‘It is impossible not to see your children’s faces in these kids’


Bengaluru: Hollywood star Matt Damon, who found fame with his role of a mathematically gifted janitor, is on a mission in India to help more than a million people have access to safe water and sanitation in the next three-and-half years. Damon was in Bengaluru last week, and walked through the slums of Vijay Nagar and Maruthi nagar.
The Good Will Hunting star and also the co-founder of non-profit organisation Water.org has been working in India since 2008 to help needy people access small loans for water and sanitation purposes through its micro finance institution (MFI) partners.
“The target for spring 2016 is to reach an additional eight lakh people, which will put us over a million in total, which is great and we are on track to do it,” Damon told PTI Economic Service. Besides, it is also aiming to reach out to around two lakh people by 2016 for sanitation purposes, he added.
Damon’s US-based Water.org started ‘Water Credit’ initiative in India in 2008, after it received a $4.1 million grant from PepsiCo Foundation, the philanthropy arm of beverages and snacks major PepsiCo.
In 2011, the non-profit organisation received another grant of $8 million from PepsiCo Foundation to scale up the project. It works with over 20 MFIs across seven states in the country and helps poor people get loans in the range of `5,000 to `10,000 under the ‘Water Credit’ initiative.
The 42-year-old actor who first came to India about ten years ago to shoot a part of his second Bourne series movie The Bourne Supremacy, is touched by his experience and life in rural India.“I love it here. I love coming here. I first worked here as an actor. I love the energy and going into these villages, I mean the children. I am a father... it is impossible not to see your children’s faces in these kids and the village visits are incredibly exciting... so that part of it is very good, very moving,” Damon said.
Goa, where the movie was shot, “was a great way to be introduced to India,” he quipped. When asked about his philanthropic journey in India so far, Damon said the visible change in the life of those who benefited from the project makes all the effort worthwhile.
“Form a selfish personal standpoint, (it) is just wonderful and it’s the best part of the whole thing. (When) we started with the first grant, the target was 1.6 lakh people and we blew through that target, which was great for us and we ended up with 2.5 lakh people,” Damon said.
While admitting that working in India had its challenges, Damon, however, said it wasn’t something which could not be surmounted. To stress his point, citing the loan repayment rate, he said: “These loans are paying back at 98 per cent, so that’s wonderful.”
When asked about PepsiCo Foundation’s role in the success of the project in India, Damon said: “It was their idea to get behind the idea of Water Credit early. They saw what it was and supported us and that's what allowed this thing to blow up the way it has.”
Besides India, the NGO is also working in various other nations, including Haiti and Ethiopia, with different partners. Water.Org co-founder and CEO Gary J. White said that mobilising people in India as customers, and not someone dependent on aid, was really fantastic.
When asked why they chose India for the project, White said in India around 90 per cent of people have access to water but still around 100 million are out of the system.
“So, this realisation, plus we knew the potential for economic and financial innovation and that there is a very vibrant MFI sector here and very vibrant culture of people taking micro loans. These were the combinations that led us to see India as a place where we could help a lot of people,” White said.
Speaking about his film experience in India, Damon says he would like to come back to film another movie in India as he had a great time shooting The Bourne Supremacy in Goa about a decade ago. “Of course, yes, I would love it. I would love to come back and shoot another film here. We had a great experience here,” Damon said.     
The Oscar-winning actor said he was greatly impressed by the Indian film crew who were hired to assist them in the shoot. “We probably brought 50-100 people with us and then probably employed 50-100 local crew. They were fantastic, because there is so much of film work here. You have some of the best crew,” Damon said.
The 42-year-old actor, who raises four children with wife Luciana Bozan Barroso, is aware of Indian cinema, but does not get enough time to watch movies as his children keep him busy.“To be honest, since my kids were born, I haven’t watched movies almost, literally... By the time my wife and I get the kids down, we are dead tired and go to sleep. We don’t go to movies anymore,” he said.
He is aware that being a world famous actor, his fans expect him to follow world cinema. “I was in Korea a week and half ago and I got the same question because that’s another huge film industry there, and I said it's not that I have not seen (just their movies), I haven’t even seen American movies in the last ten years,” he said.
Damon, who was in India on a philanthropic trip, hoped that things would change once his children grow up. “I don’t follow any films right now, but hopefully that will change,” he said.The actor will next be seen in George Clooney directed The Monuments Men, which revolves around an Allied task force hunting stolen art from Nazi Germany.
Damon made his acting debut in 1988 at the age of 18, with a single line of dialogue in the romantic comedy Mystic Pizza. As a student at Harvard University, he continued to pursue acting and performed small roles in projects such as the TNT original film Rising Son and the ensemble prep-school drama School Ties.
Also a screenwriter and producer, Damon’s career was launched following the success of the drama Good Will Hunting in 1997, from a screenplay he co-wrote with friend and actor Ben Affleck.
The pair won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay for their work. For his performance in the film, Damon received nominations for the Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, Satellite Award, and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor.
Damon is currently enjoying the success of the Bourne Series — The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum. 

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