I visited  an NGO in Bangalore for orphaned refugee girls. I asked one of the girls there,

“Is there a dream you would like to accomplish?”

She said, “I would like to watch a film in a multiplex.”

And I had to make that happen. The joy on their faces of watching a movie at the Lido Mall Multiplex is unparalleled. Something so small that we take for granted, is a dream for them. People contributed money and we took them for ‘Beauty and the Beast’.

In conversation with Shajan Samuel.

How did you get started on your philanthropy journey?

I am a Keralite Christian brought up in the city of joy, Calcutta. I come from a modest home and am blessed to have parents who educated me. When I was 16 I started selling yellow pages going from door to door. That was sort of how I got into sales and marketing. I feel marketing is really important and no matter what you do, it doesn’t matter until people see it and are involved in it.

There are over 400 million people in India who earn less than a dollar. The disparity between the rich and the poor is so high that it is unbelievable that India calls itself a progressive country. We have to take into consideration the middle class which is the growing strength in India,because of their higher disposable incomes. We have been lucky to get all that we have but we now have to use our resources to help the people who need our support the most.

“We have been lucky to get all that we have but we now have to use our resources to help the people who need our support the most.”

Children who are supposed to be studying are working at cracker factories and begging. We have the largest number of child labourers and school dropouts in the world.They have the right the dream too. This thought always reverberates in my mind.

There wasn’t any life changing moment that triggered anything that I have done. It was just random. I woke up one day and realised that my life would be without purpose if I didn’t do anything with all that I had. You could say it’s an inner calling.

In Bangalore, in the year 2012, I remember seeing a traffic police officer standing on the streets directing traffic. It was a hot summer’s day and there he was doing his job, facing the dust, pollution and heat. This triggered something inside me. This led to the first stress management program that we conducted for the police inspectors. There is this stereotype about cops being lethargic, what people don’t know is that 50% of them are graduates, who never receive any kind of training once they have been inducted.

We then made a documentary film based on this which was funded by MAAC. There are around 3500 members in the police force of Karnataka, and we conducted the program for 350 members that day in the hope that the messages would pass down to the others. Our documentary film is 17 minutes long and has been watched by Kiran Bedi and the Home Minister of Karnataka.

“They have so little yet they were happy with what they had, they also have dreams. The only thing that separates them from us is access.”

Please tell us about the success on this journey?

The reason I forayed into film making was to bring socially relevant films to the forefront. We worked on a crowd funded short film called Sukrupa, which went on to win 8-10 awards. It is about this NGO in RT Nagar that I visited to donate books. I was enamoured by the spirit of the children. They have so little yet they were happy with what they had, they also have dreams. The only thing that separates them from us is access (access to knowledge, people and funds).

I believe that media is all encompassing and has the power to transcend geography.Imade a film called ABC, which was at the time, one of the costliest short films made in India with a budget of 7 lakh. It starred Sruthi Hariharanwho is now quite famousstar in Karnataka.

If people don’t see what you do there is no point. SoI started marketing the film since we got the green light on it. We even made it toBangalore Times’ front page free of cost. It was featured on 40-45 film festivals and was also telecasted on television.

I did a couple of crowd funding programs after that. One day I went to Sheroes Hangout, a restaurant in Agra, which is run by acid attack victims. There is no price for what you eat, you can just eat what you like and pay what you want. Their spirit was unwavering despite having  suffered a massive attack.  Most of their parents do not want them back and do not wish to see them again. This was an eye-opener for me. Acid attack is a metaphor for dominance. This became my biggest project.

I started crowd funding for an NGO called Chhanv foundation by Laxmi Agarwal who is an icon for Acid Attack survivors. She had acid thrown on her when she was only 16 year old. She is in the Limca book of records. She was also the first Indian acid attack victim to walk in the London Fashion Week. I was able to raise 2.5 Lakhs through my crowdfunding project for them. People contributed from around the world. We went to Delhi to hand over the cheque for their rehabilitation.

A few months ago I did another project called Khushi, to sponsor the education of girl children with a team of 7. We raised a substantial amount for this project too.

In my experience, I’ve found that the general public sees poverty all around them. They have accepted it as a part of their lives. They only respond when they can associate with the person rather than a cause. Saying, “14-year-old boy Keshav has been diagnosed with terminal cancer”, will cause people to help immediately. This is because people feel connected. And the beauty of crowd funding is, you won’t even meet the people who have contributed. It makes you believe in humanity again.

“The beauty of crowd funding is, you won’t even meet the people who have contributed. It makes you believe in humanity again. “

What are your future plans?

India is a country which is saddled in progression. The system is oppressive and focused on corruption. I strongly believe that it is the duty of people like us with access to bring about social awareness about issues like education for underprivileged children, acid attack victims etc.

The company that I work for provides graduates and undergraduates with training to get jobs. Their only disadvantage is that they cannot speak English and therefore find it difficult to find employment. We provide training in Photoshop and editing and hire people based on their skills. Finding new opportunity for them is not going to be a challenge.

“All I can do is try to influence people to jump on the bandwagon of humanity.”

Currently I am based in Bombay while my family is in Pune. I will be doing a marathon from Bombay to Pune to raise awareness for the cause of sexually abused children. I will conduct awareness programs along the way. It sounds difficult but for me doing something impactful is worth my life. I started running in 2012, and currently run about 70 km weekly. Marathons and running is an expression of freedom. It liberates me and tests my endurance at the same time.

It’s worth it to save someone’s life or bring a smile to someone’s face. I am aware that this is a losing battle, but we still have to try. It’s saddening that the education system conditions people to want to be doctors and lawyers. No one wants to work for the greater good like eliminating cancer, corruption or be a good human being. All I can do is try to influence people to jump on the bandwagon of humanity.

People are insecure and scared. All they need to know is if their intentions are pure and they are doing good things they will never have to face apprehension. If my office chaiwalla needs a new bicycle, I can raise funds to get him one.

The idea of crowd funding is not to get 1000 rupees from one person but to get 100 rupees from 10 people. Filmmaking has currently taken a backseat. My production company is still running though. When you are creating documentaries and films, you don’t realize how much it costs as there are no independent producers willing sponsor. There is no point if you don’t create good quality films, people won’t watch it.

I will continue crowd funding through Milaap. It’s the best site for social causes. It’s quite innovative. I remember when I was raising funds for children’s’ education the site would put in 20% of every donation from 1st September to 15th September to mark Teacher’s Day. What I’m trying to say is that the world is not a bad place. There are some fantastic people.

How can one get in touch with you?

If someone would like to partner with Shajan or get to know more about all the  initiatives, then can reach out to info@yourphilanthropystory.com  or can email me at shajanleo1974@yahoo.com.

Humanity is a part of your system; it is a part of your DNA. It is not something you acquire. Just helping a person cross the road is humanity. Humanity cannot be quantified, it’s abstract. We can all do some good everyday if we want to.