Cover Story: Sonu Sood talks about how helping others has given him a fresh perspective on life
Sonu Sood’s talking to me but his mind is tuned to his phone, which is blinking incessantly even though it’s on silent mode. His inbox is a beehive of activity as messages come streaming in. Some people want COVID-19 treatment, some are in need of a job. Others are looking for medical assistance… All of them are cries for help in these trying times. Some have sent gratitude-filled messages for the timely help they’ve received…
A certain caller is too overwhelmed to say anything except thank you, thank you, thank you repeatedly. Another caller is sharing her brother’s latest health update. This is but a glimpse of the kind of life Sonu Sood has been living for the past one and a half years. There hasn’t been time for anything else except listening to people’s problems and trying to come up with workable solutions. These days people have even started walking from distant places just to thank the actor. Some even come to discuss their problems in person with him. He has indeed become a cult figure for the masses. We hear of people naming their shops after him. A temple has also supposedly come up where he’s worshipped as a deity.
He’s perceived to be a magician who waves his wand and problems go away. Some also call him a superhero because he seems to be online 24/7, fighting the good fight. For most people, he’s the answer to all their troubles. In short, Sonu Sood has been a force to reckon with in times when most governments have failed… A one-man army out to vanquish all problems. Taking time off from his busy schedule, we link up on Zoom. He reluctantly keeps his phone aside as I roll out my first question. An excerpt from a free-wheeling interview with the real-life hero…
Earlier, people used to reach out to you via call or text. Now, they’ve started coming to your gates…
Yes. Now, they’ve started coming to my house. People come to Mumbai and tell the autorickshaw drivers at the railway stations ki Sonu ke ghar jana hai (drop us at Sonu Sood’s house) and they get dropped at my place without fail. They sometimes reach at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and wait the whole day to meet me. Earlier, I used to come out to meet them multiple times but then I wasn’t able to do any work because of the frequency. So, now I come out just once a day and till that time, my people take the details about who wants what kind of help. Many want funds to further their education, while others need medical help and so on…
You meet them all?
Yes. They say that, for us, hope means Sonu Sood. A lot of girls who come to meet me get stuck because there are no trains or buses available for them to go back. So I make sure they get a safe place to stay till transport can be arranged.
How do you react when people call you a superhero?
I’m no superhero. I just feel connected to the masses. There’s some kind of a chord I’ve stuck with them. They feel I can solve their problems. In that way, I feel blessed.
How did it all start?
It started last year when I thought of sending a family back to Karnataka and the ‘family’ turned out to be 350 people. Those were the first buses that I sent from Mumbai to Karnataka. The journey of sending the migrant labourers through trains, buses and bikes got started from there. I vowed I won’t stop till the last person reaches his home safely. It took a few months because people stranded in such faraway places as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Philippines and Russia reached out to me as they wanted to come back home. There were some kids from the Philippines whose liver transplant surgeries were scheduled in the Max Hospital and the Apollo Hospital in Delhi. They were stuck because of the lockdown. The local Filipino people heard
that there is an Indian who is helping people reach home so they approached me. I helped 39 such kids. There were 41 kids actually but two passed away before I could get the necessary permissions.
Your only reward is the people’s blessings…
It’s a different feeling altogether. You know, all these years when I was doing films, it all came to an end when the director called “cut”. But for what I’m doing now, there is no “cut”. God is the director and I’m playing a real role which I always wanted to play in my life.
Did you ever imagine that the magnitude of what you are doing would grow so big?
No. When the lockdown started, nobody knew how long it would last. We were all lighting candles back then. However, the situation went from bad to worse. I realised that I would do my bit and won’t wait for anyone. I can say that I’ve rediscovered myself. I’ve gotten so many scripts in the last one-and-a-half years but I haven’t had the time to read any of them. The goal now is to save lives. I feel blessed when an unknown person gets saved.
What were the obstacles you faced when you started out?
Like everyone else, I didn’t know how bad the situation was or how long the lockdown would last. It took me a while to realise the magnitude of the problem. It’s not just about sending people home safely. It’s about taking care of their employment, their education and their needs later on. I’ve created about two-and-a-half lakh jobs by now. Last year, I helped more than 2400 students with educational scholarships. This time we’re going to do ten times more than that. We’ve added IAS coaching, chartered accountant coaching and many other fields in our sphere.
You have done what governments have failed to do in this country.
I don’t know. I didn’t follow any protocols but just followed my heart. I connected one-on-one with every single individual. And that connection was not based on caste, colour, creed or state. I’ve spent days on the phone with them and I was living their pain, literally. I feel they are my family.
How do you manage to reply to everyone?
