Bollywood Star Tells Street Vendors He’s “Sent by God”

Oct 13, 2014 at 5:01 PM ET

In theory, handing out large amounts of cash to strangers in need could be a beautiful, virtuous and truly selfless thing—a blessing. For Indian actor Varun Pruthi, though, it has become something far more complicated.

Recently, the Bollywood star worked with a team to record himself passing out money to apparently poor street vendors. The formula for these moments of charity was, on its face, quite simple. Pruthi would buy one of the seller’s wares (water, cotton candy, toys), for a few cents. While reaching for cash, he’d ask them something like “Do you believe in God?” or “Do you have full faith?” Invariably, he’d get some form of yes and then hand the merchant a 1,000 rupee note—the equivalent of $16.41 and several weeks of work for these subsistence-level sellers. As he handed over the money, Pruthi would say, “God sent me for you.” Generally, the merchants shed tears of appreciation.

Pruthi has already created several of these videos showing encounters with a couple dozen merchants and posted them online with a call for shares and donations. His plan is to repeat the series this Diwali (Oct. 23), with more money and more support. His call for both has been met and the entire project has gone viral worldwide (at this time, his first video alone has a combined 3,528,880 views on Facebook and YouTube). 

For all the support he’s collected, however, Pruthi has also gathered a strong contingent of detractors. Critics have noted that Pruthi brushes up against some very dicey religious territory by suggesting he’s a messenger from God.  As a member of Prince Charles-launched British Asian Trust told the Telegraph, Pruthi “invokes God and almost projects himself as a messiah. It goes against the grain. …You want people to be self-sufficient and not to beg.”

Calls of exploitation have followed Pruthi as well. The actor films his subjects from afar without their consent or awareness, in what might be called gonzo giving. In a nation where a high premium is put on dignity, this is a fairly serious concern.

Finally, there are questions about Pruthi’s motivations. Given his YouTube account name “ActorVarunPruthi” and other elements about the project, it’s not hard to concede that there is as much self-promotion at work here as genuine goodwill. For all the good his donations may have done or may do in the future, Pruthi’s practice of broadcasting his good works makes it easy to question either his intentions or his judgment.

Despite all this, Pruthi’s campaign is clearly a success. In his video callout on Facebook, he announced that he would return to the streets with 50,000 rupees should the video receive a million views by Oct. 23. As noted, with 10 days to go, it already has over three times that number.