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The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting lockdowns across India, spawned an unanticipated crisis in India’s underprivileged communities. When school closures, and the sudden loss of livelihoods caused a spike in child labor and child marriage, CRY (Child Rights and You) America stepped in with much needed support.

CRY is a nonprofit organization that supports projects in India and the U.S. that ensure access to education and healthcare for underprivileged children, as well as protection from child labor, early marriage and trafficking.

This past weekend, Bollywood actor and philanthropist Vivek Anand Oberoi was in town to host CRY’s Heroes for Life benefit Gala series. The event honored Bay Area donors and volunteers who supported the organization through the pandemic.

Oberoi also headlined a CRY event May 15 in San Diego. On May 20, the CRY gala will be held at the Taj Pierre Hotel in New York. Seattle CRY will host a virtual event on May 21. Oberoi will conclude with an event May 22 at the Royal Sonesta Houston Galleria in Houston.

Oberoi (Shootout at Lokhandwala, Yuva, Iti: Can You Solve Your Own Murder?, and Amazon’s Emmy-nominated Inside Edge) got on a conference call to talk to India Currents about upcoming projects, and his support of CRY.

Actor Vivek Oberoi talks about his support for CRY. (Video courtesy of CRY)

IC: Your next role will be alongside Jacqueline Fernandez, in a film directed by Pradeep Sarkar. What can you tell us about this?

VO: It’s a very layered film. And that’s what’s exciting about the screenplay is it cuts across time zones, and a has beautiful crafting of emotions, and the screenplay.

IC: Where is this set?

VO: I can’t tell you much because we haven’t even started shooting. I’m really looking forward to working with Pradeep da. We’ve mulled over projects before and, finally, things are falling into place.

IC: Any other projects in the pipeline?

VO: Yeah, I just finished shooting dramatic web series for a MX Player, called Dharavi Bank. It’s a very powerful show based on a very specific crime nexus in Dharavi. I play the cop, and Anna plays the gangster; Suneil Shetty plays the gangster. It’s been directed by Samit Kakkar, who recently directed Indori Ishq, which is a huge success.

And then Indian Police Force, which is India’s biggest web series, has myself, Siddharth Malhotra and Shilpa Shetty joining the Rohit Shetty cop universe. So it’s been fun.

IC: Your last release was the short film “Verses of War,” an incredibly moving portrait of two patriotic soldiers on opposite sides. Do you think India and Pakistan could ever connect through poetry, or the arts, to get beyond their political differences?

VO: Outside of territorial India, you still see Indians and Pakistanis being civil with each other, and not just hating each other. I think the bond that still holds us together is a lot to do with the arts, our songs, Bollywood films, and they feel connected.

And I see that, you know. When you get off at the airport, you don’t know whether somebody’s Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi, when they walk up to us and say, “We love your movies. And we’d like we’d like a picture.” And then you don’t say, “Wait, hold on. What nationality are you before I give you that picture?”

So I think that sense of decency is there.

I wish we could solve this problem because it’s just cost so many lives. I wish, politically, we could come to terms with it and solve it. Because at the end of the day, every time I meet a Pakistani when I’m traveling, they always come up. They’re fans, fans of Indian music, they’re fans of Indian films. And yet, you know, on the borders, there’s such a strong expression of war and hatred.

“Verses of War” kind of encapsulates that poetry goes beyond borders. I mean, for the last 50 years, you’ve had fans of Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar singing our songs in Pakistan, enjoying movies.

IC: This film was released just before Russia invaded Ukraine. Can you draw any parallels?

VO: I mean, the only parallel I see is that war is the most futile exercise where you say one wins a war or loses a war. In my opinion, everyone loses when there’s war, so I think it’s a futile exercise.

IC: Why CRY? What drew you to it?

VO: I have kids, I have a nine-year-old son, a seven-year-old daughter. We’ve tried to provide in every way for them. And then there are those parents, and those children, who don’t even know where their next meal is coming from. We see so many children in India still dealing with malnourishment.

Lack of education puts them at such a disadvantage and keeps them, you know, at the bottom of the society. It doesn’t allow them to aspire, grow, elevate themselves out of that life of misery that they’ve been relegated. So I’ve been personally very passionate about this.

Devi

Fourteen years ago, I started a project called Devi, which is an acronym for Development and Empowerment Initiative. It started with rescuing a few girls from forced labor, child prostitution, you know, things like that. And now we have three schools, building the fourth right now. We’ve rescued over the last fourteen years, you know, close to 11,000 girls. That’s been an amazing journey, and a rewarding one at that.

So when I saw that what I was doing was in a geo-specific, in a very localized way, and that the same thing is being done at a much larger scale with CRY. You know, the way that they’re able to use thousands and thousands of volunteers, really like foot soldiers, even during COVID: that commitment is unmatched.

COVID

When everybody was holed up in their houses fearful of this disease, they still had volunteers who would mask up and go out there, check on the kids. I was really, really moved by the commitment of this organization. The fact that, you know, from the last fundraiser, which was a virtual gala that I did for them, to now, 227,000 vaccinations have been performed on children. That’s a gargantuan task. And it truly tests the commitment of an organization to be able to achieve that.

So that’s why I have deep respect for them, which is why I have flown across half the world to be here, and crisscrossing across America to create more awareness because I feel now since people are coming out of COVID, there still needs to be more awareness on how we help children who have lost a very important two years of their lives, and we’re seeing even children from privileged homes, we’re seeing them dealing with reemerging back, post COVID, you know, going back to school for the first time, things like that. These children whose probably only nutritious meal used to be in school, that midday they would get: what is what is it that they’ve been through mentally, physically? How has malnutrition harmed their bodies and their minds? It’s a very worrisome story there.

There are 30-plus projects that CRY is engaged in India right now. I think the way they stretch the dollar to create an impact on the ground is truly impressive.

Rasana Atreya

Rasana Atreya’s debut novel Tell A Thousand Lies was shortlisted for the UK-based Tibor Jones South Asia Prize (2012). She finds a mention in the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque’s "Emerging South...