When Gil Scott-Heron wrote: ‘The revolution will not be televised, he didn’t know the power of media, especially social media. Today, the revolution is not only televised but live-tweeted. Today, a movement can be started and sustained one tweet at a time, provided you have someone like Sonu Sood, a popular actor, seen in movies like Jodhaa Akbar (2008), Shootout at Wadala (2013), R… Rajkumar (2013), Happy New Year (2014), Devi (2016), Kung Fu Yoga (2017), and Simmba (2018), helming the on-ground action. The actor’s transformation from a reel villain to a real-life superhero is awe-inspiring, as is his journey from Moga’s Bombay Cloth House to Mumbai.
The pandemic changed many lives forever; people lost their loved ones, their livelihood, and their hard-earned money among other things. Among them was Sonu Sood. The lockdown and the plight of the migrant laborers stuck in different cities put him on a path that he had not envisioned. There were cries for help emanating from every part of the country—people of the shuttered country were frantically looking for ways to go back to their hometowns. Sonu started reaching out to these people with the intention to reach them home safely. He started responding to people’s pleas on Twitter and acting on them. Soon he was inundated with requests from rank strangers stranded in the city and he made sure he delivered every single time—be it by booking trains or buses or even entire airplanes — even if this required him to mortgage eight of his properties in Mumbai to raise money for the same. He would ensure people receive medical help, hospital beds, and oxygen cylinders—all of which recorded a severe short supply as the Covid cases spiked. Soon, he became the messiah of the masses who is always a tweet away. In fact, he even followed up on tweets and airlifted people from the Krygzantan, Russia, Philippines, and Guyana back to India. Not only that, when cyclone Nisarga hit, he initiated a massive rehabilitation drive.
Born to Shakti Sagar Sood, a businessman, and owner of the cloth shop, where Sonu worked briefly learning the tricks of the trade, and Prof Saroj Sood, the woman to whom he credits his success, he was never far away from the world of philanthropy. “My mom was a professor and she taught students for free. My father, who had a cloth shop called Bombay Cloth House, would have free langar every week where we would all help out,” he reminisces.
But now, with the covid situation in control, Sonu is not shutting his doors to people’s plight. He has found his true calling; which is to help people in need. “I came to Mumbai to become an actor and I am still doing my bit there, but I think it is only now that I have found the perfect role; this is the role of a lifetime for me. Life is not just about hitting the 200/300-crore mark at the box office. If you are not giving back anything to society, you are not living a good life,” says the actor, who made his last on-screen appearance as Chand Bardai in the Akshay Kumar starrer Samrat Prithviraj.
While the actor had named his production house, Shakti Sagar Productions, after his father, he has recently started Prof Saroj Sood Scholarship’ in honor of his mother on her 13th death anniversary – a collaboration between Sood Charity Foundation and various universities and organizations including NIMS University, Manav Rachna, PIITR NOIDA. CT University and Budha College. It is a pan-India free education program. The actor’s charity foundation that focuses extensively on education had earlier launched initiatives like Pravasi Rojgar and Ilaaj India apart from building a school for the orphaned or displaced students near Shirdi. We catch up with the philanthropist and actor for a 9-minute chat (because that’s the time he could spare for this interview) about cinema, reality, and what keeps him going. Excerpts:
Now that the pandemic is under control, how do you intend to take your philanthropic work forward?
The pandemic is over but poverty is not. My main focus now is on providing education to the underprivileged. Education is what will eventually land them jobs and enable them to better their financial and social situation. Education is the best weapon to fight poverty.
What is happening on the work front? How are you planning to balance the two in the future?
I hardly get time to do the movie stuff as people are non-stop coming to me asking for some help or the other. It is tough to balance. But I have a growing team, I am recruiting, I am getting people who want to join the initiative on board, one has to be prepared for all sorts of challenges in life. I have no complaints. I am enjoying every bit of what I am doing.
What kind of movies do you want to get associated with going forward?
With the growing popularity of OTTs, the audience is changing. They have a variety of choices and they are picking good cinema. So, my attempt would be to give them quality cinema, something that they have not seen, something that is entertaining but also gives a message, and something that satisfies me as an actor.
What are the genres you want to try out? Which according to you is the most underrated genre that Bollywood can put more focus on?
