She agrees to talk to the motley media crowd, without any fuss. The focus of her talk is on Pratham and its cause, but she doesnít ward off any questions on her other passion Ė movies.
How did you get involved with Pratham?
You reach a point in life, when you realize that your needs are met. If you are a sensitive, responsible person, you want to give back to the community. For many years now, I have been involved with non-profit organizations. I have worked with the spastics, the War Widows Association etc. Around five years ago, I was approached by the founding members of Pratham, Madhav Chavan and SavitaÖÖ through a common friend. They wanted me to be a goodwill ambassador for Pratham. I wasnít sure how it would work, because this was a new concept in India then. But we decided to give it a try, and have realized over the years that it is easier to reach people this way.
Has it been a personally satisfying journey with Pratham?
Very satisfying. In five years, Pratham has spread all over India- to little towns and villages. People are becoming more aware of the importance of education. Iíve met several children, their teachers and parents. Iíve yet to meet a parent who does not want education for their children. But the really poor amongst them donít know how to go about it. Typically, both parents are working, and the children are left behind in the slums, running around, doing nothing. With Pratham schools, the parents feel secure in the knowledge that their children are safe at school. The teacher is usually from the same area, so there is bonding between her and the children. That is what makes the Pratham initiative so unique and inexpensive. Children donít go to schools, the school goes to the children.
Youíve been trying to get celebrities to join in the cause. Is it possible that celebrities divert attention away from the cause, and on themselves?
No. On the contrary, when you have a celebrity endorse a cause, more people come to see and hear them. Thatís an advantage. For instance, we will be having a gala for Pratham in London. Aamir Khan has promised to be there. We have had several actors speak for Pratham in Bombay- Aamir Khan, Anil Kapoor, Abhishek Bachchan, Asha Parekh, Helen, Jaya Bachchan, Anupam Kher, Rishi KapoorÖ
How has the response been from Indian American community?
The response is growing each day. Indian Americans understand the importance of education. Every cause is a good cause. People have been working for the cause of spastics, the blind, the deaf and dumb. But normal children have been left behind. It is very important that every child gets access to good education, and Pratham means first- the first step in life has to be education so that the child can better his/her life. Through education, you get to understand yourself, the people around you, your country, the world.
Is there any personal story that has touched your heart during the course of your work for
I remember one incident, during a visit to a slum in Jaipur. I asked a little girl of around four, what her dreams were. She replied innocently that she hadnít dreamt of anything the previous night. I explained to her that by dreams, I had meant what she would like to be when she grew up. She just stared at me blankly. I repeated the question to her mother, who replied, ďOur dream is to get our second meal in the day.Ē I was overwhelmed, choked with emotion that day.
There was another little girl of about seven who said she wanted to become a lawyer. She had seen a lawyer being surrounded by people in her neighborhood, all wanting to know what happened (at court) that day. This had impressed her, although she had no clue what a lawyer did.
I meet kids who want to grow up to be cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar, or actors like me. I tell everybody, you can be anything you want to be, but you have to study first.
I read somewhere that you are a health freak.
I do yoga very regularly, but I am certainly not a health freak. I donít diet. I had started this healthy breakfast cereal a few years ago. These days, with moms working, it is hard to get time to rustle up a traditional breakfast of idlis, dosas, parathas. My health cereal had lots of nuts and bran, which made it a good breakfast choice for children. I think it is important to take care of yourself. If you are healthy, your mind is healthy, and u can do so many things.
You were a trained Bharat Natyam dancer. Do you still dance?
No, I donít dance anymore.
I believe you have a few movie projects in hand. Are you happy with the kind of roles you are offered?
My priority is no longer acting. I might take up a role if I like the character, or the director or the money. There is nothing wrong in earning money (laughs). One needs money to maintain the kind of lifestyle one is used to.
I have three movies that are awaiting release. Brides Wanted is a small movie that is slated for a year-end release. Then there is Aparna Senís 15 Park Avenue with Shabana Azmi, Rahul Sen and Konkona Sen Sharma. Rang de Basanti with Aamir Khan is scheduled for release early next year.
What would u like to be remembered as?
As a good human being.