The devastated fishing village given new hope by a Bollywood actor

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The Independent Online

Amid all the destruction, grief and despair that lies along India's tsunami-ravaged Coromandel Coast, one village stands out. Thevanampattinam lost its people too: more than 100. The fishing village was razed to the ground. But unlike elsewhere, there is hope here.

Amid all the destruction, grief and despair that lies along India's tsunami-ravaged Coromandel Coast, one village stands out. Thevanampattinam lost its people too: more than 100. The fishing village was razed to the ground. But unlike elsewhere, there is hope here.

In the other affected towns and villages along the coast, temporary housing is only just going up.. Here the temporary housing has been up for more than a week: nobody lives in squalor and every family has a clean, spacious bamboo hut, with a tarpaulin to keep the rain out. The fishermen expect to have their boats repaired and at sea again within a few days.

This is all the work of the man most people here know simply as "the Hindi actor", a tall, handsome man dressed in black, striding through the serried ranks of bamboo huts.

A woman with a baby in her arms comes up to him. She says the baby is sick and needs a doctor. The Hindi actor summons an aide. "Take her to the hospital and give her a note in Tamil saying she was sent by Vivek Oberoi," he says. Mr Oberoi is a Bollywood star, a young actor with a frenzied fan following.

He is what is known in India as a VVIP: his name opens every door here. The self-important bureaucrats who terrorise the average Indian citizen with endless forms to be filled in triplicate, and extort endless bribes to oil the wheels of bureaucracy, pale at the mention of a VVIP's name. But a dirt-poor fishing village like Thevanampattinam is the last place you'd expect to find the likes of Mr Oberoi. He is here using his clout to get help to the survivors of the tsunami. Amazingly, he has moved in with them - starting what he calls Project Hope - and is shuttling between here and Bombay to get to sessions for a new film.

"I saw the images on TV and realised I had to do something," he says. Using his own money, he put together some trucks full of relief material, and brought them. But it was a chance encounter with a woman who had lost her family and home that really changed things. "She had been three days without eating ... I was overwhelmed. I went up to her and said, 'Mother, I am like your son'. She began to cry, and I was so swept with emotion I began to weep ... I realised that pain was like a chain binding me to the village. I said I can't walk away."

Mr Oberoi is instantly recongisable across much of north India, but here the villagers speak only Tamil and watch Tamil films. They did not know who he was at first. "When someone told them who I was, they said, 'Why didn't you tell us you were an actor? We want to see one of your films.' So we watched one together."

He added: "I saw the way they were doing the distribution of relief, I saw them treating the people like animals, just throwing food and clothes to them from the back of a truck, making their children chase after a truck ... I thought these people need their dignity." At Thevanampattinam, the aid is handed out to people at a specially built office. People here have their own family huts.

With his success, he has shown up the government. While the local authorities are busy demanding journalists ask questions in Tamil at their press conferences, Mr Oberoi - who barely speaks a word of Tamil - has started rebuilding lives. He has proved just how much it is possible to get done in India - and how quickly.

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