It is an overcast evening in August and even as he speaks to Forbes India, actor Sonu Sood can see about 20 migrants from Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Karnataka and Assam standing outside his Mumbai residence. The actor has become a symbol of hope for the poor who want to return home ever since he started sending them back to their villages during the lockdowns at his own expense. Moved by the visuals of labourers walking thousands of kilometres in the absence of public transport, the 47-year-old decided to take on the responsibility. While the Centre and states were criticised for their inaction, Sood continues to get accolades for his work, which has now gone beyond borders. He, however, feels he’s only doing his job. “I believe I came to the city just to play this role,” he says. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Q. You’ve emerged as a messiah for migrants since the lockdowns. How did it all start?
The visuals of migrants walking on the roads—heading back to their homes—disturbed everyone. I was on the road, distributing food to them at that time. I spoke to a few migrants and asked them if I could send them back to their villages. They said it was not possible and requested me to just pack food for 10 days. Somehow I convinced them and spoke to a lot of authorities at different levels. I told myself that this is doable and I can make it happen. Within days, I got the first set of permissions to send 350 people to Karnataka. After they left, I pledged to help all migrants across the country—from Jammu & Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Over a span of 100 days, I helped more than 150,000 people return home. Currently, I am involved in the international evacuation of 12,500 people.
Q. When did you realise that the problem needed immediate intervention?
On the very first day. When I saw these people walking on the highways, I said this is not right. It’s going to lead to something serious. I thought it’s better to start as soon as possible… and in less than a week, word spread across the country. As migrants took shelter at dhabas and petrol pumps, I asked the owners to provide them with food. I said I will send money if needed, but don’t let them go till I make travel arrangements for them. I got in touch with various authorities in different states, and created a roadmap to send them back. There has been no looking back since then. People’s prayers and gratitude have kept Sood going. He has now also launched an app to help workers get jobs
Q. Where did you get the strength to carry out this massive task?
I think from the prayers of all these people. Those smiles when I used to send them home, those goodbyes from the windows of buses and trains… that gave me the strength. The feeling of gratitude that I could see in their eyes was priceless. I felt this is my job… I believe that I came to the city to do this.
Q. The government was getting flak for not doing enough for migrants. How did you manage to do it alone?
Only the government can answer this. However, whenever I reached out, the government and bureaucracy were helpful. I just wish the government had taken some extra precautionary steps before the lockdown started.
Q. Where did the money come from?
When I started, I began on my own. When brands came to me with offers, I decided to use all that money for this cause. But even that wasn’t enough for the magnitude of work we were doing. Slowly, people started chipping in. For example, a friend asked if he could sponsor half a bus, others said they would take financial responsibility for an entire bus. They put in their efforts and resources. I guess you have to take that first step and the world follows.
Q. Many allege that a political party is behind your efforts. Do you want to set the record straight?
Then the political party would have done this by itself. Why does it need a Sonu Sood? Had I been in a political party, there would have been several protocols that I would have had to follow such as asking my leaders, my bosses. Here, I was my boss. For the last 10 years, I have had offers from political parties to contest elections from the best of seats. But I was not interested. I enjoy being in front of the camera and want to spend a lot more years in the industry. Politics is not on my agenda. I am here to win hearts, not to get a political position.
Q. But did any party help you in your endeavour?
Q. Securing permissions for inter-state movement of people during the lockdowns could not have been easy...
I read the guidelines of all states and drew a roadmap of how a person can move from one place to another. I started connecting those dots, and according to the rules of those states, I made things happen. Yes, permissions were required in those states and I managed to secure them.
Q. Did you even get sleep given the deluge of requests?
I have hardly slept for the past 100 to 125 days. It started with hundreds of requests, then it turned into thousands and swelled into lakhs. We started a toll-free number with multiple, almost 250 lines, and got 7.5 lakh requests from people who wanted to go back. I was on the road for 16 to 18 hours a day, securing permissions and getting them boarded. I used to come home at 2 in the night and again be on social media, finding people who wanted help. At 5.30-6 am, I would be up on my feet again. When I got involved with the international evacuations, the timings changed. In the day, I got permissions and sorted out the paperwork, and at night, I spoke to students who were stuck in different countries, their embassies, ambassadors etc.
Q. While there were genuine demands for help, there must have been some silly ones too. Do you recount any?
Not silly, but sometimes people get into a banter. One person wanted a liquor bottle and asked me to take him to a wine shop. Then there are marriage issues… the boy’s or girl’s parents do not agree with the match, and they ask me to intervene. The entire country is connecting with me. There is a huge amount of responsibility that rides on your shoulders. People come with a lot of expectations… sometimes you don’t know how to cater to them, but you have to try and ensure those problems get resolved. That is what I have been trying to do.
Every day I get a new challenge... it started with Kyrgyzstan, then Uzbekistan, Russia, Georgia… now New Zealand and London. The migrant movement that was happening in India is now across the globe.
Q. Your work has been praised by many politicians, including many chief ministers (CMs). Only Sanjay Raut, the Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP, criticised you in an editorial in the party mouthpiece Saamna. What was your reaction when you read that?
I haven’t read it to date. Someone told me what this gentleman had written and I said that’s his opinion… why should I bother? That day, 6,500 people were travelling back to their villages and I was immersed in that. But the whole thing went out of hand, and his comments were dissected on social media and news channels. I got a request to sort this out with the CM. That night, Aslam Shaikh, a close friend and a member of the Legislative Assembly, took me to the CM’s residence to have coffee. I met CM Uddhav Thackeray and his son Aaditya. They were very nice to me and appreciated the work I was doing. They said they would provide any kind of help that I’d need.