I remember I’d messaged you for a hospital bed for a friend’s mother. You replied to me within a minute… Really? You’d messaged me? I don’t remember that. I get so many messages…
I have diaries all around me labelled priority, urgent, important etc. Then there are diaries and pages with names of states on them. I have teams on the ground in different states and there too, there are subsections where there are teams for oxygen, for medicine, for ventilators, for hospital beds… They update me every 30 minutes. I’ve instructed them to reach out to everyone who reaches out to us because there are a lot of hopes vested in this.
How do you react to people naming their shops after you and building temples in your honour?
I feel humbled. I miss my parents and I wish they were here to see the love that people are showering on me. Many people have walked all the way from Tirupati, from Andhra, from Telangana and different places to meet me. I call them and request them to not to make the journey on foot and take a bus or something. They reply that when they go to temples, they don’t cheat God by taking a bus but make the pilgrimage on foot. It’s their way of
saying thank you. This is the emotion they ride on. Even as we are talking, there are three people I know of who have already reached half way from AP. In the morning, we again requested them not to walk further and take some transport but they’re continuing on foot.
Was the second wave tougher than the first one when it came to helping people?
Yes, it was tougher because we were losing lives. I must have lost almost 270 people whom I was trying to help. I have all their details – the people who died and who survived. There were times I got them beds or whatever they needed but I still couldn’t save them. But leaving aside these 270 people, there are thousands I was able to save. Thousands. I’m happy that I jumped into the fray during the second wave. I keep thinking that if I didn’t have that awareness or awakening, maybe thousands more would have lost their lives. I thank God for what I’m doing today. I get messages from people everyday thanking me and saying that they’re with their families because of me. I still get messages from people I’ve helped last year. There are some who message me every day. And it’s not a forward, it’s a personalised message that they send. This is very precious.
Which has been your happiest memory of saving a life and which has been the saddest?
There was a girl from Nagpur who was air-lifted to Mumbai. She was the daughter of a railway employee who used to get only Rs 15,000 as pension. I got her the best of hospitals. She needed a lung transplant. A lung transplant is very expensive, it costs around a crore if I’m not mistaken. I called the hospital in Nagpur and said that I need your help as well. Let’s try and save her together. I remember she had to be airlifted and was on an ECMO machine. An ECMO machine is very expensive. The machine costs almost 2.5 lakh rupees per day and the doctor said that there is only a 15 percent chance of survival. She was just a young girl of 25. She came on that air ambulance and was here for 25 days and was showing improvement but then we lost her. That day, I was totally heartbroken. I hadn’t met her ever in my life but I used to get images every single day from the hospital. I just wish the family had connected with me a week earlier. Perhaps we could have saved her. There are many more cases like this. There are also many happy memories. Yesterday, I heard about a 13-year-old girl who had a successful bone-marrow transplant. The treatment had been going on for almost 11 months. I felt very happy when I heard that she has recovered now. There was a boy from Telangana whose lungs were 100 per cent damaged. The doctors said that there is no chance of survival. He is the only brother to three sisters. I took a chance on him and shifted him from one hospital to another and he recovered in 20 days. I felt very happy that day. He called me up and said “Sir, I’m looking forward to working out with you.”
How does it feel when the UN awards you with the special prestigious humanitarian award?
It feels nice but if you ask me, I feel happy when we solve these cases everyday. For instance, a guy from Telangana came today. He’d lost one arm in an accident. I asked him if he wanted to get a prosthetic hand and he said that that’d be nice. In two days, he’ll be going back with a new prosthetic hand and can do everything he wants to. This is my award.
There’s talks about a third wave, are you prepared for that?
You know, even when the first wave got over, it didn’t actually get over as people were still suffering. Logon ki takleefein khatam nahi hui thi. (People’s troubles didn’t get over) When the second wave gets over, it’ll mean the cases of COVID-19 have gone down. But the problems won’t vanish. People still won’t have jobs, won’t have money for admissions or for medicines. So my work will continue.
Will you continue with this work even after COVID-19 gets over?
All my life. This is part of my life now. Sonu rahe na rahe, Sonu ki future generations will continue to do this work. (My children and their children will continue this work). My kids are very inspired with what they’re witnessing. And I asked them to promise that no matter how busy they get in life, they wouldn’t stop this movement that we’ve started and it should pass from one generation to the other. We started this journey during these COVID-19 times and it will continue.
Are people coming forward to donate? Because I believe you started out with your own money…
Apart from the money that comes in, your faith in people is restored. You feel that people are standing with you. People tell me that we should give you an award and I tell them, “What will I do with this trophy in my house? Instead of that, please go ahead and get two surgeries done for someone in need. That will be my award.” I signed almost 57 to 60 brands in the last one and a half years. Maine unko bhi kaam par laga diya. (I’ve put them all to work) Koi light ka brand aata tha toh main kehta hoon ke chalo, kisi gaon mai bijli lagayenge. (If a lightbulb brand signs me up for endorsement I tell them to provide electricity to a village). I would listen to their pitch and come up with ways to help people. You know, we’ve been working with big ad agencies for years but we never thought we could use our reach to help the masses in this manner. People tell me that working with me has opened their eyes to new possibilities. They feel blessed that they can provide help to the needy. And it’s no longer just about the brand or the money coming in but concerns the welfare of the society at large.