I love doing action movies. Thrillers and sci-fi movies are becoming cool in Bollywood. Science fiction is something interesting because we have not done too many of that kind of movie as we didn’t have the required infrastructure and special effects to do them. But, now we do, and I am hoping that we will see some great movies in this genre in near future.
How do you, as an actor and as a person, navigate failure? Especially since movies are such a volatile industry?
You have to be prepared for it when you get into this industry. Failure is an integral part of any industry; you have to bounce back—the faster you are able to do that the better. You can’t crib about it too much or get into a shell. This is a tough field and only a few survive. The key here is not to let failures slow down your momentum. Be thick-skinned, keep upgrading yourself, give your best shot every day, be sincere, and then leave it to god.
And what about the vicious trolling actors are facing these days?
Sometimes we get too caught up in what people are saying about us, especially now with social media we give too much importance to trolls. There is more to life than what we see on Instagram. You should be answerable to yourself and not someone you don’t even know. If you believe in yourself and your mind is telling you that you are doing the right thing, then that’s all you should listen to; the rest is just noise.
What do you think about the changing face of the quintessential hero?
There are heroes and there are actors. Acting is my job, and I am an actor. For me, heroes are people who think about others and dedicate some time of their day to helping others. Everyone has a hero in them and we just need to bring it out.
What about the heroes we see on screen? Many unconventional actors getting main-stream lead roles in Hindi cinema today, what has led to this change?
Stories are changing. These days, the focus is on character-driven stories. The six packs, the height, and the good looks are not the crucial criteria for the on-screen leading man anymore. You have to be the character that you are playing instead of playing the ‘hero’. As long as you are able to justify the character, your job is done.
Most big-budget Bollywood movies that are released at the theatres aren’t getting an audience. What according to you might be the reason?
I think a good film will always draw the audience to the theatres and do well at the box office. If your film has not done well, you have to accept that there must be something missing, there was a scope for improvement that you might have overlooked. No point blaming the audience for it. It seldom happens that a good film fails at the box office. If a film has not done well, there has to be something wrong with the film.
But yes, there is also that factor that people have not really come back to the theatres as much as we would have expected. They are still glued to the OTTs. But if you make a good movie and release it in the theatres, they will spend the money on the tickets and watch it on the big screen. The charm of the big screen is unmatched.
On the other hand, South cinema is doing so well. You have worked extensively in the South industries. What is the difference especially when mainstream commerce cinema is concerned?
I think when people spend that much money on a movie ticket, they want to watch something larger than life. And South movies are delivering that. Movies are aspirational; people want to be like the heroes they see on screen. Yes, sometimes they want to see relatable stories, stories of the common man, but not always. There has to be a balance.
We know Sonu Sood the actor and Sonu Sood the philanthropist. What is Sonu Sood as a person?
I am more of a family man. I love to be home and spend time with my kids. But these days that has become ‘aspirational’ for me (laughs). Whenever I am shooting abroad or traveling, I try to take them along so that we can have some quality time together. I have always been that. You will seldom find me at those film parties. I enjoy my space.
You came to Mumbai with the dream to become a hero. Today, people hail you as a real-life superhero. How do you see your transformation?
I always used to think that being part of a 100-crore film is the biggest achievement of my life. But now I realize that till I started on this path of connecting with the common people and helping them, I was living in a world that was not really my calling. I enjoyed that world, I love cinema, I love working as an actor, but the world I am living in now is far superior—there are no lights, no camera, only action, and I have the almighty as my director. I am today playing the most important character of my life and I don’t want this movie to end.
Your late mother had been instrumental in you getting to this space in life. How do you imbibe her life lessons into your parenting, especially since your sons have already gotten into your philanthropic work?
Yes, they have and I feel extremely proud that they can feel and empathize with the pain of others.
My mom used to teach underprivileged students for free. My dad used to organize langars for the poor. So that’s the school I come from. Today when my children do something for others, I feel extremely proud. I think they are carrying forward the legacy of helping people.
These things can’t be taught through textbooks. It is your environment, the upbringing that instills these virtues. My kids see it happening around them and they are imbibing that in their lives.
Do you have a five-year plan? If so, what is it?
I plan for life! I want to do good for people till my last breath. I am learning every day. I hope God enlightens me with knowledge and keeps giving me the strength to help others.