May 28, 2018*
Leo wipes a drop of sweat descending from his hairline to his brow. The blistering heat drowns out his thoughts as he leans on a makeshift podium. He gazes across the crowded hall in the Indian village, taking in the thousands of faces watching expectantly, waiting for him to speak.
Another drop of sweat slides down his spine. He gazes at his water bottle and is overcome by disappointment, realizing he drank the last splash minutes before. The temperature is 45 °C and the sun is unforgiving. His lips are dry as he takes a deep breath.
"Good afternoon, everyone," he croaks. "My name is Leonardo DiCaprio. I'm here to present the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and tell you how we hope to help you overcome this terrible water crisis that is the fault of no one in this room."
He pauses, licks his lips. Just focus. He feels a tremor in his knee. Dark spots flood his vision.
Leo's mouth creeps open as he tries to formulate words, but no sound emerges. The sea of people suddenly disappears as his eyelids droop, pulled shut by the palpable weight of the air. As if his leg muscles have suddenly snapped, he tumbles to the ground.
The hard cement floor is cool against his sweat-soaked polo shirt, as he feels a hand on his shoulder. An Indian medic has rushed over to take his pulse.
"Mr. DiCaprio! Mr. DiCaprio, can you hear me?" Muffled desperate tones, weaving in and out of consciousness. Then, the whirring of a helicopter. Then nothing.
An offer he refused
Like many successful Hollywood actors, Leonardo DiCaprio dabbles in philanthropy between film projects. In 1998 he created his foundation, dedicated to the promotion of environmental awareness. When he is not smiling on the red carpet, he works to protect wild tigers in Nepal and prevent oil drilling in the Arctic. His assistants spend countless hours researching causes in need of attention.
Winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 2015 film The Revenant gave DiCaprio's cause a big boost, so when an assistant sent him an article about an obscure water dispute between two states in southern India, Leo decided the cause sounded just perfect.
In his eco-chic Battery Park City condo that pumps out twice-filtered air and filtered water to residents, DiCaprio grabbed his phone and called his secretary. Within minutes, he was put in touch with a small NGO that helps rural Indians in drought-afflicted states. The group would facilitate his visit to the village near the western border of the Telengana state.
Within days, the trip to India is organized. Leo would fly into the bustling high-tech city of Hyderabad and a car would take him 90 miles south to the village where just weeks earlier there were riots over an inter-state water dispute. Telengana had been ordered by a national court in New Delhi to release river water to the neighboring state of Karnataka. The next day, a farmer committed suicide. Agitators said it was because of the ruling and riots broke out, claiming about 140 lives.
Leo was rehearsing for a new role — a Martin Scorsese film — when his assistant came to him with a strange message: The Indian prime minister was on the line.
"Leo speaking," he purrs into his cellphone. "Oh Prime Minister Modi! Yes, hello."
The increasingly imperious Narendra Modi, obsessed with his reelection bid less than a year away, was not pleased with the star's antics. The drought, and the ensuing riots, had gone little noticed around the world. No newspapers outside the country had picked up the story. Even inside India the situation had been dismissed as a local problem. But Leo's appearance threatened to change all that.
Modi tried to talk DiCaprio out of the appearance, inviting him instead to visit the western state of Gujarat where he had been chief minister for many years before being elected Indian prime minister. Wouldn't Leo like to see Gujarat's remarkable development? Its new, state-of-the-art factories? Maybe even explore investing there?
Leo laughed uneasily. "No thank you." He would be taking a tour of the drought-afflicted countryside and would speak at the village gathering. And yes, the media would be invited. Like a character in one of his movies, Leo would stand up for the rights of voiceless villagers against the powers-that-be. He hung up and continued to rehearse his script.
Twitter catches fire
The unexpected turn of events creates an instant frenzy among the New Delhi-based national media that had descended upon the small Indian village to cover DiCaprio's speech. It is all being broadcast live on Facebook. Social media platforms are on fire. Twitter is clogged with panicked rumors. Leo was shot. Leo is dead. Leo's been kidnapped. Leo was trampled in a riot.
Anderson Cooper, who'd been working on a CNN report on terrorism in Islamabad, is quickly dispatched. The newly named U.S. ambassador to India, Peter Thiel, charters a plane down to Hyderabad. Telengana state's chief minister is already on his way to the village. A response is being coordinated. News websites around the world flash breaking news about DiCaprio, even though no verified update or government statement has arrived for more than hours.
Leo flutters his eyelids, blinded by flashes of bright fluorescent light. He's on a bed. He rolls over to his side and feels a tug in his left arm. Squinting through one open eye he spots the thin transparent IV tube.
"Hello?" he mumbles.
A door swings open and a man in a perfectly trimmed beard and immaculate Nehru jacket strides up to his bedside.
"Mr. DiCaprio. How are you feeling?"
Leo lets out a dry cough: "Fine, thanks."
"You are severely dehydrated, Mr. DiCaprio," the man says, a quarter-smile forming on his lips.
It's Narendra Modi.
A translator explains to DiCaprio that he had been whisked away by an elite Indian army unit and treated by a doctor on the flight.
Modi moves to a window and peers outside.
Leo peers around; nothing beside the IV indicates that he's in a hospital. "Where am I now?," he asks.
Modi turns to him. "In Gujarat of course."
The Oscar winner pales.
"Tomorrow, when you feel better," the prime minister says, "we'll organize a visit for you around the state. We hope you won't mind the cameras."