IT was day three of the lockdown. Mumbai, always bursting at the seams, found itself straitjacketed, or so it seemed; its crowded, chaotic streets almost deserted and quiet.
Actor Sonu Sood and his childhood friend, Neeti Goel, were heading home after distributing food to the homeless who had found shelter under the Eastern Express Highway. While driving through Kalanagar (Bandra), they saw a woman bent over a stove, stirring a pot. As the car drove past, the woman ran towards it, waving frantically to stop. When Sood and Goel stepped out of the car, the woman broke down. She showed them the pot. It was empty, save for some stones. Shantabai had been stirring an empty vessel so that her five children—aged between one and seven—would fall asleep in the false hope that food would be served soon.
Shantabai’s situation left Sood feeling hollow. He realised that her plight was shared by many daily wage earners who were jobless because of the lockdown. The thought that thousands of children were going to bed hungry kept him up at night. He decided he had to do something. What followed was an outpour of compassion.
In April and May, as the lockdown kept extending, desperate migrants started walking home. Sood launched the Ghar Bhejo campaign with Goel, and reportedly arranged transport for 7.5 lakh migrant workers. He equipped frontline workers with masks and face shields, airlifted students stranded abroad and helped farmers in distress. He also launched Pravasi Rojgar, an app to help skilled and unskilled workers find jobs.
While showing kindness comes easy to some, it does take great effort. For instance, Ghar Bhejo was launched at a time when even cycles stayed off roads. Sood and his friends approached many people to ferry the migrants. Bus owners refused, fearing that their vehicles would be vandalised. Finally, someone with a fleet of 120 buses pitched in. Sood promised to reimburse him for any loss or damage to the buses.
Getting permissions was a big challenge, said Sood. “All those stranded would connect with me on social media, especially on Twitter,” he told THE WEEK. “I had to take permissions for every single individual who was travelling.” Sood said he would make a list of all those who contacted him, and divide them into groups. “I made a few people head each group, got details of each person travelling in that group and then sent requests to authorities of respective states for permissions,” he said. He also had to take travel permits for every bus driver.
Procuring medical certificates was another herculean task. Covid-negative reports were mandatory for interstate travellers, and Sood had to coordinate with doctors, too. “I hardly slept in the first week as the whole country was chasing me to [help them] go home,” he recalled. People close to him said that the 47-year-old worked for 20-22 hours a day to get the first set of buses moving.
Sood arranged buses for migrants from Mumbai to travel home to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu and Akola in Maharashtra. Some migrants in Kerala and Mumbai were airlifted and sent home to Bhubaneswar, Uttarakhand and Assam.
Among those who benefited from the Ghar Bhejo project is a plumber from Varanasi who needed an emergency kidney transplant. He insisted on going back home as he did not want to die in Mumbai. Sood and his friends organised an ambulance for him with great difficulty. They got him admitted to a hospital in Varanasi and ensured that he had the transplant.
The migrant crisis unleashed by the lockdown forced around 30 million people—15 to 20 per cent of the urban workforce—to eventually go home, said Chinmay Tumbe, assistant professor, economics, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. “Sood’s empathy and service shone through brilliantly in those times as middle and upper class urban India turned its back to the crisis, comfortably watching re-runs of epics on TV,” said the author of India Moving: A History of Migration.
Sood’s wife, Sonali, said that the migrant crisis took an emotional toll on him. “He interacted with people closely and saw their pain, which affected him quite a bit,” she said. “He was constantly working those days. Sometimes he would get up at 3am and respond to requests on Twitter. He did it with so much dedication and sincerity.”
MOGA TO MUMBAI
Sood’s willingness to help was evident even as a child, said his younger sister Malvika Sood Sachar. Sood, Sachar and their elder sister, Monika Sood Sharma, grew up in Moga, a small town near Ludhiana in Punjab. Once while having lunch at school, Sood, then 12, saw a helper’s child looking longingly at him. He asked the child whether he needed anything. While the child said no, Sood was persistent, recalled Sachar, a software engineer who is now CEO of the Hollywood English Academy in Moga. “He said, ‘We are friends. Let’s have lunch together.’ They shared the meal,” said Sachar. “Bhaiya then played with him and gave him some money.”
