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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 12, New Delhi, March 6, 2021

When Sonu Sood Beat Santa Claus | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 5 March 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy


Title: I Am No Messiah; Author: Sonu Sood with Meena K. Iyer; Publisher: Ebury Press (Penguin Random House); Pages: 215; Price: Rs 399

This is a heart-warming and a candid account of how actor Sonu Sood achieved the impossible: in the worst nightmarish months of Covid-19, he became a one point of hope and instant action for countless people across the country and beyond. At a time when administrations appeared to collapse and “celebrities” retreated into safe cocoons, this man from Moga who made it big in the film industry without any godfather turned a God to countless battered men and women not even known to him. Sonu tells the fascinating story, assisted ably by co-author-cum-journalist Meena K. Iyer.

It was a nudge from the heart that sent the actor to Kalwa in Thane district on April 15, 2020. A mass of humanity – the poorest of the poor – had begun marching from one town in the country to a distant one after being rendered jobless, homeless and penniless by the collective onslaught of Covid-19 and lockdown. Not cut out for apathy or indolence, the actor decided to take a deep plunge, not knowing how deep he would end up going.

“I could have easily dispatched our truckloads of food, drinking water, sanitizers and sanitary napkins without leaving home,” Sonu admits. But unlike many of the other “famous”, he did not want to just upload morale-boosting videos on how to stay mentally and physically fit during the crisis. He first handed over his six-storey hotel in Juhu in Mumbai to the authorities to house the homeless. Having been taught young that he should consider himself worthy only if he helps someone less privileged, the actor decided to spend his own money to send home those desperate to go home but had no means.

He first provided buses to people who were set to walk for 10 days all the way from Mumbai to Karnataka. As word spread that he was helping, many began to besiege him to send them home too: to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Assam… Hundreds of requests came daily, thousands a week. Sonu’s inbox and WhatsApp messages overflowed. The ‘Ghar Bhejo’ movement had taken off.

Helped by friends, Sonu took to the mission with a passion. Nothing was easy. At one point, there were 1.5 lakh requests. Not every state allowed buses to ply. The more he achieved, the SOS for help only piled up. His stardom opened many windows which otherwise would have remained tightly shut. Slowly, security personnel and officials in many states realized the integrity and intention behind Sonu & Co, their admiration soon turning into enthusiastic participation.

Even as the transportation of migrants was going on, cries for help from Indians stranded abroad poured in, particularly students in countries such as Russia, Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines. He helped them. Once Brand Sonu Sood became known, there was no end to desperate appeals. The requests came for all kinds of help and from all over the country. Somehow, people had decided that here was one individual you could trust more than anyone else.

When economic distress caused by Covid-19 and lockdown forced poor parents to cut down on their children’s education, it was decided to award the Prof Saroj Sood Scholarship (named after his educationist mother) to 500 students from various fields. When someone alerted that a tomato farmer in Andhra Pradesh was using his two daughters as oxen to plough the field, a stunned Sonu had a tractor sent to him after extracting a promise that he will share it with other farmers and his daughters will return to school. When a widow succumbed to Covid in Telangana and villagers found it difficult to keep feeding her three children, the actor found a nest for the kids in Shirdi where they would get good care and education. Someone begged for textbooks, another for blood donation; one person wanted artificial limbs and another sought wheelchairs. The actor became the One-Stop-Counter.

Bringing home students from countries equally hit hard by Covid-19 or sending hungry workers stranded in different parts of India were no easy tasks since some cities were totally shut, some airports were not functional and there were unending last-minute glitches. Often he was attending to emergency interventions during the night. Although shooting had halted, Sonu was sleeping just three hours a night.

Once the migrant workers reached home, there were further appeals – now for jobs. The acutely distressed wanted medical care. “We were unprepared,” Sonu says. “We were faced with an avalanche.” But Brand Sonu Sood got around 50,000 doctors and surgeons to agree to perform one free operation a month for free as long as they could. As word spread what he was doing, more people chipped in. Sonu and his team even set up a mobile telephone tower in a Haryana village where boys and girls climbed to the top of the tallest trees to study by getting linked to distant mobile towers.

Such was his amazing success that the UN conferred on Sonu the prestigious SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Special Humanitarian Action Award, putting him in the league of Angelina Jolie, David Beckham and Leonardo DiCaprio. Until then, Bollywood actors had only been UN ambassadors.

What is great about this account is that Sonu doesn’t claim to be a superhero – which his benefactors think he is. His own privations led him to help the distressed. He recalls that he came to Mumbai looking for a piece of the Bollywood cake with just Rs 5,500 in cash besides his height, physique and grit. He had to bribe the security guard Rs 400 to get into Film City. As he made the rounds of studios, he faced rejections and humiliation. Just as an icy feeling of defeat was creeping in came a much wanted break. He rushed to Chennai to play the villain against Tamil superstar Vijayakanth in ‘Kallazhagar’ (1999). The movie was a hit, and Sonu began to get roles after roles in southern India, a region he fell in love with, and also in Bollywood. Enough money rained so that he could buy Urmila Matondkar’s sixth floor apartment in Andheri. The star had arrived.

Sonu Sood’s unmatched generosity amid Covid-19 is a sad commentary on India, governments, political parties and the wealthy class. If one Sonu Sood could do so much, surely the entire suffering one saw out on the streets for months could have been avoided. If only every Indian with heaps of wealth had shed just 5 to 10 percent of it for the suffering masses, we would have had a very different India.

It is precisely because this did not happen is why the ‘Moga boy’ transformed into a ‘Migrant Mahatma’. The mass of the poor who he helped were grateful. A pregnant woman who took a bus he provided to reach Jharkhand named her son Sonu Sood Shrivastav. A grateful plumber opened a “Sonu Sood Welding Work Shop” in Odisha. A “Sonu Sood Martial Arts School” came up in Pune. The Sarat Chandra Degree College and Sarat Chandra Junior College in Andhra Pradesh renamed their arts and humanities department as “Sonu Sood Department of Arts and Humanities”.

The actor, now nearing 50, speaks from his heart: “We have no idea what a harsh world exists out there and how protected we have been.” Covid-19 not just made Sonu philosophical but brought him face to face “with the deplorable levels of poverty our people live in… You can’t help but give a thought to how little most people subsist on.” While ageing that there is a limit to both charity and what one person can do, he says: “Misery exists outside our doors, and each one of us is duty bound to alleviate the sufferings of the less privileged.”

Sonu Sood is truly a celebrity every Indian can feel proud of. Most others in the glamour world are celebrities only in name.

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