You also battled COVID-19. What was your personal battle like?
I was more busy than ever. I would be working for 22 to 23 hours. I was shut inside one room and since I couldn’t meet anyone in quarantine, I’d use my phone to help people out.
A lot of people want to help but they don’t know how to…
(Laughs) Aap unhe mere paas bhej do, mai unhe kaam pe laga dunga. (Send them to me. I’ll put them to work). I have a friend called Abhishek who’s from Bangkok and he is a party animal. I asked him to join my cause. He has helped save 20-30 lives till now. He tells me that he’ll not party anymore. He is only thinking about helping people these days.
How did this awakening come to you?
My parents were humanitarians. They would organise langars and I would join them in their endeavours. I would notice the joy in someone’s eyes when I served them halwa. Jab mai kisiko puri, chhole deta tha toh main dekhta that uske chehre par ek smile aa jati thi. Mujhe pata nahi chalta tha ki kya khaas baat hai. Thoda halwa de diya, kya khaas baat hai? Lekin us halwe mai jo khushi thi, woh koi aur duniya mein nahi ho sakti. Woh mujhe ab jakar pata chala ke jab ek anjaan aadmi aapki madad karta hai to ek alag kism ki khushi mehsoos hoti hai (When I used to serve them puri or halwa, their eyes used to light up. I used to wonder why they’re so happy with so little. But now I’ve come to realise you experience a different kind of happiness when a total stranger helps you). The kind of happiness that you get, you can’t put in words. My mother taught students free of cost all her life. If someone dropped out of college, she would travel all the way to his village to convince him to get back to college because education is important. That is the kind of environment I was raised in.
What is your normal day like?
In the past 16 months, my life has changed. I already have 60 missed calls since I’ve started speaking to you. There are 5414 unread messages jo sirf reports aur help ke hain (I have 5414 messages which are just reports or help requests). I know that when I keep my phone aside, there is someone who is hoping that I’ll pick up their phone and someone’s life will get saved.
Do you get time for yourself?
In the last few months? No. I may be physically present with my family but my mind is elsewhere. I’m always trying to get things organised. Usually, NGOs deal with just one cause. But I take on everything. And NGOs aren’t well-known among the masses. For me, it’s a national thing because people ask for help from across the country.
Will you get back to acting after this?
Of course, I’ll get back to acting. When I was shooting last year, there were hundreds of people who would come to the sets to meet me. Even the people on the set would spread the word that I’d be on set that day. I would listen to their problems for around two to three hours each day.
Does it frustrate you sometimes?
I can’t get frustrated because takleef bahut zyada hai (because the suffering is immense). But yes, I do feel that more people need to come forward. Yeh jung akele nahi jeeti ja sakti (one can’t win this war alone). I need more people to come forward and take responsibility. People often ask how I manage to do all this and I tell them that I don’t think twice before calling someone I don’t know for someone I don’t know. I’ll even call the PM’s office if I need to.
People say you’re planning to get into politics. Is that true?
I have a lot of regards for politics but mera mindset abhi uss taraf nahi hai (I don’t have a mindset for that right now). I feel that when you get into politics, you have to follow a lot of rules and regulations. Maine koi protocol follow nahi kiye. Kis state mai kiski sarkar hai, mujhe kuch farak nahi parta (I haven’t followed any protocol. It doesn’t matter to me which party rules in which state). I never checked who called me from which state. I’d directly call up foreign ambassadors and embassies. I stepped out to help people and I’d tell them that let’s do it together. It used to surprise them initially and also make things happen.
Are people helpful? Or do you still face obstacles?
In the beginning, it was difficult. Now, they have heard and seen things. So when I call, they know I’m helping people out so they help out. When I used to mail DMs, I would tell the ADMs
to send me a screenshot to show me that the mail had arrived. I would then message the DM that dekho Sir, aapke paas mail aa chuka hai (I used to inform DMs that the mail has reached them). That’s how I used to follow up – aisa nahi ki mail kar diya toh ho gaya (Just sending the mail isn’t enough). Every minute counts.
I’ve heard that you’ve helped some 90 lakh migrants. Is that true?
No, I just helped 10 lakh migrants. The number 90 lakhs includes all the people who approached me for help. Yes, almost a crore people connected with me for different reasons like employment, education, medical help etc.
How has all the work you’ve been doing affected your career?
Like I said, I’m signing all the top brands now. I’m getting many movies and roles that are larger than life. That of a superhero, messiah. Big budgets and good directors . Everything has changed, logon ka nazariya badal gaya hai (People look at me with a different perspective).
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