Sonu Sood: 'I'm ready to shoulder the burden and do my best'
One year since he launched a monumental effort to help Covid-19-affected families in India, actor Sonu Sood has emerged as a real-life hero that reel can seldom imitate.
Actor Sonu Sood, 48, is straddling like the mythical Colossus amid the unfolding Covid-19 tragedy in India. The actor, who became a poster boy during the first phase of the viral outbreak last year by coming to the rescue of millions of migrant workers desperate to go back to their native villages during the 68-day nationwide lockdown restrictions, is again leading from the front and helping people emerge stronger from the healthcare emergency.
He has gone out of his way and reached out to people across the country and the Indian diaspora abroad. Dial Sood for help has become the buzzword for desperate Indians, who have been overwhelmed by the crisis.
No wonder, an Indian Army’s Commanding Officer (CO) of an infantry battalion station at Jaisalmer, which is located on the border with neighbouring Pakistan in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, has requested Sood for help in procuring equipment for the unit’s 200-bed Covid-19 care centre. The CO’s entreaty has gone viral on social media, much to the Indian Army’s discomfort.
The letter was written to Sood on May 13 and a request was made by the CO for four intensive care unit beds, 10 oxygen concentrators and 10 jumbo oxygen cylinders, an X-ray machine, and two generator sets of 15 kilo-volts.
Sood has also recently announced his plans to set up oxygen plants at two hospitals — Kurnool Government Hospital and District Hospital — in Nellore in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. He has made similar plans for rural parts of other Indian states that are reeling under the viral surge and patients are choking to death at an alarming rate because of lack of oxygen. Last year, he mortgaged his own property in Mumbai — the hub of the Indian entertainment industry — to raise Dh50,37,822 million to help the poor and the needy.
He wrote about the life-altering experiences in his memoir I Am No Messiah, which was published late last year. In an interview with wknd., Sood talks about what compelled him to lead from the front.
Recount an incident that made you take to social service after Covid-19-induced 68-day lockdown restrictions were imposed last year.
It’d be unfair to single out an incident that made me take the plunge and what I’ve been doing since the first wave of the viral outbreak struck India last year and led to 68-day nationwide lockdown restrictions, where the plight of the migrant labourers beggared belief and description. I’ve been overwhelmed with calls and messages daily since the second and deadlier second wave hit India. On an average, I’ve been receiving around 40,000 calls and messages daily. There are a lot of responsibilities on my shoulders. I’m on my toes and trying to discharge the responsibilities to the best of my abilities.
Share the most heartbreaking Covid-19 incident that you came across during your social work.
All incidents are heartbreaking, as I’m feeling helpless and yet charged up at the same time. Innocent people are losing their lives, and many of these deaths could have been avoidable had we reacted on time. We deserve to behave like a responsible nation, where timely availability of oxygen and medicines, and hospital beds, which are basic needs, are available and can save thousands of precious human lives. Alas! That never happened to the best of the knowledge of the authorities concerned. This is what makes me feel helpless and I’m never going to forget this phase of my life, where I saw Covid-19 patients dying in front of me. I couldn’t save many, despite my best intentions.
Did you have any experience in social work prior to plunging into the Covid-19 cause?
I had no prior experience of doing this kind of work. Neither did I know that I could scale it up to this level. However, I knew that if push comes to shove, I’d be able to do it with a little help from my industry friends and colleagues. But I was certainly not ready for this kind of implosion of new infections in the second phase. I’m ready to shoulder the burden and do the best under the circumstances.
What kind of support — from the film industry and otherwise — did you get last year? Who all contributed to the cause?
I got a lot of support from my industry friends and colleagues. However, I’d like to be discreet and not name any individual because all of them contributed to the cause in a big way. A cause like this calls for all hands on the deck and I’m fortunate that the industry and people from all walks of life rallied around me. A lot still needs to be done. But I’ve been a great believer in the moral aphorism that a job well begun is half done. And many lives I have managed to save as well, whose family members remember me fondly for the good turn.
In hindsight, which is always beautiful, how could you have done your work differently?
Perhaps, a lot of things could have been done differently. However, truth be told that I didn’t have the luxury of hindsight. I went all in, as the situation demanded. I reacted to the need of the hour and in retrospect, I can say I don’t regret a single decision that I took under the prevailing circumstances. All of India is my family. I’m only a call away, whoever needs me.
You tested-19 positive a few weeks during the onset of the second and most lethal wave of the contagion. What kind of complications did you face?
I did. Fortunately, I didn’t suffer any serious complications and recovered from the viral infection in the due course of time. I tried to help more people even when I was suffering from Covid-19. It doesn’t matter what stage or what state I was in because I was there for everyone.
How have you amplified your plea for oxygen and other drugs in the second wave? What has been the response to date?
The response has been overwhelming. People do expect a lot from me. At times, I succeed and at times, I fail. That’s the nature of life. It’s not possible to reach out to so many people. But I try hard to give my best. Of all the cases that I follow, I make sure that they happen. No matter how long it takes. If I’m behind a case, I try to solve it.
How are you planning to amp up your efforts as India faces one of its worst healthcare crises?
This is my mission statement for the next few years. I have formed a team and trained them on crisis management. They are learning every single day, and each case is a live example and a baptism by fire for them. Plans are afoot to create an infrastructure and devise a robust mechanism to help many more people and touch their lives. Sood Charity Foundation is what I’ve floated as a philanthropist. This is the most precious treasure that will help generations to come even when I’m not around. People will remember that it started during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the charitable work has moved beyond the contagion.
You have emerged as a messiah of non-resident Indians (NRIs), having airlifted several Covid-19 patients back home. Recount an incident where you might have felt that a patient could have been saved if s/he would have been airlifted earlier.
Today, everybody is helpless whether people are rich or poor. These Covid-19-induced hard times have taught us the importance of a pure soul. Doing good to others, including several stranded NRIs, whom I managed to bring back home, is what matters. Individuals are insignificant in the face of collective misery. Empathy and nurturing a relationship are the need of the hour. That’s what we all learned and tried to do. Materialistic comforts are irrelevant.
You have been collaborating with France, China, and Taiwan to set up oxygen plants in India. What’s been the progress to date?
The progress has been awesome. Because I’m trying to channelise the brand that I endorse to join my social work. The journey has just begun. I dream BIG. I hope all my dreams come true soon, such as opening orphanages, schools, hospitals. I’m confident there are many people whose lives I’ve touched will join in my journey.
Why do you think your noble intentions were doubted on social media and in a section of the press?
Well, I don’t want to pay attention to any snide comments. One must learn to take the rough with the smooth. Social media is a jungle, where several monsters are lurking. I keep toxicity at an arm’s length. For instance, today my parents are not around. But wherever they are, they know that I’ve made them proud like the time when I had left my native Punjab for Mumbai to make a career out of acting. It hasn’t happened because I acted in over 100 movies in various languages, but by bringing a smile to a needy face. This is my achievement. And I miss my parents a lot. I know they’re guiding me from heaven. My parents are my icons, who taught me empathy as a kid. So, I’m not bothered by social media diatribes or bad press. I want to pass on this trait to my children.
How soon do you think India can win over the Covid-19 challenge?
I’m an optimist. We’ll overcome this challenge soon if we are disciplined and determined.
Has India learned its Covid-19 lessons as it anticipates a third wave in August?
Indians better learn their lessons because we can ill-afford a third wave.
Lastly, what’s happening on the work front?
My mission statement is Sood Charity Foundation. Work can wait for now.