Calcutta, Feb. 7: A super-celebrity tug-of-war is stretching from an obscure corner of Calcutta to Beverly Hills, California.
At one end are pop icon Ricky Martin and supermodel Esther Canadas, and at the other Hollywood stars Penelope Cruz, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas.
In the middle are the 147 under-privileged girls of Sabera Foundation.
At the new centre started by the NGO for its girls at Gazipur, beyond Thakurpukur, the work of expansion of the school and construction of a hospital is apace. At the home where the girls stay, everything is going according to routine, with a meal after school, and then music classes, playtime and study period. But four girls are upset and confused. Two sponsored by Cruz and the other two by Griffith have had no replies from their “aunties” to their repeated emails. They used to get at least two a week earlier.
The trouble began last September, when, according to officials at Gazipur, the former president of the foundation in Spain, singer Nacho Cano, let forth a stream of “wild allegations” against the officials of the NGO’s Indian arm and tried to “remove” them from their positions.
“Nacho (a long-time friend of Cruz) got a team of what he said were Unicef officials to check our records because he ‘wanted to improve the way things are run’. But we later found out that he wanted to prove his baseless accusations against us of wrongdoing by going behind our backs,” said Carlos Duran, the director of Sabera India.
“We soon discovered through Unicef in Calcutta and Delhi that these officers, who were just management consultants for Unicef, were definitely not on an official trip,” said Patrick Ghose, communications director of Sabera in Calcutta.
Things came to a head in November, when the star trio of Cruz, Griffith and Banderas sent a letter to Sabera’s committees in Spain, the US and Calcutta. It said: “We are writing to express our anger and dismay over reports of the internal discord which has apparently arisen within the Sabera Foundation…. We believe that it is our duty to urge those of you who do have such authority to take all appropriate measures to preserve the foundation’s funds and to protect the interests of the girls. Until we are satisfied that this has been accomplished, we regret to notify you that we will discontinue all public support of the Sabera Foundation.”
Subsequently, Sabera circulated a memo, saying: “…the ordinary membership of Mr Ignacio (Nacho) Cano is terminated with immediate effect for his detrimental activities to the interest, reputation and goodwill of the foundation. This decision was taken unanimously at the executive committee meeting of Sabera Foundation held in Calcutta on Saturday, January 11, 2003.”
A case has already been started in Madrid against the leader of the breakaway group by Sabera, with criminal charges and a defamation suit next in line.
So, while Ricky Martin, Canadas and “75 to 80 per cent” of Sabera’s supporters and sponsors, including big names like Lacoste, British Airways and even the Spanish embassy in India, continue to support Duran and his team, the rest have formed the Sabera Foundation Trust in Spain.
They are not recognised by Sabera, but they are the ones in control of the funds raised through various charity functions, including a gala dinner at Griffith and Banderas’ Hollywood home on October 10 last year.
“That money was raised in our name, for this organisation, and we will fight to get it because we are entitled to it. Otherwise, our projects will be halted,” says Ghose.
“They want to continue to support the girls, but they won’t release the funds. Besides, Melanie and Penelope have said nothing about renewing the sponsorship of the four girls they support, and have not even spoken to them.”
As Mongoli, 12, dulls her disappointment at “Penelope aunty’s” lack of recent response with memories of her trip to Los Angles to see Cruz, and Saeda remembers her time with Stella, Griffith’s younger daughter, in Beverly Hills, Sabera’s Calcutta officials admit that the star war “will get dirtier”.