Sonu Sood: The pandemic's real hero

His journey began in PG digs with half-a-dozen others, but today his address is a Mumbai landmark. As the pandemic played out, this actor carved a starring role for himself — emerging brighter than in any previous blockbuster. Saviour to multitudes of migrants, we embark on a journey of discovery with Sonu Sood, as he consciously crafts a better tomorrow

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Shelves full of trophies line a wall in Sonu Sood’s home. The accolades range from ‘Best Villain’ to ‘Best Performance by an Actor in a Negative Role’. Then, in 2020, COVID struck and changed the script for this quintessential bad guy. Sonu went from being a big screen baddie to real-life redeemer; ferrying busloads of migrants back to their villages when the pandemic sparked a mass exodus from the metros. This is a role that he counts as his most rewarding yet — the one part he will never stop playing.

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“No matter how big your movie is, even if it gets to 20,000 crores, there is nothing more satisfying than doing what I am doing now,” says the man credited with crafting a better tomorrow at the lowest point of the pandemic in India. 

Comfortably ensconced behind the wheel of an imposing Lexus RX 450hL today, Sonu hasn’t always had a smooth ride in life. Arriving in Mumbai from Moga aged 20-something, the engineering graduate put himself through the grind as an aspiring actor. As the “only son from a well-to-do family” in Punjab, Sonu needn’t have lived the strugglers’ life, but it is the path he chose. “When I came to Mumbai, I had `5,500 in my pocket,” he recalls. His naïve hope that work would be easy to come by was dashed by long hours knocking on doors to no avail. “I thought I would work and struggle simultaneously, but I soon realised that looking for work as an actor was a full-time job in itself. The money I had brought with me was almost over in two weeks. There was a point when I thought I would have to call my parents to ask for help to survive, but I managed to get work in an ad film and pulled through that patch.” A smile underlines his walk down memory lane: “I was lucky to get my first break, for which they paid me Rs2,000 per day for three days. It was an advertisement for Action Shoes, shot in Film City. I thought I was the only solo model, but when I reached the set, there were another dozen bodybuilders standing next to me. Honestly, I wasn’t even visible in the ad.”

Sonu’s next break came courtesy fellow Punjab da puttar Gurdas Maan. “I had a small role in a music video for a song titled Jaadugarian,” he recounts, and it sparked a change in the trajectory of his career. “The struggle starts the day you land in the city. You are staying away from your parents, you don’t know how long you can survive, you feel rejected every single day when people are not ready to give you time, or listen to what you want to say. I think survival is the most difficult thing in this city — mentally and physically — and I always used to feel that success is how long you can hold your breath under water,” Sonu says philosophically. 

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From this small screen debut of sorts, Sonu’s journey took him South. “Someone saw my pictures and said, 'Banda fit hai, let’s call him to Chennai'. So, I took the train and reached there and they said, ‘Can you remove your shirt and show us first.’ All the producers were there and I removed my T-shirt. They said, ‘Boss fit hai, you are doing this movie,’ and that’s how it started.” Far from feeling objectified, Sonu assumed that’s what auditions were like. “They were really nice people,” he says with a smile, when I ask if the experience was an uncomfortable one.

Over two decades later, Sonu’s filmography has spanned blockbusters in Bollywood and the South — often as a supporting actor, but never invisible or inconsequential. Today, however, the “acting bug” that bit him when he first moved to Mumbai has lost some of its allure. “It’s not that I don’t want to act; I just feel like my calling has changed,” says Sonu. “Even before COVID started, I used to do my bit (for charity), but I never realised that it should be a daily job. When the pandemic began, I used to distribute food every day. Then, when I saw people who had started walking (back to their villages) with little kids… I think that was a turning point for me. I felt like what I was doing was not exactly what I was meant to do — there was something else that was waiting to happen. I came home and decided that I would help everyone reach their homes and I won’t stop till the last migrant has reached safely. That journey took a couple of months, but I didn’t stop. I was awake 20 to 23 hours a day. I was calling people non-stop, across the country, and that was a defining time for me. A changing moment. I think everything changed: the way you think, the way you lead your life, the way you interact with people, the way you approach everything in life. And I realised that if I make the effort, there was a lot that I could do,” says the star.

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From domestic migrant movement to repatriation flights from as far as Uzbekistan, Philippines and Russia, Sonu rolled up his sleeves and assisted. Some days he aided in the organising of oxygen cylinders. At other times, he helped with medical needs — both COVID and non-COVID related. “When I was trying to help people with trains and buses and flights (during the early days of the pandemic), I used to call people I had never spoken to in my life and ask for help. I’d say, ‘This is an emergency. Let’s save a life,’ and it worked. I’ve called almost seven to eight chief ministers — sometimes in the middle of the night — and they really appreciated the effort. They’d say, ‘You are calling us for a favour for someone you have never met and may never meet in your life… but I think that is what makes things happen for you.’” 

