests on my social media, from how it was a couple of weeks back to now, there is a major change. The requests for oxygen cylinders and concentrators have gone down tremendously. There is a different type of requests now, more for lifesaving drugs. But, my personal judgement of the situation is based on my reach of social media in a certain demography. In smaller towns and villages, I am hoping the NGOs who I have helped financially, are able to reach out with the help they need.
Pednekar: I would say the frenzy on my twitter has gone down. It could also be the virus has now reached areas that don’t have access to social media. I shiver to think what must be happening in rural India. Also, the wave moves from state to state. When it peaked in Delhi, the shortage of beds, oxygen, medicines were unimaginable. Now, that has eased considerably.
Q) Am sure you have learnt a lot from this pandemic. Any top life learnings?
Pannu: It has taught us how precious each breath is; I had never valued each and every breath so much. Also it taught us that humanity is not totally dead as far as the citizens of this country are concerned. The way people came out to support strangers. If it was toxicity and negativity during the lockdown last year, it’s only empathy and trying to help others this time around. It’s reassuring to know in the time of crisis people stand up for each other, irrespective of their backgrounds. It’s this goodwill that should work as karma for all of us to see a better tomorrow for our country, as we deserve better. The power of unity is supreme, so that no such pandemic can affect us in future the way this did.
Pednekar: Whatever our backgrounds are, our education, caste, where we come from, at the end we are all on the same level. If you have an intention to help and have compassion, you can genuinely bring about a change. There isn’t a bigger loss than losing a loved one. I just tell everyone around me, just don’t fall sick, and if you fall sick make sure you don’t reach the hospital.