Q. So it wasn’t a call for a truce?
The media was going haywire… I thought it was better to sit across and sort it out, just to be sure we were all on the same page.
Q. Why haven’t the more celebrated names from your industry been able to do something like this?
I don’t know. But I can’t wait for others. I’ve seen if a delay happens sometimes, people get restless. They ask me if they should start walking back home. I feel everyone should do their bit… and everyone is doing their bit. But we need to do much more. We need to go overboard.
Q. Is this the best role you have played so far, on or off screen?
Hundred percent. I believe I came to the city just to play this role. The kind of change I could bring in the lives of these people is unreal. This morning, I saved four lives, which is so satisfying. There were calls for medical help from Vijayawada, Hyderabad, Delhi and Lucknow. I made a few calls and got their surgeries lined up and bills sorted. There can’t be a better day than this. Every single day when I do something like this, I get immense satisfaction. I have got six scripts to read, but I am unable to concentrate beyond a couple of pages. My mind keeps telling me that someone is waiting for my help. I go back to social media and see what more I can do. This is the role that I wanted to play in my life and I am glad that I am able to bring those smiles to their faces.
Q. There are messages of gratitude coming your way...
This is the best ever feeling in real life. I tell all my friends to do something good for others. If we can bring a small change in someone’s life, it can make a lot of difference. I recently made an appeal to everyone to adopt a patient in any hospital or at least pay their medical bills. Imagine people who are in a position to do that doing it… imagine the change. If every doctor pledged that they will do one surgery free of cost, think of the impact. That is my thought... of bringing a ripple effect of change, a revolution. People should know what humanity is. There should be one chapter, one period, on humanity in every school, from nursery to the board exams.
Q. What has your experience with the disadvantaged taught you?
In May, the actor organised a flight from Kerala to Bhubaneswar to help workers get home
It has taught me that everyone needs a helping hand, no matter how well placed you are in life. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and check my Twitter to see if there is an emergency. When a person messages you, he or she expects you to save a life. When such expectations are there, you need to deliver. God has given me an opportunity to do this and He has also given me the responsibility to deliver.
Q. You are coming out with a book on this…
The book will tell about my journey during these times. It will connect me to those who were saved and transported. My mother used to tell me that you should write about anything good that you do. I didn’t do it then but since she left [his mother passed away in 2007], I have been writing regularly. A book will stay forever… when people will want to read about what happened during Covid-19, it will educate them about the crisis.
Q. You’ve also launched the Pravasi Rojgar app to help migrants get jobs…
That will be massive. We have already shortlisted 30,000 candidates and interviews will happen soon. When you ensure a job for an individual, you save four to five lives in a family. The job scenario was majorly impacted during the pandemic. This was the need of the hour, and I was dead sure I had to do it. The jobs will be for migrants, for grey- and blue-collar workers.
Q. Will you continue doing this in the future too?
All my life. I can’t stop at this. It’s growing every day.
Q. Will this help you professionally?
I haven’t thought about it. When you plan things, they don’t happen. God has his own plans. You can’t design the way your life is going to move. The biggest director is sitting up there. He knows what role you have to play, when.
Q. What’s happening with films?
I am shooting for Prithviraj and doing another movie in the South with Chiranjeevi. The PV Sindhu biopic is also on track… we were supposed to announce it in a big way, but then the lockdowns happened.
Q. Theatres are still shut. What’s your take on digital releases?
Digital is a great platform for many actors… artistes are getting a lot of good work and exposure. But yes, theatres have to open… that’s a big market. It will take some time for people to come back, but everyone wants to get back on track. Life has to move on.
Q. Actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s demise is one of the biggest tragedies in recent times. Were you close to him, and how has his death impacted you?
I knew him… he wasn’t a close friend, but we used to work out together sometimes. He was a nice guy, very focussed. It’s always good to see an outsider doing well. An incident like this shatters a lot of hearts and the confidence of families to send their loved ones to Mumbai, especially the film industry. I always say that if you want to come to the industry, have nerves of steel. Be patient and perseverant, stay focussed and keep communicating with your family. If things happen, good… if not, you can always go back and start something new. Don’t depend on this industry.
Q. What are the struggles of outsiders in the film industry? Can they fit in?
You need to make your own place here… there is no place to fit in because there is no space left. The insider-outsider debate is endless… tomorrow if my son wants to get in, he will be an insider. It’s not something we need to complain about… a director’s son will get an easy launch compared to an outsider. It’s not new. If an outsider comes to Mumbai, he knows that it’s a tough journey and has to come prepared. If an outsider achieves some status, people appreciate him more. You’ve got to set an example and follow your goals.
Q. You came to Mumbai from Moga, Punjab, with no godfather. What are the struggles you faced?
There is no one to guide you. You do a wrong film and no one will approach you after that. But if you have connections, you’ll get another film… they’ll teach you, tell you what to do. You can’t deny them those privileges. They are born with it, blessed with it.
Q. Does your struggle continue?
The struggle will continue, only the goals keep changing. God always keeps the carrot hanging.
Q. Both your work with migrants and the pressure to have an impartial investigation into Rajput’s death have highlighted the power of social media.
Yes, of course. The reach is immense. Someone sitting in Chittoor without oxen gets a tractor overnight, an orphan gets a house, and a person selling vegetables is offered a job in no time. This is the power of social media. The only thing is how you use it. You’ve got to use it responsibly.