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As the nature of the COVID-19 crisis changed, Sonu structured his aid to meet the needs of the moment. When migrant workers began to trickle back into towns, the actor assisted with jobs. Education, healthcare and old-age homes are the core of his current focus. It is a mammoth task, far too daunting for one man, but Sonu tells us precious little about the powers-that-be that must surely have supported him. The ministers and ambassadors that helped push his plans through go unnamed. He does, however, share credit. “I spoke to a lot of bureaucrats and high-profile officers, but I would still give all the credit to the common man. I connected with almost 7.5 lakh people when I sent them back home and all those people eventually became my volunteers. I used to call them — in the interiors of Bihar, UP, Jharkhand and Chennai — and I’d say I need help and they would do whatever they could. Things like getting an oxygen cylinder from one village to another… people have travelled on bicycles with oxygen cylinders at my request, to save a life. I feel, when you help someone, they become a part of the family and you can just pick up the phone and ask them to make something happen. There was a time when you could ask for anything in any part of the country from Kashmir to Kanyakumari — we could send medicines and aid to even the remotest places because of the connections we had built up.”

Even today, droves of needy people line the street outside Sonu’s home, hoping for assistance from their saviour. “It used to annoy some of my neighbours, but I have done whatever I could do to help their people as well and now they have got used to it,” says Sonu, adding, “When they complained, I told them: Be thankful to God that you are on this side of the gate and not the other side.”

For a man who moved from one paying guest accommodation to another, across almost 14 rental homes in his early years, Sonu’s address in Mumbai is now a landmark. The wheel, as they say, is come full circle. 

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The times they are a-changin'

His metamorphosis from reel villain to real-life hero has been widely documented. But there are other subtle changes that the actor himself is only just learning to recognise…

JUGGLING TIME: My family is proud of the work I am doing, but it has been difficult. Initially, I didn’t have even a single minute for them. A lot of my producers say, ‘You are not ready to listen to our scripts and here you are standing with all these unknown people for hours and hours. Give us some time also.’ Frankly speaking, I want to do movies, I am still doing movies, I have a couple of releases lined up, but I prefer giving time to an unknown person who is really in need.

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CHANGING PRIORITIES: My wife complains that I have more closet space than she does. I have a dedicated apartment only for clothes! I think I may have about 800 pairs of shoes. There was a time when I used to love shopping. If a mall opened at 9am, I would enter at opening time and stay till they shut the mall and asked me to leave (laughs). Lately, I find that I don’t have the patience to shop. I was in a mall in Dubai recently and was surprised to find that shopping has become a little boring for me. When I told my family, they said they see that change… I am not able to concentrate on these things any more. I am experiencing a drastic change.

PAUSE FOR A CAUSE: I used to play the guitar, but those good old days are gone. I watched Squid Game and Money Heist in the early part of the lockdown, but haven’t really seen anything since then. I do miss watching movies, but there are so many things happening all the time, I can’t concentrate on a film for long enough. I think I have forgotten how to relax.

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Supporting Sonu

You have supported so many people throughout the pandemic. Who are the people who support you?

Apart from my family, if you are asking me about an outsider… there was no support from anyone. I never had anyone to guide me. I thought I might find a mentor in Mumbai when I first got here, but that never happened. There was no one, and still there is no one. But the lesson that I learnt as a result is that you have to fight your own battles and learn the rules of the game on your own.

How have you managed to fund this mammoth philanthropic undertaking?

For my last few endorsements, all the money that I have earned, I have asked them to give it to charity. Sometimes they give it directly to a school or hospital, sometimes they route it through our charity — we are open to anything. I will give you a small example: A gentleman called Wilson from Aster Hospitals connected with me on a recent trip to Dubai and said the group would like to collaborate with me in helping people with their medical needs. So, I said that I’ll promote the hospitals, but give me 50 liver transplants. That is almost `12 crores in value. As we speak, there are two transplants happening for people who would never be able to afford these surgeries. That’s the magic of connecting the right dots. People come to you and say how can we help and we find a way.

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Making conscious choices: "I have been supporting ‘seed bombing’ plantation drives. I would love to explore hybrid and electric technologies when I buy my next car. We need to care for people and we need to care equally for the environment"

Assistant stylist: Dhruvi Karia

Hair: Junaid Shaikh From Team Aalim Hakim

Make-up: Rajendra Bapu Chawan

Location courtesy: Sofitel Mumbai BKC

Artist reputation management: Raindrop Media

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