Goel, a Mumbai-based restaurateur, has known Sood since she was four. As children, their playtime would be spent climbing trees, collecting flowers and making garlands out of them. “Our favourite game used to be gulli-danda and he would beat me hands down,” she said. “Now he says there is a technique to it!” Sood is a friend, said Goel, who “sticks with you through thick and thin”. Despite his stardom, he has stayed grounded, she said, and “that is what keeps him growing”.
Initially, Sood and Goel only had about six people assisting them for the Ghar Bhejo campaign; today they have a 90-member team. “The campaign started with me and Sonu funding it personally, as no one believed in it,” said Goel. “But, later people came forward and supported us.”
Shamid Ali, 27, would vouch for the work done by Sood and his team. Beebi, his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, had a hole in the heart and required an open-heart surgery. Ali, a truck driver from Karnataka’s Kanakagiri, reached out to Sood’s team. He was surprised when the actor answered the phone. “He asked me to come to Mumbai with my family,” said Ali. “We met Sonu sir at his home. He gave us food.”
Sood connected Ali with SRCC Children’s Hospital. “He put us up in a big room near the hospital. He paid for the surgery. Sonu sir ko bahut pyar karte hain hum. Unko bhagwan bole toh bhi kam hain [We love Sonu sir very much. It is not enough to call him god],” said Ali, in a trembling voice. His prayers now include a plea for Sood’s well-being. He shares video clips of his daughter and voice messages with Sood, who promptly replies to them.
Sood is a master of persuasion, said his friend Vivek Gupta. He recounted an incident involving Sood, another friend (Rajesh Bhowmick) and him. The trio had decided to travel to Shirdi, and chose to take a passenger train as they were short on cash. The train was fully booked and they were unable to get in. Sood then went up to the mailman and convinced him to let them inside the mail coach. “We sneaked in and got a free ride,” said Gupta. “He is extremely good at influencing people’s thoughts and actions and he does it so smoothly.” It showed while he was arranging transport for migrant workers. “Political parties were fighting among themselves,” said Gupta. “However, he managed to get permissions that were impossible to get.”
Gupta has seen Sood’s struggling days from close quarters. They shared a crammed one-bedroom flat in Oshiwara, Mumbai. “There were six of us, including a house help,” he said. A huge fan of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, Sood always wanted to be an actor. “He would take the local train to the city in the morning and distribute his portfolio. He struggled for more than a year,” said Gupta. “While dropping the portfolio, he would ask for water. He would sip on it slowly and strike a conversation with the office staff so that they would remember him and consider him while casting.” But the trick did not work; his first offer came from down south—the Tamil film Kallazhagar (1999). His persistence, however, paid off; he has worked in more than 60 films across languages.
THE COST OF KINDNESS
His hardships, perhaps, made him more attuned to people’s suffering. He gifted a tractor to an Andhra farmer after a video of his teenaged daughters—Vennela and Chandana—pulling the plough went viral. But in a world that views even kindness with scepticism, criticism soon followed. While a few wondered why someone who had struggled so much in life would give away his hard-earned money, others questioned the funding of his projects. He was also accused of using his philanthropic work to launch his political career. Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut alleged, “Sonu is just a face and the BJP is running the show.” Recently, Twitter went into a tizzy after one Snehal Misal sought Sood’s help for her son’s heart surgery. Apparently, Misal, in her tweet, had not tagged Sood’s official handle, and yet he had responded. Many said that Misal’s account, created in October, looked like a fake account. Sood’s team said that Misal had connected with them on September 25, and had filled a Google form with details of her son’s condition. The team said they did revert to her and had a surgery scheduled at SRCC hospital, Mumbai, but it took seven days to get the surgery date confirmed. It was during this time that Misal approached them again on Twitter.
“You feel bad that people sometimes point fingers at you even when they do not want to do something on their own,” said Sood. “But I am glad that as of now I have been able to save more than 100 lives through paediatric surgeries. The journey will be on.”
Not all his social work involves money. At times, Sood has used his star power to help others. Govind Agarwal, a 29-year-old chartered accountant who volunteered with Sood for six months, recalled an incident involving a migrant family that had boarded the train from Vasai. Soon after the train left the station, they realised that they had left their luggage behind and they pulled the chain. The travelling ticket examiner (TTE) got furious and asked them to get down at Surat, the next station.
“I got in touch with the Railway Protection Force (RPF) and collected their luggage,” said Agarwal. “The train was expected to reach Surat by 2.30am. I called Sonu sir around 11.30pm and told him that the family was in trouble.” Sood called up the RPF head, who assured him that the issue would be resolved. “Still, Sonu sir stayed up till 2.30am and was in touch with the RPF, the family and me,” said Agarwal. “He went to bed only after the train left Surat.”
Likewise, Sood facilitated and paid for an emergency double hip replacement surgery for Yakub Shaik Yakumsha, 25, from Vijayawada, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi. Severe arthritis had damaged the bone and cartilage of Yakumsha’s hips.
“Sonu sir is doing what the government should be doing,” said Shivam Mishra, an 18-year-old badminton player from Uttar Pradesh’s Basti. He got stranded for six months in Indonesia, where he was training at the Candra Wijaya International Badminton Centre. “I paid my fees for the first month. After that, I could not pay it and I was not allowed to return to India until I cleared my dues,” said Mishra. “Also, international flights were cancelled and there was no way I could return.” Mishra’s uncle tweeted to Sood, who got in touch with the head of Yonex, the sports gear major, and made arrangements for Mishra’s return.
Sood’s philanthropy has made his popularity soar. While one fan placed the actor’s photo among the deities worshipped at his home; a Durga Puja pandal in Kolkata had his life-sized statue. Another fan got Sood’s name and likeness tattooed on his arm. Sarat Chandra IAS Academy in Vijayawada named its humanities and arts department after him. Love poured in from across the border, too—a video of little Peer Ahmad Shah of ‘Peeche to Dekho’ fame and his friend’s heart-warming message for Sood went viral. Sood had a crazy fan following since his engineering days in Nagpur, said Gupta. “We would hang out in snack shacks and coffee houses,” he said. “The wooden tables in those quaint little places sported graffiti that read, ‘I love you Sonu Sood.’”
FAITH AND LOVE
But Sood had eyes only for Sonali, whom he met at a fashion show there. “We were teenagers,” said Sonali. “I knew this guy liked me. Every morning he would come with a new card for me. At one point, I thought he would probably buy all the cards from Archies Gallery.” One day, he took her out for lunch and proposed marriage. “I was so young. I told him, ‘You are a nice guy. But I need a little bit of time,’” recalled Sonali, a postgraduate in business administration. “He was very romantic and shy. He would do a lot of cute things at the beginning of our courtship. He is not a flamboyant person.” They got married in 2000.
Both Sood and Sonali are devotees of Shirdi Sai Baba. “Spirituality keeps you more connected with yourself and others,” said Sood. While she was proud of the work Sood was doing during the pandemic, Sonali was concerned about his health. Also, she did not want their children—Eshaan, 18, and Ayaan, 12—to fall sick. She knew it would be difficult for Sood to maintain social distancing while interacting with migrants and his fans. But he would reassure Sonali daily that he was taking all the precautions. Once back home, he would go straight to the washroom, take a shower and put his clothes to wash.
HERO IS HERE
Not everyone steps out of their comfort zone, risking their life for others’ safety. Actor Shilpa Shetty, who has known Sood for long, said that he was always helpful. “Even I wanted to help migrants. I did my bit, but not on this scale,” she said. “I was first thinking of my family. I was concerned about my mom. We are all very selfish. But Sonu did not think of all those things. He put the migrants before himself. He, for me, is a true hero. I work with heroes. But the respect I have for Sonu on a human level is something else.”
Agreed filmmaker Farah Khan, who had worked with him in Happy New Year (2014): “Even though he was not a big star then, his heart was far more generous and magnanimous than a lot of stars I knew,” she said. “We live close by. When the lockdown started, both of us would chat every morning about how to help people. We started with sending grocery kits. We can all give money to help and donate things. But to be out on the road every day, helping thousands of people, I think that is being a hero in its true sense.”
Disciplined, hardworking and health conscious, Sood has always been an inspiration to actor-dancer-director Prabhu Deva. “What he has done for the migrant workers is truly remarkable,” he said.
That Sood has continued the good work even after the lockdown was lifted comes as a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stifling year, said Tumbe. One could not agree more.